NOOSA – After several months of discussions Rio Tinto and 156 Bougainville community members, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre, last week reached an agreement to assess legacy impacts of the former Panguna copper and gold mine on Bougainville.
The mine was operated by Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), then majority owned by Rio Tinto, from 1972 until 1989 when operations were suspended following guerrilla against the mine and a subsequent civil war.
A peace agreement was signed in 2001 and Bougainville was given greater autonomy within Papua New Guinea. A non-binding referendum on Bougainville’s political future in late 2019 resulted in 98% of voters favouring independence for the province.
In 2016, Rio Tinto had transferred its majority shareholding in BCL to the Bougainville and PNG governments.
The Bougainville residents, from a number of communities affected by the mine, filed a complaint against Rio Tinto in September 2020 alleging serious adverse environmental and human rights impacts linked to continuing pollution from the mine.
The complaint also alleged that Rio Tinto is accountable for remediating these ongoing impacts and has an obligation to provide remediation where it has caused or contributed to harm.
In response, Rio Tinto has agreed to engage with Panguna mine-affected communities to find solutions and undertake reconciliation according to Bougainvillean custom.
The company will fund an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine by qualified local and international experts.
It will also contribute to a substantial, independently managed fund to help address the harms caused by the mine and assist long-term rehabilitation efforts.
The assessment will be undertaken by an independent company unrelated to Rio Tinto or BCL and which has strong environmental and human rights expertise and which call upon local and international expertise.
The Panguna Mine Legacy Impact Assessment Committee will be established by the Bougainville government, Rio Tinto, the Human Rights Law Centre and the affected community members.
Representatives of the PNG government, BCL and other landowners and community representatives will also be invited to join the committee, which will have an independent chair.
The Bougainville government has confirmed its support for this process.
“This is an important first step towards engaging with those impacted by the legacy of the Panguna mine,” said Rio Tinto chief executive, Jakob Stausholm.
“It comes after months of constructive engagement with the Human Rights Law Centre and community members facilitated by the Australian National Contact Point.
“Stakeholders have raised concerns about impacts to water, land and health and this process will provide all parties with a clearer understanding of these important matters so together we can consider the right way forward.
“We take this seriously and are committed to identifying and assessing any involvement we may have had in adverse impacts in line with our external human rights and environmental commitments and internal policies and standards,” Mr Stausholm said.