PORT MORESBY - For all of Theonila Roka Matbob’s three decades, the scar on her land that was once the world’s largest copper mine has cast a pall.
The Panguna mine in Bougainville, eastern Papua New Guinea, has not yielded a single ounce in her lifetime – forced shut the year before Matbob was born - but she grew up in the shadow of the violent civil war it provoked.
When she was just three years old, her father, John Roka, was murdered by the secessionist soldiers who had forced the mine to close.
Spending years in a 'care centre' run by the PNG defence force, she remembers a childhood dominated by an all-pervasive fear, where the sound of gunshots regularly rang out across the valley, where neighbours disappeared from their homes, their bodies later found slaughtered.
There is peace now, but memories remain, and “we live with the impacts of Panguna every day,” Matbob says.
“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution.
“Every time it rains more waste washes into the rivers, causing flooding for villages further downstream.
“Some communities now have to spend two hours a day walking just to get clean drinking water because their nearby creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”
Families live in the disused mine pit at Panguna, attempting to make a living from alluvial mining. Polluted, unnaturally blue water contaminates the pit and there are frequent landslides.
Panguna is quiet these days.
The mining trucks lie rusting in Bougainville’s clammy heat; the massive pit carved into the middle of a mountain is inhabited by a handful alluvial miners, digging with hand tools for what gold remains; and the Kawerong-Jaba river delta downstream is flooded with bright blue toxic waters which poison the land and the people who live there.
And Matbob, the little girl who grew up in the shadow of the mine’s violence, is now a parliamentarian, determined to seek redress for her people.
Newly elected to the Bougainville parliament for the electorate of Ioro, which encompasses Panguna, Matbob has led a formal complaint filed with the Australian government against Rio Tinto for environmental and human rights violations caused by the mine.
The complaint, supported by more than 150 members of her electorate and by the Human Rights Law Centre, alleges that the massive volume of waste pollution left behind by the mine is putting communities’ lives and livelihoods at risk, poisoning their water, damaging their health, flooding their lands and sacred sites, and leaving them “in a deteriorating, increasingly dangerous situation”.
Panguna was an immensely profitable mine. Over 17 years it made more than $US2bn for the mine’s former owner and operator Rio Tinto, who pulled 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and 450,000 ounces of gold from the mine in its last year alone.
At one point, Panguna accounted for 45% of all of PNG’s exports, and 12% of its GDP.
But for those whose land it was, Panguna brought but a sliver of the wealth and development that was promised - less than 1% of profits – leaving behind a legacy only of division, violence, and environmental degradation.
In 1989, amid rising fury at the environmental damage and the inequitable division of the mine’s profits, customary landowners forced the mine closed, blowing up Panguna’s power lines and sabotaging operations.
The PNG government sent in troops against its own citizens to restart the foreign-owned mine – at the behest of Rio, it says – sparking a civil war that would rage for a decade. Along with a protracted military blockade, it led to the deaths of as many as 20,000 people.
Rio Tinto cut and ran, and has never returned to the island, claiming it is unsafe, despite pleas from landowners to repair the vast and ongoing environmental damage.
“These are not problems we can fix with our bare hands,” Matbob says. “We urgently need Rio Tinto to do what’s right and deal with the disaster they have left behind.”