Rio Tinto agrees to investigate Panguna


Theonila Roka Matbob next to Panguna mine pit Image: HRLC

Rio Tinto has agreed to assess the lasting environmental impacts of the former Panguna copper mine in Papua New Guinea after community members called for action.

On the island of Bougainville, Panguna was operated by Bougainville Copper (BCL) – majority owned by Rio at the time – and ceased operations in 1989 due to an uprising against the mine and subsequent civil war.

From 1972 to 1989, the mine caused over one billion tonnes of waste tailings to enter the Jaba and Kawerong rivers, which led to the uprising.

It’s currently estimated that 12,000 – 14,000 people live in the Jaba-Kawerong river valley.

In September 2020, 156 Bougainville residents filed a complaint with the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) against Rio Tinto, alleging the miner was accountable for ongoing environmental and human rights breaches at the former Panguna mine.

Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said the company was actively engaging in the investigation process.

“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 ca consider the right way forward,” Stausholm said.

Despite not having had access to the mine since 1989 – 29 years after Stausholm joined the company – the chief executive showed understanding of the importance of taking responsibility for past actions.

“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,” Stausholm said.

Traditional landowner and Bougainville member of parliament Theonila Roka Matbob represented the communities involved in the complaint.

Matbob described the lasting detriment Paguna has had on her community and said it was a relief to reach this point in discussions with Rio Tinto.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

The agreement to pursue reconciliation came after months of discussion facilitated by the Australia OECD National Contact Point (AusNCP).

Rio will predominantly fund an impact assessment, the scope of which has been drafted and will be completed by a third party with strong expertise in the field.

The assessment was one of the three commitments sought by the Bougainville complainants.

The other two were for Rio to work with the affected communities to solve the issues and experience formal reconciliation, as well as substantially funding the process.

A joint statement from the parties involved outlined the end goal of the action.

“By independently identifying and assessing environmental and human rights impacts of the Panguna mine, the parties hope the assessment will lay the foundation for long-term solutions and would like to express their appreciation to the AusNCP for facilitating the discussions that led to this agreement,” the statement read.

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