24 May 2024

Lawsuit involving thousands over Bougainville's Panguna

5:59 pm on 24 May 2024
Panguna open pit copper mine in Bougainville. Shows the copper ore deposits and road networks around the mine.

Panguna open pit copper mine in Bougainville. S Photo: 123RF

A class action involving thousands of people is being brought against Rio Tinto and Bougainville Copper Ltd over the environmental and social destruction wrought by the Panguna Mine in the autonomous Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville.

The action is headed by Martin Miriori, who is the brother of Bougainville's first president Joseph Kabui, and was a former secretary of the separatists' government, the Bougainville Interim Government, during the civil war.

Panguna, which was the spark for the civil war, was forced to close in 1989, but the present autonomous government, which now controls it, is working to have it re-opened.

Rio Tinto has acknowledged that a class action has been filed against it and Bougainville Copper in the National Court in PNG.

The company said in a statement to mining.com that "we are reviewing the details of the claim. As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are unable to comment further at this time."

Mining.com says the action is being financed by Panguna Mine Action LLC, a company established for the purpose of funding the investigation and prosecution, according to its website.

Miriori said they have reflected back on the unsuccessful US$ten-billion-dollar claim made in 1989 by the man who led the separatists during the civil war, Francis Ona.

"Nobody took it [the Ona suit] to the court. You know, that's the thing. Nobody took it to court. So this time is a legal process. So we are trying to get something out of BCL and Rio Tinto through the legal process," he said.

Miriori said they want compensation for "environmental [damage], land, everything that the mining operation affected, basically, for the directly impacted landowner communities."

This would cover five communities, from the Special Mining Lease area at the site of the mine, through the upper, middle and lower ends of the tailings, right to the coastal corridors.

There is presently work to determine the extent of the environmental damage caused by the mine and this is being funded by Rio Tinto, which no longer has an interest in its former subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited.

But Miriori said his legal action is not something that will clash with that work.

"That's a separate case," he said.

While Francis Ona had sought US$10 billion dollars Miriori has no figure in mind, "no, I just can't pre-empt any amount. No the legal process will decide that. The court will determine how much, as we go along".

He said ideally, they want to settle out of court.

Bougainville government not happy

President Ishmael Toroama said the lawsuit is disappointing and the work of people not acting in the interests of Bougainville as a whole.

He said his government is not backing it in any way, shape or form.

Toroama said he views it as hindering Bougainville's economic independence agenda.

He said the redevelopment of Panguna is an important priority for this government and for the people of Bougainville.