Eric Tlozek | ABC News | 10 February 2018
The race to reopen one of the world’s biggest copper mines, Panguna, is dividing landowners and the wider community in Bougainville.
- Local leader Philip Miriori says activity at the Panguna mine would bring “prosperity” and “better infrastructure” to the community
- Bougainville’s President says the Government is keen to restart the mine to boost its case for independence
- Not all landowners around the mine are happy with the stalemate, or with RTG’s push to leapfrog former operator BCL
Panguna was abandoned in 1989, after landowner dissatisfaction with the mine led to the Bougainville Crisis, an armed uprising against the Papua New Guinea Government in which 20,000 people died.
Now mining companies are trying to come back, right as Bougainville prepares to vote on whether it should become an independent nation.
Philip Miriori is a local leader who wants mining to resume.
“The Panguna mine must reopen,” he said.
“That is going to bring prosperity. We need to see our kids go to school. We need better hospitals, better infrastructure.”
Mr Miriori leads a group called the Me’ekamui and has been battling through the courts and mediation to become chairman of the landowner association of the mine pit, the SMLOLA (Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association).
“I think unity for the resource owners is important, before anything else,” he said.
“Without the unity, I don’t think we can achieve anything.”
Mr Miriori’s Me’ekamui group has entered into a joint venture with Perth company RTG Mining, which is making a bold bid to reopen Panguna.
“What I was interested in with RTG is a social licence [to mine],” Mr Miriori said.
“I don’t want to get anything for myself, I want to see my people benefit.”
But Mr Miriori and other supporters are being paid by RTG, an arrangement the Bougainville Government has criticised.
Mr Miriori said the payments were legitimate salaries, not inducements for people’s support.
“That is always a normal part of anything, nothing is free,” he said.
“The world has changed. People are educated. So there’s no bribery there.”
RTG’s bid and Philip Miriori’s push for leadership of the landowner association has disrupted a sustained effort by the mine’s former operator, Bougainville Copper Limited, or BCL, to return to Panguna.
BCL is part-owned by the Bougainville Government and had an exploration licence and first right of refusal over the site.
But the Bougainville Government has now rejected BCL’s application to extend that licence, and put an indefinite moratorium on any mining at Panguna.
Bougainville’s President, John Momis, said the issue of mining had become too sensitive.
“A lot of people are against mining, any mining at all, and mostly against BCL, because of its past,” he said.
Landowners at loggerheads as referendum looms
Mr Momis said the Government does not want conflict at the mine to distract from a scheduled referendum next year on whether Bougainville should secede from Papua New Guinea.
He said the Government may have been overly keen to restart the mine, because it wanted the revenue to boost its case for independence.
“Panguna is a very, very difficult issue for all the things that happened in the past,” Mr Momis said.
“So maybe we were pushing things too hard because of our desire to meet our fiscal self-reliance target.”
Not all the landowners around the mine are happy with the stalemate, or with RTG’s push to leapfrog BCL.
Jeffrey Clason’s mother is one of the mine landowners, and he said many people want BCL to resume mining.
“I think the majority of the landowners are still with BCL and I think as the Mining Act says, they’re the last people to say yes or no, it’s their land,” he said.
“So, for the landowners, BCL is still welcome.”
Some Bougainvilleans, like Bernadine Kama — who comes from a village near the mine, don’t want mining to restart at Panguna at all.
“We’ve already seen the damage and destruction done to our land,” she said.
The Bougainville Government said it will come up with a new strategy for Panguna, and will continue consultation with landowners about whether it should be mined, and who should mine it.
But in the meantime, Bougainville Copper Limited is pursuing court action against the Government, which is not only a major shareholder, but also the mining regulator.
So the battle for Panguna is getting more complicated, right as the region prepares for a contentious referendum on its political future.