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.