Luke Fletcher | Jubilee Australia
Last week, Rio Tinto, the parent company of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), dumped its shareholding in BCL, thus exiting from Bougainville and the highly controversial Panguna mine.
As part of Jubilee’s #NotOnMyWatch campaign, we have been closely monitoring Rio’s behaviour in Bougainville, as it negotiated to restart the mine it abandoned in 1989. In 2014 we launched our Voices from Bougainville report, based on a series of interviews conducted in and around the Panguna region.
Some of the people interviewed expressly spoke about Rio’s involvement with the mine:
“I don’t want Rio Tinto to come back and reopen the mine because right now we are living on the rubbish it created. Our land was destroyed and if it comes back where will we go? …. I fear the company coming back.”
Interview n°43, young adult from Enamira, upper tailings
They say you have to open the mine in order to become economically viable, so that you can say you are independent because you have the financial resources to fund your government to bring the services;
that’s a total lie, after all, even now we are fine.
Interview n°51, young adult from Enamira, upper tailings
How then should we understand Rio’s decision to leave Bougainville? On the one hand it can be viewed as Rio Tinto acknowledging that most landowners in Panguna do not want them operating on their land again, a sentiment our Voices report brought to light.
Yet it has certainly angered the President of Bougainville, Chief John Momis, who has publicly stated, ‘
“It now seems Rio has no commitment to social responsibility or sustainable development principles. It talks those principles only when that helps its profits. But it throws them out when costs to its bottom line could be involved.”
For Jubilee, the move is problematic in many respects. Firstly, Rio has exited from Bougainville without acknowledging its role in precipitating the conflict nor pledging to redress the environmental damage and grievances that the mine caused.
More worrying still, Rio plans to distribute its shares in BCL equally to both the Governments of Bougainville and PNG. This appears to be causing some panic in Bougainville, a country seeking to determine its own future, without undue influence from PNG. Jubilee fears that by leaving in this way, Rio has potentially sewn the seeds for more unrest on the island.
Jubilee will continue to monitor closely Rio’s exit from Bougainville, and will continue to campaign so that Rio addresses the harm its Panguna operation caused.