MINING HISTORY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA

 

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is endowed with gold, copper, nickel and cobalt mineral deposits.  Mining has been a prominent feature and shaping factor of its society and economy since the inception of colonisation.

PNG covers the eastern half of the large island of New Guinea and several adjacent island groups.   Previously administered by Australia, the nation gained independence in 1975.   Both the British (in the south) and the Germans (in the north) claimed colonies in 1884.  The British colony passed to Australia in 1905, and the German after World War I.  After World War II the Australian administration consolidated the two territories into the single Territory of Papua and New Guinea.  The various administrations are pertinent to the mining history as each had a separate approach to mining in its domain.

Early gold mining

The mineral resources of New Guinea attracted limited attention until the late nineteenth century.  From 1888 North Queensland prospectors began travelling north in search of alluvial gold. The Louisiades yielded results and the prospectors soon spread to other nearby groups and to the main island.  From 1896 there were attempts to exploit gold lodes.  Though some small mines yielded good results to individuals, none of the few company projects succeeded and all were abandoned by 1923.  However, at this time more spectacular possibilities appeared in the old German territory which had not been prospected until it came under Australian Administration.  These possibilities were in the recognition from 1922 of the Morobe Goldfield, which turned out to be one of the world’s great goldfields and continues to produce gold.

Small companies proliferated in the nineteen twenties on the Morobe field and several established highly successful operations centred on the new township of Wau.  The big success came from dredging operation developed by Bulolo Gold Dredging Ltd, a company with international backing.  This project eventually operated six large dredges on the Bulolo flats downstream of Wau.  The venture was highly successful paying over £1 000 000 in dividends in its first three years.  The operations were abandoned and the machinery sabotaged in 1942 as the Japanese advanced, but after WW2 the dredges were rehabilitated and production continued until the nineteen sixties.

Interest in copper

From 1906 gougers were recovering copper from small copper-zinc-gold deposits on the Astrolabe field near Port Moresby. In 1920, Australian entrepreneurs set up New Guinea Copper Mines Ltd to attempt a large operation.  They dreamed of establishing a major industrial complex including mines, a smelter and transport facilities supported by an hydroelectric scheme and a township.  The dream was only partly accomplished, and on a reduced scale, before the project failed in 1926 due to an intractable ore and a stagnating copper price.  This was a catastrophe for the small Territory of Papua, as the project employed 100 expatriates and 1000 Papuans. The field essentially lay dormant until a small Australian company, Mandated Alluvials N.L worked it with moderate success from 1938 to 1942.

Post WWII and major resource development

After World War II, other than gold mining at Wau there was little activity in the Territory until Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia discovered a huge copper-gold deposit on Bougainville island which it opened it in 1972.  This project continued until 1989 when it was closed because of social unrest.  The Bougainville discovery prompted a boom in exploration in the Territory in the late nineteen sixties and early seventies.  In 1968 the American company Kennecott recognised a copper-gold deposit, Ok Tedi, in the far west of the Territory, but the company was unable to reach a mining agreement with the new Independent PNG government and lost control of it in 1975.  An international consortium took over development and commenced production in 1984.  The mine remains an important factor in the Papua New Guinea economy.  Other promising copper-gold prospects were recognised during this period, but most have not been brought to development.  However, Porgera a very large gold mine, commenced production in 1990 and the Ramu lateritic, nickel-cobalt mine in 2012.

The Australian gold exploration boom of the 1980s encouraged similar activity in PNG, resulting in the discovery of a major new gold deposit at Lihir Island in 1984. This deposit is in the crater of a dormant volcano with hydrothermal hot spring activity, which presented some challenges for exploration and mining. Production at Lihir commenced in 1997 and the total pre-mining resource has been estimated at 23 Moz of gold. Other important gold deposits were found at Hidden Valley on the old Marobe Goldfield and on the small island of Simberi, near New Ireland. Mining commenced at Simberi in 2008 on a total gold resource of around 4.7 Moz.

At the more flamboyant end of the mining industry, there was a rush of an uncounted number (perhaps as many as 10,000) of Papua New Guineans to alluvial gold ground at Mount Kare in the Highlands in 1988.  This was a repeat of the classical rushes of the nineteenth century.

Minor mineral commodities

In addition to the mining of the major metals, there has been minor production of by-product silver with gold, as well as trivial production of platinum, osmiridium, manganese and iron ore but there is no expectation of further significant production of these.

Oil and gas

In tandem with the PNG mineral industry there has been petroleum exploration, commencing in 1919.  Success eventually came with the discovery of the Kutubu field in 1986, though there had been previous, lesser, hydrocarbon discoveries  The Hides gas field was discovered in 1987 and there have been important developments in the gas export industry since 2008, particularly with the large PNG LNG project. In 2017 PNG ranked 17th in the world exporters of liquified natural gas.

Compiled by William McGee