Rio Tinto has agreed to examine the environment and human heritage of the giant Pangun mine on the island of Bougainville in Papua, and the Anglo-Australian group is accused of evading responsibility for cleaning up toxic waste.
The multinational company has reported an agreement to launch an investigation into this copper and gold mine that was at the heart of Bougainville’s bloody civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and continues, according to residents of the area, to pollute neighboring waterways for more than three decades after closing.
Panguna, once the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, only accounted for up to 40% of Papua’s exports. He was in office from 1972 to 1989.
Environmental damage caused by mining activities and lack of financial benefits were the cause of strong population protests.
Allegations over the mine sparked the first clashes between the military and secessionist rebels. The ensuing civil war killed 20,000 people and as such remains the bloodiest conflict in the Pacific since World War II.
– Poisoned rivers –
Under pressure from human rights organizations, Rio Tinto announced it would seek to “identify and assess the impacts” of the mine.
“This is an important first step towards opening a dialogue with those affected by the legacy of the Pangun mine,” said group director Jakob Stausholm.
“We take this topic very seriously and are determined to identify and assess the role we could have played in any negative impact.”
As a first step, Rio Tinto will fund an independent panel of international experts to assess this impact.
This announcement should encourage organizations advocating for the creation of a compensation fund for victims and for the reconstruction of the site.
The cost of cleaning a site is usually estimated at $ 1 billion.
“It’s such an important day for the villages of Bougainville,” said Theonila Roca Matbob, a local politician. “The Panguna mine has been poisoning our rivers with copper for many years. Our children are sick of pollution.”
– “Great Breakthrough” –
The Melbourne Legal Center for Human Rights, which has centralized complaints from more than 150 Bougainville residents, saw the announcement as a “big step forward.”
He vowed to “ensure that the assessment leads to rapid action by Rio Tinto to deal with its disastrous legacy on Bougainville Island.”
A ceasefire was reached in 1998, followed by an agreement that led to the holding, in 2019, of a referendum in which 98% of Pacific Island voters voted for independence. Bougainville has enjoyed autonomy since 2005.
Bougainville’s rulers set 2027 as the deadline for achieving full independence and leaving Papua New Guinea.
In 2016, Rio Tinto ceded control of its stake in the Pangun mine to the governments of Papua and Bougainville. Residents then accused the mining group of trying to avoid the cost of cleaning the site.
Keren Adams, of the Legal Center for Human Rights, compared Rio’s inaction in Panguna to the bombing of the same group in May 2020 at the Juukan Gorge site, located in Western Australia, where Aboriginal people inhabited more than 46,000 years ago.