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Decades-old mine in Bougainville exacts devastating human toll: Report

  • A new report by the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia details the continuing devastation wrought by a copper and gold mine that closed more than 30 years ago in the Papua New Guinean territory of Bougainville.
  • The 17-year-long operation of the mine generated more than a billion metric tons of mining waste, which continues to seep into the region’s water sources, fouling drinking water supplies and causing disease.
  • The British-Australian mining company Rio Tinto divested from its majority stake in the local operating company in 2016 and says that the governments of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, now the majority shareholders, are best placed to address the problems.
  • The Human Rights Law Centre and other groups contend that Rio Tinto has the ultimate responsibility to facilitate and finance the cleanup.

On satellite images, the Panguna mine yawns amid the otherwise green mountain forests of central Bougainville Island in the South Pacific, a silty river valley tracing a jagged path from the mine south and west to Empress Augusta Bay. For 17 years in the 1970s and 1980s, the mine was one of the world’s largest for copper and gold. But even before its closure in 1989, the knock-on effects of the release of what would come to more than a billion metric tons of mining waste had surfaced, affecting the land, its wildlife and the people who live there.

More than 30 years later, “The situation is worsening,” as waste continues to seep into the regions’ rivers, said Keren Adams, legal director at the nonprofit Human Rights Law Centre in Australia. Adams and her colleagues documented the mine’s legacy as it continues to disrupt the lives of the 12,000 to 14,000 people who live downstream in a report released April 1. Now, the mine’s longtime operator, the British-Australian company Rio Tinto, must make amends, they argue.

“You only have to look on Google Earth and see the environmental devastation caused by the mind is huge and ongoing and extensive,” Adams told Mongabay.

The Panguna mine pit. Image courtesy of the Human Rights Law Centre.

The researchers tracked the fallout from the mine’s operations through interviews in 38 villages along the Jaba and Kawerong rivers that flow downstream from the Panguna mine. They also used information from stories compiled by the Catholic Diocese of Bougainville from affected communities between 2017 and 2019. Adams’ team cataloged the fouled water supplies that force communities to depend on drinking water piped from long distances upslope. They spoke with parents whose children have sores that won’t heal and persistent coughs, in part because the tainted river waters are the only place where they can bathe. And the team learned of the perils of fording rivers subject to sudden floods as aging tailings dams from the ’80s begin to fail.

The mine itself — and specifically what some saw as the inequitable sharing of the profits — played a part in precipitating almost a decade of civil war between Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Bougainville beginning in 1989 and led Rio Tinto to abandon completely the mine by 1990.

The two governments signed a peace deal in 2000 under which Bougainville remained part of PNG but was allowed a measure of governing autonomy. In 2014, the governments planned to figure out how to clean up the site, and Rio Tinto was supposed to have played a supporting role. But that same year, the company abruptly said it needed to do its own internal review, Adams said.

Eighteen months later, Rio Tinto decided to divest from its local subsidiary in control of the Panguna mine, Bougainville Copper Limited, handing over its majority stake to the governments of PNG and Bougainville. That move left Bougainville Copper as little more than a “shell company,” Adams said, without the resources to mount such a formidable cleanup effort.

She and her colleagues contend that shedding its shares in Bougainville Copper, which controls the still-abandoned mine, does nothing to absolve Rio Tinto from its responsibility to improve the lives of the people who are still affected by the mining operations to this day.

Polluted water flowing from the mine pit into the Kawerong River. Image courtesy of the Human Rights Law Centre.

But Rio Tinto doesn’t see it that way.

“We believe that [Bougainville Copper] was compliant with applicable regulatory requirements up until the mine’s operations were suspended in 1989,” a spokesperson told Mongabay.

Adams said she doesn’t agree with that reasoning, which she said has become something of a “mantra” for the company since its divestment in 2016. “It’s very clear that no one else’s pollution is responsible for these problems,” Adams said. “Therefore, they should do something about it.”

She acknowledged that environmental standards at the time “were very, very poor in comparison to what would be acceptable today,” but even those weren’t followed.

Adams said an independent review, conducted while the mine was still operational, revealed the company’s failure to manage copper levels in the effluent from the mine — which the company had agreed to do — had “completely obliterated” the fish life downstream.

Such past shortfalls aside, Adams said that Rio Tinto has since agreed to more stringent environmental requirements for other mines. The company’s website lays out its extensive commitments to human rights, community development and the environment, and it implements the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

People panning for gold in the Kawerong River. Image courtesy of the Human Rights Law Centre.

The Rio Tinto spokesperson said that when it “gifted” its shares of Bougainville Copper, the “arrangement provided a platform of support for the PNG Government and the Bougainville government to work together on future options for the resource.”

“It cannot be the case that a company can be seen to improve its environmental social governance standards, simply by cutting and running from any projects that pose a high risk and high liability to them,” Adams said.

The company spokesperson pointed to a referendum in late 2019, during which around 98% of voters said that Bougainville should be fully independent of PNG. Rio Tinto, therefore, is “of the view that it is for the people of Bougainville to determine their future, including any potential redevelopment of the mine.”

But what lies ahead remains deeply concerning for the people of Bougainville, according to the people that Adams and her colleagues spoke with, who said they have been left with few options. Even the subsistence farming on which many local communities rely has been hampered by the tainted water flowing from the mine.

“So many parents spoke to us about their fears for their children’s future,” Adams said. “They cannot rely on the land anymore to produce what they need.”

A woman washing dishes in the Jaba River, downstream from the Panguna mine. Image courtesy of the Human Rights Law Centre.

Rio Tinto said representatives from the company hadn’t been able to visit the mine site since 1990 because of the civil war and later “ongoing severe security concerns.” As a result, the company wasn’t able to address these problems before 2016.

“That may have been true for the duration of the conflict,” Adams said. “But that ended 18 years before they divested.”

She added the company’s representatives wouldn’t have to visit the mine site to find ways to improve access to water and health care and to orchestrate an assessment so that communities understand the risks they face and how to deal with them.

That will come at a cost, she added — a cost that the Human Rights Law Centre and other groups contend Rio Tinto should bear.

“The Panguna mine devastated our communities physically and culturally and we are still living with the consequences,” said Theonila Roka Matbob, a teacher from the village of Makosi, which is downstream from the mine, according to a statement. “We urgently need Rio Tinto to come back and deal with these problems so our communities can find healing.”

Gold panning in the polluted streams around Panguna is one of the few livelihood options left to many community members. Image courtesy of the Human Rights Law Centre.

But beyond the question of financing, those affected by the mine want the company to acknowledge the problems that the mine continues to cause.

“That’s what communities want,” Adams said. “They would love for Rio Tinto to come back and listen to them face to face about the problems that they have.

“I think communities would welcome them doing that, if they were there for that reason.”

Banner image of the Panguna mine tailings wasteland courtesy of the Human Rights Law Centre.

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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