By Volker Boege

The giant mining multinational Rio Tinto is finally willing to face the environmental catastrophe its former Panguna gold and copper mine left behind on Bougainville. This is a huge success for the people of the mine-affected communities and their international supporters. It represents a significant first step in the process of environmental and social rehabilitation.

On 21 July 2021 Rio Tinto, the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) and representatives of mine-affected communities issued a joint statement on an agreement to identify and assess legacy impacts of the Panguna mine. Rio Tinto will fund this ‘Panguna Mine Legacy Impact Assessment’, which is to take stock of the environmental and human rights impacts of the mine and develop recommendations to address them. This means the company has accepted a core demand of mine-affected communities. This demand was presented in a complaint against Rio Tinto filed in September 2020 by the HRLC with the Australian National Contact Point (AusNCP) for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises on behalf of 156 community residents. In the following months, the AusNCP facilitated a series of discussions between Rio Tinto, the HRLC and community representatives. The agreement of 21 July is the first outcome of these discussions.

The Panguna Mine Legacy Impact Assessment will be conducted by an independent third party “with strong environmental and human rights expertise and will involve local and international experts”. The assessment will be overseen by a multistakeholder committee to be established by the parties to the agreement (Rio Tinto, HRLC, community representatives) in cooperation with the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG). The committee will be chaired by an independent facilitator and include a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including landowner and community representatives from mine-affected areas, the ABG, the government of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL, former operator of the Panguna mine, majority-owned by Rio Tinto until 2016, today independent of Rio Tinto). Initially, the leader of one of the Panguna landowner associations was critical of the design of the impact assessment, but seems to be also on board now.

ABG President Ishmael Toroama welcomed Rio Tinto’s commitment to finally addressing “the irreparable damage to the environment and the displacement of the local population” for which Rio Tinto and BCL were responsible and that “became one of the major factors that directly contributed to the ten year Bougainville Civil War”. At the same time, Bougainville’s president made it clear that the assessment has nothing to do with attempts to re-open the Panguna mine. He declared that the mine “will remained closed until such time all outstanding issues have been addressed”. The assessment has the sole purpose of laying the groundwork for the clean-up and rehabilitation of the area that was degraded by the former Panguna mine.

Bougainville’s President particularly commended the ABG’s minister for education and parliament member for Ioro (the constituency in which the Panguna mine is situated), Theonila Matbob, “for her resilience in pursuing the matter on the people’s behalf”. Theonila Matbob is an experienced anti-mining activist who enjoys the trust of the people in the Panguna area and plays a crucial role as the leader of the process in the local context. In commenting on the agreement Theonila said it gives “hope for a new chapter for our people”. She wants to “ensure work on the assessment can start as soon as possible”.

Clearly, the assessment can only be the first step in addressing legacy of the Panguna mine. It has to be followed up by the remediation of the damage caused by the mine and rehabilitation of the environment. That Rio Tinto contribute substantially to this rehabilitation is another core demand of the mine-affected communities.

The next steps in the process will be to set up the multistakeholder committee, to agree on a third party who will conduct the assessment, to define the assessment’s scope and terms of reference, and to prepare the assessment.

For background to the case, see LMN’s report, Cut and Run.