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Bougainville fury grows over Rio Tinto’s BCL share exit

Parliament of the Bougainville autonomous governmentRadio New Zealand

THE Autonomous Bougainville Government is to press global mining giant Rio Tinto on several fronts after its divestment of its majority shareholding in Bougainville Copper Ltd.

Rio Tinto split its equity between the autonomous provincial government and the national government in Port Moresby to give them an equal shareholding.

But Bougainville is furious it was not given all the shares, and that Rio Tinto said it is was no longer obliged to do anything about the environmental damage caused by the Panguna mine, which sparked a civil war that lasted through the 1990s.

The ABG hopes to reopen the mine as a way to generate revenue should it vote to become independent from PNG after a referendum scheduled for 2019.

Last month, the ABG held an emergency session of its parliament (pictured above) which made a number of resolutions.

"My government, and all Bougainvilleans, oppose the shares in BCL being transferred to the PNG government,” Bougainville president John Momis told parliament. “The justification for the transfer advanced by Rio has no basis.

"Equal PNG shareholding with the ABG raises the grave dangers for the future of peace in Bougainville," he said.

"Moreover, its decision on allocating shares was clearly made in close consultation with PNG, and without consulting the ABG.

“Perhaps they both forgot that the mineral resources BCL was established to mine are located in Bougainville. Perhaps they forgot that Bougainville is autonomous, and has full power over mining. "

Bougainville accepted its 36.4% of BCL and will negotiate with the PNG Government for it to surrender the Rio Tinto shares it was given.

"There is a deep history of conflict and bitterness in Bougainville over the impacts of the Panguna mine.

“Since 2014 I have been advising the prime minister in the strongest terms that it is impossible for Bougainvilleans to accept national government control of Panguna through control of BCL," said Dr Momis.

The ABG called for Bougainville-wide unity as it launched what it said would be the strongest possible international campaign to pressure Rio Tinto to accept its responsibility for the mine's legacy issues and that it would pursue the company in the courts.

"It is grossly unjust - completely unacceptable - for Rio to now refuse any responsibility for the long-term impacts of the operations of its subsidiary, BCL,” Dr Momis said.

“They told me they can walk away because they operated the mine under the PNG legal standards of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But it was clear in the 1980s, at least, that the standards of the day were appalling. It was the injustice of those terrible standards that caused the conflict," he said.

Bougainville also intends taking up the legacy issues with both the PNG and Australian governments.


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William Dunlop

Chris. Touche. I lived as a young man not too far from Lissanbure Castle, Louchguile, the then home of George Macartney, an Earl of the realm and the first British Ambassador to China. He also was a bit of a ruthless lad.

There is no shortage of these gentlemen in today's world any more than there was then. You have an excellent command as a scribe. Perhaps you could continue to enlighten us in this field.

Chris Overland

To amplify William's point, it should be apparent to someone with only a hazy knowledge of history that outfits like Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Google, Microsoft, Apple and similar transnational corporations, are the successors of the British East India Company and Dutch East Indies Company of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The latter companies not only took over and ran entire countries under warrant from their respective governments, but had their own standing armies and navies as well.

Robert Clive of India, who conquered vast swathes of that country, was an agent of the company, not the British government. Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and Prime Minister of Great Britain, learned his trade in India as a company servant.

A British East India Company trading vessel bristled in cannon, both to defend its valuable cargo from pirates and to cower recalcitrant natives into submission in the interests of furthering trade.

Like these earliest transnationals, the modern versions are so big, so rich and so influential that national governments ignore them at their peril.

If the CEO of Google rings the President of the United States, you can bet he will not be placed on indefinite hold or fobbed off to some junior under secretary somewhere.

Similarly, if the CEO of Westpac calls the Australian Prime Minister, he had better take or return that call if he values his political skin.

So, William, those who head up these companies are actually operating exactly like their mercantilist predecessors.

The globalised free trade so beloved of neo-liberals everywhere has spawned a whole new generation of super corporations that no national government can control.

Like the British and Dutch governments of the mid 18th century, they can only react to the faits accompli presented to them by the great corporations that generated so much of the wealth they depended upon to govern.

While these companies cannot act with total impunity, they have a level of discretion that allows them to ignore many of the political, financial and commercial constraints that apply to we lesser beings.

Thus, poor John Momis is getting a lesson in power politics from Rio Tinto and, in due course, will receive another from PNG strongman Peter O'Neill.

Bougainvilleans may be able to effectively negate O'Neill's ambitions to reopen Panguna, but they cannot easily bend him or Rio Tinto to their will.

This is the only card Momis can play in the game: moral righteousness counts for nothing where money is concerned, in PNG and elsewhere in this world.

William Dunlop

Rio Tinto's arrogance knows no bounds. They think they are still operating in the feudal, or perhaps autocratic is more appropriate, mode of 17th century England.

I wonder how much grease Herr O'Neill has been the recipient of.

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