Sunday, January 15, 2012

Alchemie invertere - Mission Accomplished

Plumed serpents, white horseman, a passing comet, morphogenetic butterflies, you name it – all cluttering up the metaphoric pantheon of heralds of the end of one era and the dawning of the new. In some myths, the new is prophetic fiery cataclysm that melts everything into an apocalyptic puddle save those with fire retardant robes. In others, a celestial harmony vibrates the plaque from the incumbent order and allows the diaphanous-clad vestal light-beings to emerge. For me it was a ball cap wearing, green shirted fellow – we’ll call him ‘M’ to protect his identity – at the Airways Hotel in Port Moresby yesterday afternoon (Sunday the 15th for those of you wondering what timezone I’m referencing at the moment).

M had heard that I was in town working with several landowner groups in our on-going effort to encourage the government of Papua New Guinea to stand-up to the innumerable national mining, tax, customs, employment, firearms, and international securities laws abuses relentlessly perpetrated by gold mine operators from Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The exploration license for gold mining in his home had lapsed and he wondered if there was any possibility that I would be willing to consider helping to sponsor his village’s effort to apply for, and obtain the license. If, he argued, we would help his people we could form a joint venture where we could develop a gold mine without having the brutality – burning homes, beating local community members, forced removal of people from sacred lands – all manner of blights that had been visited upon the village by previous explorers. He had a written proposal personally addressed to me identifying all of the clans including the names of the 48 clan elders. The letter contained their statement of unanimous endorsement of our invitation to work with them to use their market resources “so that goods and services such as education, health, roads and bridges, airports can flow to the communities to improve the standard of living so that poverty and law and order problems can be reduced.” He laid a giant map in front of me and pointed to two mountains.

“This is my home where my family lives,” he said pointing to a spot on the middle of the map. “And over here is the mountain that is a spiritual man. Here, when a man enters this mountain, the time clock ticks faster making it dark quickly.”

He described the area between the two mountains where the land was given a Western name because there were gold nuggets “hanging all over the mountain”.

I sat for nearly 10 minutes while M gave his impassioned pitch for our involvement in this project.

“Tell me about the people who live on these mountains,” I inquired at the first moment he paused in his carefully rehearsed presentation.

He shifted gears and went into an explanation about the matrilineal and patrilineal dynamics of the major clans separated by a valley but united in marriages and traditional Customary practices and a common language. During the whole of the first 15 minutes of our interaction, he never looked me in the face preferring to look down and to the left, his head slightly bowed.

At the next pause, I slowly inquired, “M, tell me about Custom. If you are from your village but the gold is spread across several villages, are the wishes of the people all in alignment to actually have a mine here?”

His head snapped up and he looked at me perplexed.

“Yes, we want the license to develop the mine,” he replied.

“I understand what you’re saying,” I replied, “but that’s not what I was asking. If a decision is made in your village to mine in an area where the other village has a Customary use of the land – gardens, burial plots, ceremonies, etc – is there a way in which you build consensus about how such decisions are made? For example, if the sacred mountain has a lot of gold but it has more Customary value, would you and your people agree to leave the gold untouched and preserve your values?”

He looked at me for about 30 seconds with his eyes wide open. “I cannot believe this!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never heard of a white man who would even know to ask about this question. When I tell my people the words you are saying, they will think that you are one of us – one of our clan.”

For the next hour, M and our team discussed the ways in which we have engaged other situations similar to this in other parts of Papua New Guinea. His near constant refrain was, “I cannot believe I’m hearing our language from a white man!” The afternoon wore on as we laid out the sequence that we would use if we were to engage in a review of the entire spectrum of values held by the communities and how one might go about aligning community desires with the abundance over which they had stewardship.

As our time grew to a close, I was transported to a conversation that I had with Peter Buffett, the collaborating composer of “Blood Into Gold". Prior to writing the song for the U.N. commemoration event of trans-Atlantic slavery, I shared a dream with him. The dream had visited me after he and I spoke of a bit of his creative writers-block in coming up with a song commemorating slavery. In my dream, a small child – a girl – wandered through humanity’s history visiting alchemists - from Egypt to Greece to Europe to the Americas to Asia - all chasing the elixir that would turn the mundane into gold. As she watched, each alchemist from all parts of the globe and every epoch of human existence, in desperation, would lash out in exhaustion and pour human blood into their potion and, each time it was human blood that would ultimately be transformed into gold. In my dream, the girl looked at me and asked, “Will anyone ever turn the gold back into humanity?”

Wherever that little girl is on this 15th day of January, 2012, the answer is, “Yes.” It just happened. And if you would like to learn more about our Inverted Alchemy efforts, you’re just an e-mail, phone call, or visit away.


  1. Hi David,

    Presuming the clans do mine gold - how will they connect to ethical markets to sell and/or trade?


  2. this comment should have been first - congratulations!

  3. Brett, first of all, thank you for your comment and question. The beauty of this moment in time is that, for this community, they are being free to ask the first question of all - "Do we mine at all." And if they answer that in the affirmative, we now have a means to establish the community-defined Trust which will govern where, how, and in what partnerships would such an effort be undertaken. It's now time for those in the extraction industry who are looking for environmentally suitable techniques, technologies and processes to stand up and say that there's a proper way to develop resources that doesn't cost what the recklessness of many legacy operators have done. We'll be working on these and a host of other issues AFTER the community has the chance to step back and decide IF they want to proceed. The joy for us is that we have paused the reckless march, even for a day!

  4. Beautiful post David, and a beautiful dream.

  5. David I think this may be your best post ever. How wonderful is the opportunity at hand to let the people decide if, when, and how they move as individuals and as a community. Maybe it's time to extract only what is necessary to reach thour goals while leaving tthe rest remain. I smile at the thought of your efforts taking root in PNG

    My best


  6. Very inspiring. Love emergent proof-of-concept models that demonstrate the true possibilities of being a human being.

  7. Dave, this may well be the most beautiful post you've written on this subject. May your efforts with M be blessed with the success of empowered people, and may this respectful approach catch on with many others!


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave