Thirty-two years since it fled Bougainville island, Rio Tinto has promised to fund an independent assessment of the ongoing environmental damage caused by its Panguna mine, a move landowners have welcomed as “a start” towards repairing decades of contamination.
The mining giant has committed to a multi-million dollar “environmental and human rights impact assessment” of its former copper and gold mine in Panguna, which was the flashpoint for Bougainville’s decade-long civil war.
The commitment has come in response to a formal complaint filed last September by 156 residents of local communities downstream of the mine, who allege that more than one billion tonnes of mine waste dumped into the Kawerong-Jaba river delta continues to wreak catastrophic environmental damage and is putting their lives and livelihoods at risk.
The communities, represented by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, have been in discussions with Rio Tinto since December, in negotiations facilitated by the Australian government.
The assessment of Panguna will be conducted by an independent third party and will identify environmental and human rights impacts and risks posed by the mine and develop recommendations for remediation.
Rio Tinto has not yet committed to funding the mine clean-up; this will be the subject of further discussions after the assessment is completed.
Panguna was once one of the world’s largest and most profitable copper and gold mines, at one point accounting for 45% of all of PNG’s exports. But less than 1% of profits from the mine went to Bougainville and landowners say the mine left them with political division, violence, and environmental degradation.
In 1989, amid rising community anger at the environmental damage and the inequitable division of the mine’s profits, customary landowners forced the mine closed, blowing up Panguna’s power lines and sabotaging operations.
The PNG government sent in troops against its own citizens to restart the foreign-owned mine, sparking a decade-long civil war that led to the deaths of as many as 20,000 people.
A peace settlement was brokered in 2001. In 2019, the province voted overwhelming – 98% in favour – for independence.
Rio Tinto has never returned to Panguna, claiming it is unsafe for its staff, and divested from the mine in 2016.
Bougainville MP Theonila Matbob, whose constituency includes Panguna and whose father was killed in Bougainville’s civil war, said the environmental problems caused by the mine needed urgent investigation so “clean-up can begin”.
“This is a start … this is an important day for communities on Bougainville. Our people have been living with the disastrous impacts of Panguna for many years and the situation is getting worse. The mine continues to poison our rivers with copper.
“Our kids get sick from the pollution and communities downstream are now being flooded with mine waste. Some people have to walk two hours a day just to get clean drinking water. In other areas, communities’ sacred sites are being flooded and destroyed.”
Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said the assessment commitment was “an important first step” to dealing with the legacy of the Panguna mine.
“Operations at Panguna ceased in 1989 and we’ve not had access to the mine since that time. Stakeholders have raised concerns about impacts to water, land and health and this process will provide all parties with a clearer understanding of these important matters, so that together we can consider the right way forward.
“We take this seriously and are committed to identifying and assessing any involvement we may have had in adverse impacts in line with our external human rights and environmental commitments and internal policies and standards.”
Keren Adams, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the assessment will need to be followed up by comprehensive remediation work.
“Communities urgently need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. They need solutions to stop the vast mounds of tailings waste eroding into the rivers and flooding their villages, farms and fishing areas. They need their children to be able to walk to school without having to wade through treacherous areas of quicksand created by the mine waste. This is what remediation means in real terms for the people living with these impacts.”