Rio Tinto remains responsible for Panguna mine damage says report

2:30 pm on 2 April 2020

The Australian Human Rights Law Centre claims the mining giant Rio Tinto remains responsible for multiple human rights violations caused by pollution from the Panguna mine on Bougainville.

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Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

The mine, the catalyst for the bloody civil war on Bougainville and responsible for widespread environmental destruction and social dislocation there, had been shut since 1989.

Rio Tinto walked away from involvement in Panguna in 2016, giving its shares in its subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Ltd, to the Papua New Guinea and Bougainville Governments.

The company defended its lack of action in dealing with complaints about Panguna, saying it had followed the laws of the time.

The Human Rights Law Centre had now produced a report called 'After the mine; Living with Rio Tinto's deadly legacy', which looked at the continuing impact.

It revealed that communities living around the mine still had to cope with contaminated water, destroyed farm land, and a range of serious health issues.

It quoted a local teacher and landowner, Theonila Roka Matbob, from a downstream village, Makosi.

Ms Matbob pleaded for the company to return to Bougainville and address the urgent problems she claimed it created.

"The Panguna mine devastated our communities physically and culturally and we are still living with the consequences," she said.

"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.

Theonila Roka Matbob

Theonila Roka Matbob Photo: HRLC

"We urgently need Rio Tinto to come back and deal with these problems so our communities can find healing."

The report's author, Keren Adams, who is a Legal Director for the Human Rights Law Centre, believed Rio Tinto's failure to address its Panguna legacy was shameful.

"Rio Tinto's decision to cut and run from Panguna without addressing the massive problems created by the mine is an appalling breach of its responsibilities," she said.

"This is not a historical issue, it is an ongoing human rights disaster and Rio Tinto must immediately act to address it."

Ms Adams said if Rio Tinto failed to face up to the massive problems its Panguna mine created it would "remain in serious violation of its human rights and environmental obligations."

The Human Rights Law Centre called on Rio Tinto and BCL to fund 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

Meanwhile the Guardian newspaper reported a spokesman for Rio Tinto saying: "BCL was compliant with applicable regulatory requirements up until the mine's operations were suspended in 1989."

The spokesman said Rio Tinto acknowledged concerns raised in the Human Right Law Centre report but could not comment because it had not been been able to enter the mine since 1990.

The spokesman said the ongoing, extremely challenging security situation was one of the reasons for the 2016 share transfer.

"We believe the best means of addressing any current issues is through the owners of the mine working directly with the people of Bougainville."

A local youth looks over the Panguna mine Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades