‘Well I dreamed I saw the knights in armour coming sayin’ something about a Queen / Look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s’ - Neil Young, from After the Gold Rush
BRISBANE - Rio Tinto’s recent destruction of the Juukan Gorge indigenous rock shelters in the Pilbara region of Western Australia attracted extensive media attention and resulted in a federal senate inquiry.
It also led to several resignations of senior executives, humiliated but richly rewarded with golden handshakes.
Such recidivist and amoral corporate culture and reckless behaviour came as no surprise to the residents of Bougainville Island.
Despite the turgid hogwash about corporate social responsibility we are too often subjected to, it is quite evident that this corporate adventurer has few skerricks of remorse.
The rapacious buccaneer had repeatedly disregarded numerous warnings following its despoliation of earth’s natural resources throughout Australia, Canada, Papua New Guinea, West Papua, Mongolia, Namibia, Madagascar and elsewhere around the globe.
Rio Tinto (previously known as CRA), through its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited, developed the Panguna copper and gold mine in central Bougainville.
During its initial development this corporate brigand and several buccaneering socially autistic executives remained intent on securing Pakia village despite vehement protests from the local community.
The immediate environs of the village, as Bill Brown has so acutely recorded in A Kiap’s Chronicle, provided many endearing benefits for the corporate behemoth, including a pleasant aspect, gently sloping land, temperate evenings and only a short drive to the prospective mine site.
The negotiations that resulted in this colonial disaster were reminiscent of the comments of former US Secretary of State Al Haig during the acquisition of Diego Garcia: “You just give me the word and I'll turn that fucking little island into a parking lot.”
Rio Tinto operated the Panguna mine for almost two decades until 1989, when production ceased after sudden guerrilla attacks from frustrated and angry landowners and their local community.
The violence against equipment rapidly degenerated into a prolonged and barbaric civil war, subsequently depicted in Mister Pip, the traumatic novel by Lloyd Jones – also made into a movie.
After waiting for 30 years to see if it could rehabilitate its riches, Rio Tinto divested its interests in the derelict site but failed to rehabilitate the landscape and the mess – physical and social – it had left behind.
The Jaba-Kawerong valley downstream from the abandoned mine is home to 15,000 people most of whom are exposed to pollution from contaminated tailings. The adjacent rivers are poisoned and, following heavy downpours, the toxic sludge accumulates along the streams and creeks, which flood.
The people suffer serious health issues, including respiratory diseases, dermatitis and complicated pregnancies with numerous birth defects. Their children are often unhealthy. Impoverished families are forced to walk many hours for potable water.
The communities were forced to seek justice from the Australian government through the Human Rights Law Centre. In a comprehensive report it demanded that Rio Tinto provide substantial funding for an assessment of the mess, for rectification of public health, safety and environment, and for rehabilitation of the abandoned mine and its environs.
Much like the civil war itself, this is likely to degenerate into an extremely harsh and prolonged battle because the Australian government is the political wing of an enormously influential corporate tyrant whose dominant shareholder is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The British monarchy provides the corporate brigand with an enormous amount of power across Australia’s commercial and industrial landscape. Indeed, many Bougainvilleans will find the theatre of law has little to do with the discovery of truth and realisation of justice.
A young Australian Labor Party MP and subsequent prime minister, Paul Keating, who had visited Bougainville as mining began, once proclaimed that Rio Tinto’s control over Australian mineral resources was almost unbelievable.
This predatory conglomerate uses extensive propaganda and has established intensely powerful and productive relationships with numerous neoliberal organisations and extreme right wing think tanks in Australia.
During initial development of the Panguna mine, substantial contracts covering earthworks, telecommunications and more were awarded to Bechtel Corporation of the US, at the time under the leadership of George Shultz, the didactic mercenary who shaped the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan’s administration.
This involved promoting Milton Friedman’s exploitative economic theories on the basis of a rising tide lifting all boats. These included even the black-hulled royal yacht HMY Britannia as it slipped slowly into Kieta harbour back in March 1971.
Following their plundering escapades, many of Rio Tinto’s directors and senior executives, already richly rewarded for their plunder, were further rewarded with orders of chivalry that seemed inversely proportional to the emotional intelligence of the recipient.
These included Sir Roderick Howard Carnegie, Sir Martin Wakefield Jacomb and Sir John Ralph, a former chairman of the Queens Trust, a tax exempt foundation financed directly from Her Majesty’s personal income.
The octogenarian Ralph, also a parishioner at St Peter’s Catholic church in Toorak, an exclusive Melbourne suburb 4,000 kilometres from the abandoned Panguna mine, was recently appointed to head the parish renewal and development committee.
One development is a resplendent retirement village adjacent to its local sandstone church. The average price of a standard retirement unit within the complex is $2 million, although it also includes several $4 million penthouse suites.
Meanwhile the diseases and despoliation of mining lingers through working class and village communities where the mining industry has trod.
In our hurry to conquer nature and death we have made a new religion of science although often, as important to us as it is, it seems to progress funeral by funeral.