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Living with Rio Tinto’s deadly legacy

Woman panning for gold in Bougainville

| Human Rights Law Centre

MELBOURNE - Mining giant Rio Tinto is responsible for multiple human rights violations caused by pollution from its former mine in Bougainville.

For 45 years, the Panguna copper and gold mine on the island of Bougainville was majority-owned by the British-Australian mining company, but in 2016 Rio Tinto divested from the mine, leaving behind more than a billion tonnes of mine waste.

Our major new report, ‘After the Mine: Living with Rio Tinto’s deadly legacy’, documents the deadly consequences of that decision for thousands of people living nearby.


Based on site visits to 38 villages between September 2019 and February 2020, it reveals communities living with contaminated water sources, land and crops flooded by toxic mud and health problems ranging from skin diseases and respiratory problems to pregnancy complications.

Panguna was previously one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

During its operation from 1972 to 1989, the mine generated almost $US 2 billion in revenue for Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea Government.

In 1989, an uprising by local people against the environmental destruction caused by the mine, and inequities in the distribution of its profits, forced the mine’s closure and triggered a brutal decade-long civil war.

A clear path had been identified to deal with the environmental devastation at Panguna in 2014, but Rio Tinto divested from the mine before this could be implemented, passing on its shares to the Autonomous Bougainville Government and PNG Government, and side-stepping entirely the cost of clean-up.

The impacts of the mine are severely infringing communities’ fundamental rights to food, water, health and housing.

Our report calls on Rio Tinto, and its former subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited, to immediately commit to funding an independent assessment of the mine to identify the most urgent health and safety risks to communities and establish a substantial fund to address these problems and assist with long-term rehabilitation. 

Theonila Roka Matbob is a local teacher and traditional landowner from Makosi village, downstream of the mine.

Theonila has appealed to Rio Tinto to return and address the urgent problems facing her community:

“Our land is destroyed and our rivers are poisoned. Kids are drinking and bathing in the polluted water and getting sick. New areas of land are still being flooded with the waste from the mine. We urgently need Rio Tinto to come back and deal with these problems so our communities can find healing.”

The Human Rights Law Centre will continue to work with our partners and the mine-affected communities to shine a spotlight on this appalling legacy and compel Rio Tinto to address these urgent problems.

Theonila Roka Matbob
Theonila Roka Matbob - a traditional landowner from Makosi village - just defeated 16 men to win the seat of Ioro in the Bougainville general election, where counting of votes is continuing. Panguna is at the centre of her electorate


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Bernard Corden

The legacy is quite a bit different from The Benson, a ritzy retirement village in Toorak:


Arthur Williams

Hope people from Woodlark and Misima islands and Wafi-Golpu and Frieda river get a chance to read the full report.
The graphic pictures of life are sickening.

I grew up with a polluted river running through my city until almost the end of the 20th century, when at last fish were able to live again in its waters after 100 years of absence.

Why must people suffer the same planned fate over next 30 years or more.

Have a read on Wikipedia about Rio Tinto and the problems its mines have produced worldwide including next door to PNG in West Papua at the Grasberg mine that sends tens of millions of filthy tailings into the Ajkwa River every day.

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