28th November, 2017
Thank you everyone. I am Helen Hakena of Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. I am pleased to be delivering the closing statement for the 17th Global Major Groups and Stakeholder Forum ahead of UNEA-3. I hope the energy and enthusiasm everyone has brought to this Forum will help drive a strong outcome over the coming days.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Pacific, Bougainville is an island, a little larger than Cyprus, and is an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. We are a matrilineal culture – meaning our land is inherited through women. But that doesn’t mean women govern. Men usually remain as chiefs and decision makers. For women, our land is vital. Together with our oceans, land provides us with almost all the food and resources we depend on. It is central to our cultural and community life.
Our island is fertile and we have lived here for generations in harmony with the environment. Yet, we have faced many challenges that impact particularly on women and girls.
Bougainville suffered a 20-year war when one of the world’s largest open pit mines, Panguna destroyed our rivers, our land and environment and also destroyed our communities.
Even though the mines and logging on our island produced hundreds of millions of dollars in profit, our island did not become prosperous. Less than 1% of the profits of the mine went to local communities. The mine had an enormous impact on our capacity to produce food and access safe water. The mine polluted our water and re-directed our economy to servicing the mine and the foreign owners. Even now much of the population is exposed to mercury, used by artisanal miners, including pregnant women, to access the gold and we have a high rate of birth complications and deformities as a result. The war made it impossible to safely tend to our gardens where we each grow our staple food or to sell or exchange our produce.
Together, the mine and the war, led to terrible maternal and child health outcomes. I myself gave birth in an abandoned building with other women, one of whom died. The war also brought an embargo which prevented any imports of oil, medicine or technology. The embargo did, however, prove the resourcefulness of Bougainvilleans and the capacity to produce all our own energy and food when needed. We produced energy from pigs and used coconut oil as fuel for engines. We used water turbines to build our own micro-hydro facilities. Though the conflict did us harm it shows that it is possible to find sustainable energy options that would not pollute our island.
Bougainville’s experience shows that that pollution is not incidental, it is a deliberate and inevitable consequence of a profit-oriented economy of extractive and industries that can dictate political interests at the expense of the people, leaving them with an unsustainable environment. Mining companies that fuelled the conflict walked away with profits in their pockets while we in Bougainville continue to live with the consequences and the mining pollution, including health, educational and societal problems. Conflict tore apart the matrilineal traditions of our society and we now live with some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, with 62% of men admitting to having raped a woman.
Today, even after 28 years, when you pass the mine site, the river is still green from the past mining. Artisanal mining continues without any protection, damaging the miners’ health and that of their families. The land remains barren, fish have disappeared as the water cannot sustain its own ecosystem, and communities downstream are feeling the damage. In an island like ours, we are all affected by the polluting practices of a few, and the past mining practices have left a long scar on our lives. Just two weeks ago, we warned some women not to go into the water because of the chemicals from mining, but they think that it has been so many years that it doesn’t matter. We don’t have any means of testing whether the water is safe or not.
The effects of pollution will outlive us. That is why UNEA-3 must not lose focus on reforming production systems that have harmful and pollutive substances and practices, so that these can be removed from production chains. This requires the dismantling of neoliberal policies that privilege a small handful of global private companies. These companies have too long been able to wreak havoc on the well-being of our planet and our people, with almost no transparency and accountability.
We envision more accountable and responsive State systems that enforce and make the polluters pay and push the agenda towards sustainable consumption and production. We need to bring together civil society, researchers, technology innovators to provide innovative solutions.
A pollution free world also requires just and lasting peace across the globe as wars and conflict increase pollution of land, air and water through war machinery, by the way it transforms how people survive under such situations.
Delivering a Pollution Free World can only be done with a serious commitment to deliver the foundational shifts of Development Justice. This compels us to recognize the historical responsibilities of countries and elites within countries whose consumption, production and extraction patterns have led to human rights violations, global warming, and environmental disasters. Together, with the grassroot communities, the people’s movements and the different groups represented at this Forum, it is possible to compel our governments to be brave, hold corporations accountable, protect our rivers, our land from pollution. We have the wealth and we have the will to save our beautiful planet.