30 Sep 2020

Bougainville communities file human rights complaint over Panguna

10:44 am on 30 September 2020

Communities in Papua New Guinea's Automous Bougainville communities have today filed a human rights complaint against Rio Tinto over the destruction caused by its Panguna mine.

Inside the pit of abandoned Panguna mine in Bougainville

Inside the pit of abandoned Panguna mine in Bougainville Photo: supplied

The Panguna mine in central Bougainville was forced to shut down after it touched off the civil war in 1989.

It was owned by Rio Tinto which has stated on a number of occasions that it acted within the laws of the time, and that it was not at fault.

In 2016 gave away its shares in what had been its company, Bougainville Copper Ltd.

An abandoned building at Panguna mine site in Bougainville

An abandoned building at Panguna mine site in Bougainville Photo: supplied

The complaint is to the Australian Government and placed on behalf of 156 Bougainville community members by the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia.

A landowner in the district where the mine is sited, Theonila Roka Matbob, who has just been elected to the Bougainville parliament, is one of the community members.

Theonila Roka Matbob

Theonila Roka Matbob Photo: Human Rights Law Centre

She said Rio Tinto cannot walk away without sorting out the legacy issues, the social and environmental damage caused by the mine's operation.

"We live with the impacts of Panguna every day. 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," she said.

Bougainville's Panguna Copper mine

Bougainville's Panguna Copper mine Photo: Supplied

Rio Tinto has now said it is willing to talk about the allegations with the complainants.

This is an about turn from multi-national mining conglomerate, which in April refused a similar request for a review of health and safety concerns at the mine as a starting point for discussion around compensation and remediation.

In recent weeks Rio has faced widespread opprobrium over its destruction of sites that were historically significant and sacred to indigenous communities in Australia.