(by Kimberly Fraser)
In June of this year Rio Tinto cut its ties with Bougainville by divesting itself of its majority shareholding in Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL). The company split its shares between the Papua New Guinea Government and the Autonomous Bougainville Government, ensuring that both parties now have an equal share of 36.4 per cent; the other 27.2 per cent of shares are held by individual investors. Bougainville believes it should have been given all the shares due to its autonomous status.
In its wake, Rio Tinto is leaving behind a troubled past, a scarred landscape and their accountability to the people of Bougainville. The Australian-owned BCL operated the massive Panguna mine in the central mountains of Bougainville from 1972. For 16 years the people of Bougainville watched as the large open cut mine destroyed their customary lands and devastated the local environment while they only received a negligible share of the mine’s revenue. In 1989, when the local landowners launched a successful uprising to shut down the mine the PNG Government blockaded Bougainville and sent in the army to deal with the revolutionary groups who were fighting to gain control of the region. Rio Tinto says it is not obligated to do anything about the damage caused when the mine triggered a vicious nine-year civil war. However, residents of Bougainville claim that Rio Tinto was complicit in the civil war as it pressured the PNG Government to get involved and provided vehicles and helicopters for use by the military.
A peace agreement was signed in 2001, but efforts to achieve some level of justice have thus far come to nothing. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people were killed during the conflict and 60,000 were displaced. Despite the signing of various peace accords, there has been little in the way of transitional justice mechanisms – such as a truth commission or reparations program– which are seen as essential for post-war reconciliation. As a result, missing persons and mass graves remain undiscovered and ex-combatants still live in the community.
This is not the first time a mining company has been accused of being complicit in local violence. When mining companies were rapidly expanding across the globe in the mid to late 20th century they often began operations in countries that had just gained their independence from colonial powers and had yet to develop appropriate legal standards for mining operations. This led to exploitation of local workers and massive environmental degradation. Rio Tinto refuses to accept any responsibility for what happened in Bougainville because they were operating under the woefully inadequate legal standards of the day.
As Rio Tinto walks away from Bougainville, local communities, who have sought justice for so long, prepare for a new challenge: to gain control over the mine that started it all.
Kimberly Fraser is a volunteer with Jesuit Social Services Australia, working on Justice in Mining issues.