Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a local subsidiary of Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, is now negotiating to restart the highly controversial Panguna mine it was forced to abandon in 1989. Jubilee Australia maintains that any attempt to re-open the Panguna mine by BCL or any other company is unthinkable until BCL commits to full disclosure and acknowledges its role in the civil war.
Since 1972 the island of Bougainville had played host to the Panguna copper and gold mine - a lucrative operation for Rio Tinto and Papua New Guinea.
Being a large, open-cut mine, surrounding villages suffered from land appropriation, poisoned rivers, village relocation and social disruption, while receiving little over 1% of the earnings.
In early 1989 when negotiations with the company failed and some locals revolted, the PNG government staged a military-led counterinsurgency which evidence suggests was funded, facilitated and encouraged by both Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a local subsidiary of Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, and the Australian government.
Civilians faced the most brutal campaign of state violence witnessed in the region since the Second World War - including internment camps, the mortaring of children, aerial bombardments, assassinations, rape, and the denial of medicine and humanitarian assistance.
When the war finally ceased in 1998, between 10,000 - 20,000 people had died, some 10% of the island’s population, the majority of deaths being civilians.
Burying the dead. This photo was taken after a 1996 mortar attack on a church in a 'safe zone'. Because of the blockade, and ban on journalists, virtually no imagery of the conflict was captured. This was taken on a disposable camera smuggled in and out of Bougainville via the Solomon Islands. (Photo credit: Richard Kendall/OxfamAUS)
No truth commission has been held for this war, nor has there been an independent investigation into the systematic violations against the people of Bougainville, reparations for the injuries suffered, or necessary steps taken to prevent a recurrence.
Attempts by victims to obtain justice through PNG’s national court system have been blocked. Citizens of Bougainville filed a landmark class action lawsuit in the US against Rio Tinto in 2001 for environmental damage and war crimes during the civil war. Soon after, evidence was released showing the lengths to which Papua New Guinea was going, with the support of the Australian government, to pressure the US to stop the case. Rio Tinto/BCL successfully argued the case should be dismissed on the grounds the claims were not resolvable in a US court. In June 2013, after more than a decade, the appeals court finally upheld the dismissal.
re-opening the mine?
BCL is now negotiating to restart the highly controversial mine it was forced to abandon in 1989, wanting to take advantage of skyrocketing copper and gold prices. The BCL Chairman has told media he believes only a minority of Bougainvilleans oppose the mine's reopening.
Jubilee Australia maintains that any attempt to re-open the Panguna mine by BCL or any other company is unthinkable until BCL commits to full disclosure and acknowledges its role in the civil war.
Jubilee Australia research carried out in 2014 suggests that the people of the Panguna region where the mine is located are deeply against re-opening of the mine at this stage.
The debate about the mine has continued as Bougainville underwent elections in May and June of 2015. A few months earlier, Bougainville passed a mining law which laid down the legal regime under which mining could occur in the country. The law has been criticised as denying landowners the right to protest.
Another aspect of the debate that has received significant attention is the often-made claim that Bougainville needs the revenue generated from the mine to survive after the expected move to independence. Jubilee is looking into both these important questions.
TOP IMAGE: Women in Yehimbole Village, Yangoru-Saussia District, East Sepik Province, PNG. (Photo credit: Richard Kendall/OxfamAUS)