If we’re smart Panguna, Frieda & Ok Tedi can transform PNG
A highlands life: The birth & early years of Yaltom Yal-Wai

Rio Tinto should toe the line on global mining principles & ethics

PangunaJOHN MOMIS | President, Autonomous Region of Bougainville

In this article Dr Momis criticises what he calls the “greedy irresponsibility” of Rio Tinto following the global mining giant’s decision to end its majority shareholding in Bougainville Copper Ltd.

RIO Tinto’s predecessor, Conzinc RioTinto Australia (CRA), made immense profits from operating the Panguna mine – so much so that BCL was often described as the ‘jewel’ in the CRA crown.

But in operating the mine, it was Bougainville that bore severe environmental and social costs.

Environmental damage includes the massive pit, kilometres wide and hundreds of metres deep, never remediated in any way. It includes the vast areas filled by billions of tons of mine tailings tipped into the Kawerong and Jaba rivers, now lifeless as a result of acid rock leaching.

Fish life in the many rivers and creeks running into the two main dead rivers has also been destroyed. The tailings filled river valleys.

The levy ban built to contain the tailings was breached more than ten years ago. Huge swamps have swallowed forest and farm land. Large dumps of chemicals are yet to be cleaned up.

Social impacts include the appalling living conditions of the thousands of people involuntarily resettled by the mine.

Rio refuses to accept any responsibility for these and the many other negative impacts that were the costs of its vast profits. In their greedy irresponsibility they now propose to walk away from Panguna without further thought about the damage that they caused.

The website of the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM) claims that members such as Rio Tinto commit to “implement and measure their performance against 10 sustainable development principles”. ICMM says that it conducts “an annual assessment of member performance against their principles”.

ICMM Principle 3 commits Rio to “Uphold fundamental human rights and respect cultures, customs and values in dealing with employees and others who are affected by our activities”.

This commits companies to “minimize involuntary resettlement and compensate fairly for adverse effects on the community where they cannot be avoided.”

BCL paid the derisory compensation levels to relocated villages required in the 1970s and 1980s. But not only is it clear that these levels were far too low then, in addition, the relocated villagers suffering has continued and increased dramatically since the 1980s, with no compensation. And Rio plans to walk away with no thought as to their future suffering, all caused by a mine these people never wanted.

ICMM Principle 6 requires Rio to “rehabilitate land disturbed or occupied by operations in accordance with appropriate post-mining land uses”. No rehabilitation has occurred.

ICMM Principle 10 requires Rio to “provide information [to stakeholders] that is timely, accurate and relevant, and to engage with and respond to stakeholders through open consultation processes”. Rio has completely failed in these responsibilities. It has not provided any information to Bougainvillean stakeholders about its review or its plans.

Rio has advised me that it is free to ignore the damage it caused because its subsidiary (BCL) operated Panguna according to the laws of the 1970s and 1980s. It therefore does not regard itself as bound by the much higher corporate responsibility standards of today. Rio also say that BCL was closed by Bougainvilleans opposed to mining.

Bougainville rejects those argument. The corporate responsibility standards that Rio accepts today largely result from what it learned from its Bougainville experience.

The war in Bougainville was not about ending mining – it was a cry for mining on just terms, similar to those that are delivered by good standards of corporate responsibility. To ignore today’s standards is hypocrisy.

In a situation of low copper prices and the likely high sovereign risk of Bougainville, it’s unlikely that Panguna will reopen for a long time. In those circumstances, Rio must have responsibilities for rehabilitation and other activities similar to those arising in a mine closure situation.

I have asked ICMM Chair, Andrew Michelmore, to investigate Rio’s failure to meet the mining industry standards set as conditions of ICMM membership.

I have asked ICMM to required Rio Tinto to meet those standards. I have called on ICMM to expel Rio if it fails to adhere to ICMM principles.

Rio Tinto’s behaviour towards Bougainville exhibits greed and irresponsibility which the mining industry must reject.

Download John Momis letter to ICMM


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

arthur williams

The government doesn't seem to want to consider past experiences with extractive industries. I was working on Lihir in 1998-1999 and took some pictures of the Wildlife Reserve beach in front of the Ailaya or Spirit Rock in Kapit Bay. That rock is classed as a traditional customary feature and cannot be destroyed by the miners.

I took picture one which is the bilingual warning notice erected by the Lihir Mining Company denying access to the turtle area where apparently since 'tumbuna taim' they had laid their eggs in the warm sandy beachfront heated by the nearby hot springs.

#2 is of a 1998 view of this still almost pristine beach. The wharf and procesing plant are in the top left hand corner of the shot. While the entrance to pit is in the middle distance to the extractive area behind the 'spirit rock'.
I had a look at the latest pictures on the mine site website and you can see that there has been huge development, already begun in 1999 actually in the ocean of Kapit Bay. At that time it was merely a low lying tipping area ontop of which I believe ores were stockpiled for future refining.. Now it encompasses a huge reclamation area and any turtle would be well advised to stay away from the Nature Reserve.

For me there are some queries about this development into the ocean.

1 Was there Government approval of this land reclamation for ore storage envisaged specifically in the Environmental Impact Assessment and Statement?

2 Were the landowners of the area consulted on the loss of this turtle laying area and beachfront?

3 What remedial action has been written in the mining agreements after mine closure? Noting the degradation allowed at Misima, Sinivit and Panguna mines – I have my doubts
Pic #3

4 Permission was granted for undersea disposal of 5 million tonnes annually of tailings because the company told the Government disposed materials would be barged out to a point 1.5 km from the shore into a depth of 120 metres. However by reclaiming land into the bay does this mean the spoil is now being dumped nearer than agreed?

5 When I left the island at the turn of last century already people on the island were advised not to eat any shell fish from Kapit Bay area as they were likely to contaminated by the alleged safe disposal process. Goodness knows how far the pollution is spreading but I recall later complaints from the islanders of Masahet and Mahur just off the coast of Aniolam or main Lihir Island and home of the goldmine. Is there regular independent investigation of the effects on marine biodiversity and the health and/or diets of islanders from the undersea disposal of tailings?

Apologies cannot post pictures - dont know to uplaod them to this page


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)