In Ok Tedi - Entering Uncharted Territory we took a look back in Slater and Gordon's history at the David and Goliath battle between a group of Papua New Guinea Villagers and the Australian mining giant BHP. In this article John Gordon, now a respected Barrister, reflects on the case.
In the words of John Gordon
The Ok Tedi litigation against BHP was important in many ways, and I think the lessons have become even more important as time passes. BHP had got away with dumping mine waste, cyanide and tailings into the river system for many years.
By the time we got involved the upper Ok Tedi river was destroyed, the gardens and crops of the lower Ok Tedi villages were being covered in tailings and mud and the entire Fly River ecosystem was under threat.
But it was in a remote part of the world away from the scrutiny of Australian media. But the loss of food and tradition and lifestyle was very real to the villagers living there. Their agitations had been ignored in Port Moresby and in Melbourne.
So Slater and Gordon, hand in hand with the Ok Tedi and Fly River people, bravely took on one of the world’s biggest mining companies and the PNG government, and chose to do so in the Supreme Court of Victoria in the full glare of the Australian media and the court of public opinion.
A villager even laid a dead fish at the feet of the BHP board at its AGM.
BHP was found in contempt of court for drafting legislation for the PNG government to criminalise the villagers and their lawyers for bringing their legitimate claims. Its share price crashed.
I was illegally detained in custody at Port Moresby airport when I went to consult with our clients and the writ of habeas corpus served on the PNG officials, to have me released, was filmed by the ABC cameras being screwed in a ball and blowing across the airport car park.
Threats, then inducements, were made to our clients to stop them bringing their claims. Multiple strike-out actions were brought against the claims.
Eventually when it was clear that we had survived the onslaught and the cases were going to trial, and with scrutiny coming on to its other projects in South America and Canada, BHP surrendered and paid $110 million to the affected people, set up a trust for them, agreed to dredge the river and undertook to examine ways of getting the tailings out of the river permanently.
BHP eventually withdrew entirely from Ok Tedi and gave its interest to the people of the Ok Tedi and Fly River. Never again would Australian mining companies be able to act as they wished in developing nations. They were now accountable to the Australian people and in Australian law.
The fight by Slater and Gordon and the villagers of the Ok Tedi had been risky, brave, expensive and hard. But it had been just. Thousands of people who had been ignored for so long were empowered and given access to justice, compensation and a better future.