PNGi INVESTIGATES

MRA accused of steamrolling sand mining approval

Coastal communities from the Sumkor district of Madang province are crying foul over plans by overseas company Niugini Sands, to mine sand on their customary land. They say the Mineral Resource Authority is fast-tracking government approval and steamrolling over their rights at the same time.

It is a familiar tale, a large-scale natural resource extraction project being imposed on local communities with no regard for their Constitutional and human rights. Meanwhile government agencies devote themselves to servicing the demands of foreign companies rather than upholding the rights and interests of our own citizens.

Today’s PNGi investigation into the Singapore based company behind this planned sand mine, reveals that one of the key investors in the project has been courting some colourful political figures from Madang. Our investigation reveals that this investor also uses a PNG agent with a questionable financial history. All of which only adds further weight to legitimate questions about why the sand mine application is being fast-tracked? Why proper process is not being followed? And, why community voices are being ignored?

Community objections

According to company maps, Niugini Sands’ proposed mining could cover as much as 38 square kilometres of coastline and impact more than 20 village communities.

A Niugini Sands’ map showing the 38km2 of coastline it wants to explore for sand mining

The people living along the coast say their rights to be properly informed about the proposals have been steamrolled by the Mineral Resource Authority (MRA) and their strong environmental, economic and social concerns are not being heard.

Communities have written to the MRA expressing their dissatisfaction and frustration at the handling of the exploration licence application process. The process, they say, has denied them a voice despite the threat the mining posses to their marine environment, livelihoods and communities.

The say that the MRA and Niugini Sands have failed to do any awareness work with the impacted communities. Instead, it is alleged, MRA and Niugini Sands have been doing private deals with one or two ward councillors and the President of the Sumilbar LLG.

Although two mine wardens hearings were held on 23rd September, communities claim they were only given five-days notice about the meetings. With no information about the application given in advance, they could not express a proper opinion.

Communities also say the MRA deadline for receipt of objections to the exploration licence which was set as 9th September was completely unreasonable. Communities argue their Ward members only received notification of the deadline via a letter from the MRA which was itself dated 1st September. They also claim it was wrong the deadline for objections was two-weeks BEFORE the Warden’s hearing, which left them with no avenue to voice their concerns.

Local Ward counsellors were only informed of the September 9 deadline for objections to be submitted in a letter dated September 1, which was later copied and given to them.

Communities also claim the Madang Provincial Administration has been completely left out of the application process and only learned of the mining proposal and the Warden’s hearings when they were contacted by the communities themselves.

If correct, this would be a complete breach of Section 106 of the Mining Act which requires the MRA to send a copy of the application for the licence to the Provincial government ‘as soon as practicable’. A local association, Mas Kagin Tapani, has requested the MRA release a copy of their letter to the Madang government to show whether or not the law has been followed.

They are also demanding to see a copy of the application notice as published in the National Gazette and a copy of the notice as advertised in a national newspaper, which are also Statutory requirements.

Communities also want to know whether the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) have been made aware of the proposed exploration activities. Although they have written to CEPA seeking information about any environmental impact assessment or environmental approval, they have not received any answers.

They say this is despite the fact the proposed exploration sites include protected leatherback turtle nesting sites. The species is protected under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a vulnerable and critically threatened species.

The Karkum Conservation area which provides a protected for endangered Leatherback turtles is threatened by the proposed sand mining

Local people are also concerned about the impacts the exploration could have on access to their fisheries which they depend on for their sustenance and livelihoods, on coastal erosion, storm protection, pollution of local reefs which form part of the Coral Triangle and whether it could lead to communities being displaced.

The communities concerns are shared by the Madang tourism industry. Their association chairman and former government Minister, Peter Barter, says the industry is worried about the possible environmental impacts.

Although Niugini Sands’ advertised website (www.theniugini.com) does not appear to be functioning, the company has recently created a Facebook page where it has posted a rhetorical defence of its plans and the potential environmental consequences. Unfortunately the page contains no useful information about the company, its history, its experience or its finances.

WHO IS NIUGINI SANDS?

According to Investment Promotion Authority records, Niugini Sands, the company pushing the sand mining proposal, is the PNG face for the Singapore registered company Niugini Investments & Resources Pte Ltd.

The same Singaporean company, though with its name reversed, Niugini Resources & Investments Pte Ltd, also has a second company registered with the IPA, this one with the same name as the parent.

Singapore base Niugini Resources & Investments has registered two company names in PNG

Both Niugini Sands and Niugini Resources & Investments were registered in PNG in January 2020. Both have the same two directors, Lim Eng Toen and Marcus Ong Wei Xiang. Both are citizens of Singapore, although Marcus Ong is of Chinese descent.

Marcus Ong’s race is recorded as Chinese on his Singaporean ID card

According to a presentation made by Niugini Sands in support of its sand mining proposal, the company is owned by three entities, Powerplus Group, WWTEG (1973) and Xin Hui Investments, and a Dr Lim.

The PNG registered Niugini Sands claims it is owned by a Singapore company of the same name which is in turn owned by three other companies and a Dr Lim.

PNGi has conducted its own inquiries in Singapore, which reveal a rather different picture.

Singapore authorities have no record of any company named Niugini Sands, despite Niugini Sands claiming it is owned by Niugini Sands (SG) in its presentation.

There is also no record of any company with the name WWTEG and the closest to Xin Hui Investments is a Xin Hui Heng Investment Pte Ltd, but that company was struck off the register in 2018.

There is a Niugini Resources & Investments Pte Ltd registered in Singapore. It is not owned though by the three companies claimed by Niugini Sands to be its majority owners. Instead, Niugini Resources & Investments is owned by four individuals, Derrick Ong Puay Khoon (30%), Marcus Ong Wei Xiang (30%), Song Zhaojun (20%) and Lim Eng Toen (20%).

It will be recalled, Marcus Ong and Lim Eng Toen are the directors of Niugini Sands. It is possible Lim Eng Toen is also Dr Lim?

The Niugini Sands presentation is correct though in one particular. There is a strong connection between Niugini Sands and the heavy machinery manufacturer and distributor, Powerplus Group. Derrick Ong who owns 30% of Niugini Resources & Investments was the founder of Powerplus. Marcus Ong, who owns another 30%, is his son and Powerplus’ Managing Director.

Derrick Ong also claims to have another strong connection to Papua New Guinea; according to media reports, he likes to represent himself as PNG’s Honorary Consul General in Singapore. The PNG government, however, strongly denies that any such position exists, “no one has been appointed” and “Singapore law and policy does not permit appointment of a consul-general”.

POLITICAL CONNECTIONS

As well as being Papua New Guinea’s Honorary Consul General in Singapore, Derrick Ong has some powerful political friends in PNG and in Madang in particular.

In October 2016, Ong’s Powerplus Group celebrated the launch of its heavy equipment range in Singapore. Although the Powerplus name is virtually unknown in PNG, the guests of honour at the celebration in Singapore were all from PNG.

Derrick Ong and Anthon Wagambie pose alongside a banner welcoming then Madang Governor Jim Kas, Wagambie and Provincial Administrator, David Aloi to Singapore

First among the guests was Jim Kas, Madang’s controversial governor.

Kas was first elected to Parliament in 1997. A year later he was sentenced to four years jail after he attempted to prevent an aircraft taking off from Madang airport after he arrived too late to board. Kas instructed the police vehicle he was travelling in to career across the airfield and intercept the taxing aircraft. Kas’s conviction for interfering with and endangering the safety of an aircraft was quashed five-months later on a technicality, but in 2000 Kas was dismissed from Parliament by a Leadership Tribunal for misconduct in office in relation to the incident.

Despite this inglorious end to his first stint in Parliament, Kas was re-elected governor in 2012, ironically beating into second place the man who had headed the Supreme Court bench that overturned his 1999 conviction, Arnold Amet.

Governor Jim Kas being welcomed to the PowerPlus launch in Singapore in 2016

After his second term as governor had ended (Kas was defeated by Peter Yama in the 2017 election) he was heavily censured in another Ombudsman Commission investigation. Kas was found to have abused his position to exert political pressure on the Provincial Administration and Provincial Treasury and had improperly applied and used District and Provincial Service Improvement funds to buy vehicles for 19 LLG Presidents. He had also created an unlawful position within his office and then given the officer unlimited access to provincial funds.

Kas is also a business partner of the controversial ex-Chairman of the Central Supply and Tenders Board, Philip Eludeme. Kas and Eludeme jointly own the company Golden Eagle Minerals Limited, registered in 2011.

Another guest at the Singapore celebration was Madang District Administrator Daniel Aloi. Aloi was sidelined by Governor Peter Yama in February 2018 over allegations of misappropriation and misconduct. He was later charged with misappropriation of K400,000.

Madang Provincial government is currently trying to evict Aloi from a property it claims to own and where it claims the former Administrator has been unlawfully living rent free for the past five years – a claim that Aloi rejects.

Another public servant also present at the Singapore celebration was Gerard Dogimab, who lists his job as Technical Assistant for the Madang Provincial government.

One can only wonder why these senior figures from Madang were invited as guests of honour to the Powerplus Group launch in Singapore? And, while there is no suggestion or evidence of any impropriety by any of them in relationship to Niugini Sands mining exploration licence application, it is natural to ask whether it is pure coincidence that a company majority owned by the family behind Powerplus, is now pursuing a sand mining exploration licence in their Province?

LIQUIDATED

There was another guest from PNG at the October 2016 Powerplus Group launch in Singapore, Madang based businessman John Kambual.

Among the businesses Kambual owns is Powerplus Pacific Limited. According to its letterhead, the company is the sole distributor of Powerplus and Powerpac products in PNG.

Powerplus Pacific was registered in July 2016, three-months before the Singapore trip, but seems to have been dormant until this year as documents show the first directors meetings was only held in  January 2020.

Powerplus Pacific held its first Directors meeting in January 2020

Prospective Powerplus product customers should beware though. John Kambual is also the owner and sole director of Magrocomm Motors.

A snippet from the Magrocomm Motors Facebook page, accessed on 11 October 2020

Magrocomm was previously the sole agent and distributor for Powerplus and Powerpac products in PNG, but Magrocomm is currently in liquidation as a result of legal action by the Ok Tedi mine.

Ok Tedi Mining successfully applied for a winding up order against Magrocomm Motors in 2017

This raises further questions over the the judgement of Singapore investors behind Niugini Sands.