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The Horse Breeder, the Novelist and the $60 Billion Panguna Mine

Panguna. RNZ/Johnny Blades.

Aaron Clark | Bloomberg News | January 27, 2020

John Kuhns has been many things: an investment banker, a silicon smelter operator in China and a novelist. His sights are now set on an abandoned mine with an estimated $60 billion of gold and copper.

Kuhns is among a handful of people exploring for minerals and courting landowners on the Pacific island of Bougainville. His rivals include an Arabian-horse breeder, a hedge fund investment manager who keeps wallabies on his estate and a former Australian defense minister.

The involvement of such an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs is a reflection of the fact that this is no ordinary mineral reserve. Rio Tinto Group operated the Paguna mine for 17 years through subsidiary Bougainville Copper Ltd. The global mining behemoth shut it in 1989 as local protests over mine revenue degenerated into a civil war that killed as many as 20,000 people.

The mine has been in limbo ever since. But that may be about to change as the Autonomous Region of Bougainville moves toward independence from Papua New Guinea after a referendum showed an overwhelming majority of the population on the small group of islands wants to establish a new nation.

While the political uncertainty may deter major mining companies from making an immediate investment, the mine’s riches attract entrepreneurs hoping to develop the asset to a point where they can deliver it to a big operator for a fee, said Peter O’Connor, a Sydney-based analyst at Shaw and Partners Ltd. “They have to create a story with a vision,” he said.

Success will depend on earning the trust of thousands of poor, customary landholders, many of whom remember the civil war that was triggered by communities demanding greater compensation from the mine.

“The landowners want to reopen the mine but they are divided by the interested developers,” said Sam Akoitai, a member of the island’s parliament who represents central Bougainville, an area that includes Panguna. “It’s really up to the landowners to come together to understand that the land belongs to the clan and not to some individuals.”

Bougainville Copper, which is no longer associated with Rio, has estimated it would take seven to eight years and $5 billion to $6 billion to rebuild the mine and resume full operations. The company is blamed by many locals for contamination attributed to the mine.

“We retain strong levels of support among customary landowners within the project area,” Bougainville Copper said in a statement. “We have a trusted local team on the ground that continues to engage with project area communities.”

The Bougainville Mining Act 2015 strengthened landowner control and was designed to increase compensation to local communities and the island’s government from future mining to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed of the 1980s and 1990s. The government also decided not to renew Bougainville Copper’s exploration license, which the company is challenging in court.

In June 2019, Kuhns flew several landowners to the U.S. to meet potential investors, including representatives from Barrick Gold Corp. At the Harvard Club in Midtown Manhattan, where stuffed moose, bison and even an elephant head adorn the rooms, the landowners heard Kuhns deliver a PowerPoint presentation introducing potential investors to Bougainville.

Barrick declined to comment.

“Panguna mine can be rejuvenated and can be resuscitated for a couple of billion dollars,” said Kuhns in a follow up phone interview. “It’s going to take a major to do that.”

Among those also interested in Panguna is Jeff McGlinn, who made his fortune in mining and construction services through Western Australia-based NRW Holdings Ltd., which he co-founded. McGlinn, who resigned from NRW in 2010, is part of the glamorous world of Arabian horse breeding, mixing with models and celebrities at parties on the French Riviera and promoting luxury brands. He once gave an Arabian colt to Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli.

McGlinn’s roots in mining give him valuable experience for Panguna — one of NRW’s businesses was constructing dams that hold mining waste. He’s also linked to a recent effort by the island’s government to kick start development, when it created Bougainville Advance Mining. The government’s Executive Council proposed last year an amendment to the 2015 mining act that would give all available mining rights to the new company, in which McGlinn’s Caballus Mining would hold a stake.

That amendment drew criticism from landowners, as well as Bougainville Copper, the former mine operator, which says the proposal undermines its rights to mine Panguna. The bill was later shelved. A representative of Caballus said McGlinn was unavailable to comment.

Another interested party is Richard Hains, son of the Australian billionaire David Hains. Richard, famous for keeping wallabies on his Gloucestershire estate, has helped develop mines in some of the world’s most difficult places. He’s the largest shareholder of RTG Mining Inc., whose management team has financed, built and operated mines across Africa and Asia, including the Boroo gold mine in Mongolia.

“Some of the best opportunities in the mining business in the 21st century are now in the more difficult commercial environments,” Hains said in a phone interview.

RTG believes it can restart production at Panguna through a staged process in as little as 18 months for about $800 million.

“It’s far smarter to start with a smaller footprint,” said RTG Chairman Michael Carrick. “Then in consultation with the community, we can turn up the mine’s operation.”

RTG operates a joint venture with the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association, a Panguna landowners group. The JV employs 15 people, including Philip Miriori, the chairman of the landowners group.

There are bigger fish too. Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. said in an emailed statement it has sent representatives to Bougainville to learn about the region and potential opportunities, confirming earlier reports. Founder Andrew Forrest is Australia’s second-richest person with a $10.2 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Shaw and Partners’ O’Connor said Chinese miners may also have a chance of redeveloping Panguna because they have a greater risk appetite and access to cheap financing.

But the Panguna landowners group Chairman Miriori said the people he represents aren’t interested in working with Chinese developers because of their poor environmental track record.

If anyone wins the right to develop Panguna or other parts of the autonomous region they will need to do so cautiously. Violence remains a constant threat in a community that is still fiercely divided.

A geologist working for Perth-based Kalia Ltd. was killed and seven others were injured in an attack in northern Bougainville in December, according to the local government and the company, whose chairman is former Australia Minister for Defence David Johnston. Authorities subsequently suspended Kalia’s exploration expeditions and geological field work.

There’s also a moratorium on work at Panguna because of sensitivity to restarting the mine, said Raymond Masono, Bougainville’s vice president and minister for mineral and energy resources.

“We are no longer talking with any investors about Panguna until the moratorium is lifted, and we don’t know when” that will be, he said by phone. “The government is treading very carefully on this particular mine.”

But prospects for restarting Panguna and allowing for the development of new mines are bolstered by the idea that Bougainville would need revenue to have any chance of financing an independent state. Many hope the mineral wealth could ultimately help reduce poverty for the region’s 300,000 people where estimated per capita GDP is only about $1,100.

That would depend not only on clearing the way to restart production, but a government able to make sure that enough of the proceeds are used to fund development. “Given the failure of mining in PNG to deliver really anything like sustainable development, those hopes may end up being disappointed,” said Luke Fletcher, executive director of Jubilee Australia, a group that has tracked the effect of resource extraction.

But the lure of riches mean miners aren’t likely to give up.

“Bougainville had almost no exploration for nearly 40 years,” said Mike Johnston, executive director of Kalia. “There’s no other place like it on the planet.”

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Bougainville president accuses mining company of lying to Australian stock exchange

Bougainville’s Panguna mine, for which RTG Mining is seeking an exploration licence.

John Momis says his government ‘will not rest’ until Australian-linked miner seeking licence for Panguna mine is banned for life from Bougainville and PNG

Kate Lyons | The Guardian | 24 January 2020

The president of the autonomous Bougainville government has accused an Australian-linked mining company of lying to the Australian Securities Exchange over its plans to reopen one of the world’s largest copper mines.

In a scathing statement, John Momis, the president of the autonomous Bougainville region, accused the Australian-linked RTG Mining of “lies and deceptions” and said his government “will not rest until all RTG and their executives are banned for life from Bougainville and Papua New Guinea”.

Momis was referring to a statement issued by RTG Mining to the ASX on Tuesday in which the company sought to clarify recent press reports, which have alleged that RTG staff are banned from entering Papua New Guinea.

In December, after the results of a referendum that saw almost 98% of Bougainvilleans vote in favour of independence from PNG, Momis issued a warning banning people affiliated with certain foreign mining companies, including six from RTG and one from Kalia Group, from entering Bougainville. Momis said they were creating “disharmony” in the region and that he had sought the assistance of the PNG prime minister and office of immigration and border security to assist with keeping them out of Bougainville.

However, RTG clarified in its statement to the ASX that its executives were “not banned from travel to Papua New Guinea” and emphasised that “the national government currently [have] constitutional authority over border control for the country”.

RTG is seeking to secure an exploration licence at the Panguna mine in Bougainville. The Panguna mine was at the heart of the brutal civil war in the region that saw an estimated 20,000 people killed between 1988 and 1997. The mine, which once provided 45% of Papua New Guinea’s export income, has been mothballed since the conflict began, but there has been talk about reopening it.

Among the companies in talks about resuming mining in Bougainville are RTG, which is listed on the Canadian and Australian stock exchanges, ASX-listed Kalia, Bougainville Copper Limited, a former subsidiary of Rio Tinto that ran the Panguna mine in the 1970s and 1980s, and Caballus Mining.

Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has also expressed interest in mining in Bougainville, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that representatives of his mining company, Fortescue, travelled there in 2019 to explore “potential opportunities”.

There are disputes over land rights at the Panguna mine site, but RTG is the joint venture partner of the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA). RTG wrote in their statement to the ASX that the members of the SMLOLA “are the customary landowners who own the minerals at the Panguna Mine under the Bougainville Mining Act”.

However, Momis said the SMLOLA was established under an old system and that the autonomous Bougainville government considered its claims over the mine “illegal, null and void”.

There are concerns that disputes over land rights at the mine site might reignite tensions in the region. The Bougainville government enacted an indefinite moratorium on renewing the licence of BCL, a controversial mining company, in January 2018 over fears it could reignite violent civil conflict. However, since then, the government has shown signs that it was in favour of restarting mining in the region.

Despite voting for independence from PNG, the question of how an independent Bougainville would support itself hangs over the vote, with some experts saying it is impossible for Bougainville to become financially independent without a strong mining industry and that it would take much longer for other mining projects to be established and become profitable than it would take to reopen Panguna.

The autonomous Bougainville government and RTG Mining were contacted for comment.

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Bougainville voted yes to becoming the world’s newest nation. Now begins the gold rush

PHOTO: The people of Bougainville voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. (ABC)

Natalie Whiting | ABC News | December 14 2019

A ceremony to announce the results of Bougainville’s historic referendum opened with a chorus of the Bougainville anthem. When the overwhelming result for independence was handed down, people spontaneously started singing it again.

It was a clear sign of the separate identity that Bougainvilleans have long maintained. The thumping result for splitting from PNG was an even clearer sign.

But the path to potential nationhood remains complex and far from guaranteed, despite the mandate from an almost 98 per cent vote of support offers.

The end of the referendum not only starts another political process, but it will also turn eyes back to a massive open-cut mine that has been sitting, waiting in the mountains since the 1980s.

PHOTO: The Panguna mine hasn’t produced a pound of metal in 30 years.

As Bougainville looks for a way forward politically, it also needs to look at economic options.

That’s something Papua New Guinea is keen for it to focus on as it grapples with how to respond to the vote.

PNG is known as the land of a thousand tribes and many in the Government are worried about keeping the rest of the country united if Bougainville leaves.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape has offered economic control but stopped well short of committing to independence for Bougainville.

Economically, the most obvious income stream for the resource-rich area is mining, but that would involve revisiting the issues that started the bloody conflict in the region.

Landowners at the site of the Panguna gold and copper mine, where the violence first broke out, say they are ready to see it reopen in the wake of the referendum.

Up to 20,000 people died in the secessionist conflict that followed, before the peace agreement which guaranteed the vote brought it to an end.

PHOTO: A small settlement has been built at the bottom of the Panguna mine. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Several companies are already circling, keen to make a move now that the vote is over.

Whether they have the capital and the ability to reopen it peacefully remains to be seen.

PNG Prime Minister offers Bougainville economic control

PHOTO: PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape was welcomed at the airport with a guard of honour from police and a traditional sing sing group. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

As the referendum ballots were being counted in Bougainville’s capital Buka, speculation about the movements of Mr Marape were swirling.

Initial indications that Mr Marape would be coming to Buka for the announcement were replaced by rumours of him instead going to Panguna in the days after the result.

In the end his visit was moved to the town of Arawa, near the mine. But Panguna and building Bougainville’s economy featured throughout his speech.

Thousands of people gathered in the middle of town to hear him speak. The people even wanted to carry him to the stage on a specially built chair, an offer he graciously refused.

PHOTO: Thousands turned out to hear Mr Marape speak in Arawa during his first visit after the referendum. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Mr Marape has been seen as being more supportive of the referendum than previous leaders, but PNG has nevertheless made no secret of the fact it wants Bougainville to remain a part of the country.

The independence vote is non-binding, and amid the celebrations of the result, PNG has been quick to remind people that years of discussions between the two parties will follow and a negotiated outcome will then be presented to PNG’s parliament.

In the lead-up to the referendum, Mr Marape had been discussing a “third option” beyond independence and greater autonomy which the people were asked to choose between — what he called “economic independence”.

His speech was in a similar vein, focussing on economic development and self-determination, but avoiding mention of independence.

He presented a cheque worth 50 million kina ($21 million), promised another 100 million kina ($42 million) next year and control over income generated in Bougainville, including tax powers.

“The only thing I will ask you, is that I will look after the border and both of our flags must fly until we reach the conclusion of this process,” he told the crowd.

Certainly, Bougainville is currently in no position to support itself and the call to focus on building the economy is warranted. But Mr Marape wouldn’t be drawn on whether he could envisage independence for Bougainville.

“That’s something for the future. I can’t pre-empt the outcome of the consultations that will take place,” he told the ABC.

PHOTO: Bougainville President John Momis heads to the polls on referendum day. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

After such a comprehensive vote, there may be little appetite in Bougainville to accept something less than full independence.

But for the moment his speech was well received by the crowd, and Bougainville’s President is confident of productive discussions going forward.

The greatest expectation from Bougainvilleans after the referendum is for change — people want improved services and infrastructure. Both governments will need to make that a priority and it will require funding.

Landowners split over who should reopen mine

PHOTO: The disused mine has divided locals, some of whom have blocked access to the site over the years. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

In the base of the massive open pit of the Panguna gold and copper mine, a small settlement has been built and people work digging up gold that remains buried there.

It’s thought there is still $84 billion worth of copper and gold in the site, but re-establishing operations would likely take a decade and billions of dollars.

Keeping the mine closed has been seen as part of maintaining peace ahead of the referendum.

PHOTO: People dig for gold at the base of the Panguna gold and copper mine. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

The local landowners now largely want to see it open, however, a split is already forming over which company should be brought in.

The most prominent landowner group is backing Australian company RTG, but there is another group of landowners who want to see the original company, Bougainville Copper Limited, brought back. The Bougainville Government has supported a third company, Caballus, which is also Australian.

That, combined with the ongoing political discussions, could create an uncertain investment landscape.

Mr Marape has said the PNG Government’s 39 per cent stake in Bougainville Copper Limited will be given to Bougainville, but he urged people to look at other industries as well, like agriculture.

It’s not just Panguna that has been attracting attention — landowners say they’ve received visits from other companies, some from Australia and some from China, interested in looking at other greenfield sites in the region.

Australia could face difficult diplomatic waters

The current geopolitical climate in the pacific — where China and the west are seen to be in a battle for influence — has thrown another filter on the vote.

Much has been made of possible offers from China to help Bougainville develop if it is a fledgling country.

However, Bougainville President John Momis has said there have been no offers from the Chinese Government and it was unclear if money being offered by companies, including some said to be interested in Panguna, would actually materialise.

PHOTO: The Panguna gold and copper mine sparked a war that killed 20,000 people. (Reuters: Trevor Hammond)

He said: “These are complex issues, which we’re not going to deal with right away.”

The geopolitical and diplomatic complexities of either a new nation in the region, or of a disagreement between PNG and Bougainville during the upcoming negotiations, is undeniable.

Nowhere will that be felt more keenly than in Australia, which is a key financial and development supporter of both.

Already a key former combatant from the crisis is calling for the international community to “ask PNG to accept the reality and let Bougainville go”.

PNG’s Bougainville Affairs Minister Sir Puka Temu has urged the international community “not to interfere in the consultation phase”.

“What we want is to achieve an outcome like what we did 18 years ago, that is a joint creation — the Bougainville Peace Agreement was a joint creation,” he said.

In a statement, Australia’s Foreign Minister has passed on congratulations for the vote and says Australia “looks forward to continued productive engagement” between the two governments.

PHOTO: Flags were proudly flown around the region when the people of Bougainville overwhelmingly voted yes to independence. (Reuters: Melvin Levongo)

But as the cobalt blue of Bougainville’s flags flickers from buildings and cars across the region in the wake of the vote, credit must be given to both it and PNG for almost 20 years of peace and an incredibly well-run referendum.

Hopefully, the next phase will be as successful.

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Will Bougainville Reopen the Panguna Mine?

Rebel guerillas above the Panguna copper and gold mine in Bougainville in 1994. CREDIT: BEN BOHANE

With an independence referendum on the horizon, reopening the Panguna mine offers both attractive opportunities and terrible consequences.

Joshua Mcdonald | The Diplomat | November 22, 2019

The Panguna mine on the Pacific island of Bougainville is one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world. 

The mine was also at the center of a decade-long civil war fought between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force in the 1990s. The conflict cost as many as 15,000 lives and displaced 40,000 of the island’s 200,000 inhabitants.

Before the war, the Panguna mine generated more than $1 billion in national tax revenue and accounted for about 45 percent of Papua New Guinea’s total exports, 17 percent of its internal revenue, and 12 percent of its gross domestic product. It essentially paved the way for the nation’s transition to independence from Australia. But Panguna landowners and local employees — angered by the environmental destruction from the operation, poor wages, and unfair distribution of revenue (less than 1 percent of profits were reinvested in Bougainville) — eventually took up arms. 

In 1988, landowners led by Francis Ona broke into storerooms at the mine, stole explosives, and blew up Panguna’s power lines. In response, Papua New Guinea (PNG) sent in the military. Soldiers burned down villages, executed collaborators, and raped with impunity. When that failed to crush the resistance, PNG, with the support of Australia, enforced a naval blockade cutting the island off from the rest of the world. 

When that, too, failed the government hired a U.K.-based private military company to carry out its operations in Bougainville. The Sandline affair, as it came to be known, was eventually leaked in the Australian media – first there was a public outrage, and then came the resignation of then-PNG Prime Minister Julius Chan.

Bougainville Copper Limited, (BCL) a subsidiary of the British-Australian resources giant Rio Tinto, owned the mine at the time of the conflict and despite extracting around 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and 450,000 ounces of gold in its final year of production was forced to close as it appeared the separatists were not going to back down. The conflict officially ended nine years later, but Rio Tinto never returned.

In 2001, after a peace agreement was reached that gave Bougainville autonomy within PNG and ensured that an independence referendum would be held by 2020, some of the islanders launched a class action lawsuit in the United States against Rio Tinto. 

Panguna landowners accused the company of genocide, citing the company’s support for the blockade of the island by PNG forces. The plaintiff’s lawyers claimed the mine’s manager in Bougainville at the time “encouraged the continuation of the blockade for the purposes of starving the bastards out.”

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare provided the court with a sworn affidavit stating that it was Rio Tinto calling the shots during the war.

“Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the Government. The Government of PNG followed Rio Tinto’s instructions and carried out its’ requests,” he wrote.

“BCL was also directly involved in the military operations on Bougainville, and it played an active role. BCL supplied helicopters, which were used as gunships, the pilots, troop transportation, fuel and troop barracks.”

Due to the unrest in the area in the years that followed Rio Tinto’s withdrawal, no official investigation has been conducted on the impact the mining operation has had on the surrounding environment. It is known, however, that around 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated every day in Panguna and that the mine tailings were discharged down the principal river system, the Kawerong-Jaba, which now flows blue because of toxic mixtures of heavy metals and other chemicals. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2002 that the mine was pumping 110 million cubic meters of waste, contaminated with cyanide and other chemicals, into the sea each year. 

For years, the Bougainville government has asked the company to make contributions to help with the clean up. It has also asked Australia, as the former colonial power responsible for authorizing the mine. Rio Tinto has refused. So, too, has the Australian government. 

Now, Australian Iron ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest as well as several other smaller mining companies have shown interest in resuming operations at the mine. 

Forrest has friends in high places. In September, along with several other high-profile Australian business chiefs, Forrest was invited to U.S. President Donald Trump’s state dinner hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

Forrest’s company, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, is the fourth largest iron ore producer in the world. Its main areas of operation are in Western Australia, but in recent years the company has increased its efforts abroad, especially in South America, where it was granted 32 exploration licenses in Ecuador alone. Last week, it was confirmed that representatives from Forrest’s company had traveled to Bougainville in recent months to explore “potential opportunities.”

Also interested in Panguna is the Australia-based RTG Mining Group, which has the support of Philip Miriori, the chairman of the Panguna landowner association. Bougainville President Dr. John Momis, however, has accused RTG of attempting to bribe his government and of waging a subversive propaganda campaign. 

Another landowner group, the Panguna Development Company, supports the mine’s former operator, BCL, in its bid to return to Panguna — pitting the two groups against one another. 

They are, however, united in their opposition to Momis’ plan for Panguna, which would see the government and Australian mining company, Callabus, set up a new joint company that would be given a monopoly over the island’s mineral wealth. It is not clear how the government intends to proceed with this scheme since the legislation to enable it was blocked by the Bougainville legislature several months ago. 

Recently, the battle for Panguna entered new territory when rumors emerged of a Chinese delegation having offered $1 billion to fund the transition to Bougainville independence along with offers to invest in mining, tourism, and agriculture. An independent, resource-rich Bougainville would be a valuable ally to China as it seeks to have more influence in the South Pacific.

In a public presentation to ward councillors and MPs, filmed by a crew from 60 Minutes, Sam Kauona, a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general, unfurled a large map of Bougainville with Chinese script highlighting proposed bridges, highways, ports, airports, and luxury hotels. 

“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” he said. “Where is Australia and the U.S. and Japan? Earlier this year I met representatives from Fortescue mining, but I have been waiting 10 months for them to make a commitment.”

It’s estimated that Panguna mine still holds around $60 billion worth of copper, gold, and silver.

With the independence referendum beginning on Saturday, many local leaders admit that they would like to see the mine reopen as a way to boost revenue, yet distrust of giving a foreign mining company access again still looms large. No matter the results of the referendum, any company looking to make a buck is sure to find opposition in Panguna. This is, as long as past mistakes are not forgotten.

As Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader Francis Ona once said, “Land to us is our lifeline, and we cannot be separated from it.”

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Derelict mine caused a bloody war. Now Aussie companies are fighting over it again

Heavy trucks sit rusting on the edges of Panguna copper mine, closed in 1989 as a result of sabotage.

Sarah Danckert and Ben Bohane | Sydney Morning Herald | November 15, 2019

Iron ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has joined the race with an unruly bunch of small, struggling mining companies, all with links to Australia and share prices of 10c or less, for access to some of the world’s biggest copper and gold deposits on the Pacific island of Bougainville.

The manoeuvring over the gigantic, mothballed Panguna mine comes ahead of an independence referendum later this month that could turn Bougainville into the world’s newest nation after disputes over foreign mining prompted a bloody, 10-year war that killed perhaps 15,000 people.

However, China is also sniffing around opportunities in Bougainville, although not necessarily the Panguna mine itself, which was valued recently at a staggering $US58 billion ($84 billion).

Previously run by Rio Tinto, the mine was at the centre of a decade-long conflict over allegations that locals were being ripped off and the environment damaged by foreign mining companies. The war continued well after the mine closed as a battle of control for the country raged between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. It was the most serious conflict in the south Pacific since World War II.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have confirmed that representatives of Mr Forrest’s mining company, Fortescue, travelled in recent months to the island and were exploring growth opportunities there.

“As a leading mining company with world-class expertise, we constantly assess opportunities to build on our operational reputation to drive future growth through product diversification and asset development,” chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said. “Consistent with business development activities, representatives from Fortescue have visited Bougainville Island to learn about the region and potential opportunities.”

Other companies – including one chaired by a former Liberal defence minister David Johnston and another by Arabian horse breeder and luxury goods dealer Jeff McGlinn – have also been striving to gain local support on the island to reopen the mine, which was shuttered in 1989.

Meanwhile, a Chinese delegation is rumoured to have offered substantial funds in late 2018 to help finance a transition to Bougainville independence, along with offers to invest in mining, tourism and agriculture, with a figure of $US1 billion cited. A new port was also reportedly proposed.

A new nation to our north?

On November 23, Bougainvilleans will go to the polls and are expected to vote overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea. But in the wake of that expected vote, there is a real risk of new disputes between landowner groups as miners, many with links to Australia, could reignite the crisis that engulfed the island 30 years ago.

“Are they f—king mad?” asks one former Rio Tinto executive who worked at the company when it was the majority owner of Bougainville. “Re-opening Panguna would be a disaster.”

In its heyday, the mine, which would take an estimated $US5 billion in infrastructure spending to restart, was a productive asset for Rio Tinto, then known as Conzinc Rio Tinto. During the final year of production in 1988 and 1989, Rio’s subsidiary Bougainville Copper (BCL) extracted 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and a whopping 450,000 ounces of gold.

Already the tussle for Panguna has sparked a race to promise the best deal and the highest royalties to landowners while stemming the environmental degradation that has ravaged Bougainville. But that race has also already sparked intense political disagreement between rival groups on the island.

Rio’s former subsidiary BCL is still in the race for a mining licence, though Rio divested its shares and walked away in 2016. But a number of new entrants are also in the game.

Among them is Toronto and ASX-listed RTG Mining Inc – which has links to the Philippines and counts the son of billionaire Australian stock picker David Hains, Richard, as the largest shareholder of its Toronto-issued shares.

Another ASX-listed company, Kalia Limited, has been given two permits to explore in the northern tip of Bougainville. Kalia counts former Defence Minister David Johnston as its chairman and Perth-based mining entrepreneur Nick Zuks as its top shareholder. Johnston’s biggest claims to fame at home are a controversy over his lavish spending on entertainment as minister and comments that South Australians couldn’t build a canoe, much less a submarine.

Kalia’s bid is financially supported by a company run by Australian polo patriarch Peter Yunghanns. Another significant shareholder, Graeme Kirke, is the founder of Kirke Securities where Mr Forrest previously worked.

More recently a new player, Caballus Mining, has arrived in Bougainville. It sparked fears, rumours and intrigue when it emerged the Autonomous Government of Bougainville had drafted new laws that would assign the responsibility for issuing mining licences to a new entity – Bougainville Advance Mining and a foreign partner. Many believed that partner would be Caballus.

Caballus Mining was set up only in August 2018. Its sole director is Arabian horse breeder and luxury goods dealer Jeff McGlinn – a man who posted a flashy social media video of Saudi royalty at a luxury event, and another of him giving one of his fine equines to classical crossover singer Andrea Bocelli.

The entry of Caballus sparked fears among Bougainville locals – specifically those linked to rival miners – that a three-way fight for Panguna would erupt.

Slugging it out

Already, former Rio subsidiary BCL and Australian-Toronto based RTG Mining have been slugging it out via statements on their websites or on the Australian Securities Exchange. RTG claims BCL has lost its local goodwill and cannot operate in Bougainville, and that RTG has the support of a landowner group the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association – one of the groups who say they represent landowners in the Panguna area.

BCL hit back saying the landowners’ association (known as SMLOLA) is a new invention and points to recent statements disputing its provenance. In turn, the landowner groups supporting BCL’s plans to reopen Panguna have also come under fire.

The one thing both have in common is their respective share prices are in the gutter, with BCL trading at 10 cents a share and RTG trading at 6.5 Canadian cents (7.4 cents). Kalia’s share price is just one-tenth of a cent.

The disputes between miners have been reflected in intense politicking among local landowner groups and political players on Bougainville. Bougainville’s president John Momis has copped much criticism for entertaining the Caballus deal, and the Autonomous Bougainville Government has given mixed signals on its position on mining.

Momis initially supported a moratorium on mining at Panguna to avoid reigniting old conflicts between landowner groups. The moratorium was put in place in early 2018, but the government now appears to favour mining across the island as a means to generate income and underwrite independence.

Autonomous Bougainville Government President John Momis.

Landowners are guaranteed rights under the 2015 Mining Act, but in an urgent bid in January 2019 to raise funds for the referendum, the government proposed to abolish those rights, at the same time allocating “near monopoly” rights to Caballus’s Bougainville Advance Mining. That legislation was later rejected by the government’s legislative committee, illustrating how politically contentious this issue will be in an independent Bougainville.

Fiscal self-reliance

In recent months, the mudslinging by supporters of both groups has died down. Several sources linked to the company and NGOs operating on the island said this was due to the request by the government that the miners are not seen to be influencing the independence vote.

There was no answer from Caballus in response to a series of questions, including regarding its links to Bougainville Advance Mining and how it achieved such a prime position. McGlinn was last week travelling in Europe.

Calls to the Perth offices of another suitor, Kalia Limited, which is now led by Michael Johnston, the former boss of failed PNG miner Nautilus Mining, went unreturned. David Johnston (no relation to Michael) and Kalia shareholder Nick Zuks also did not return calls.

RTG chairman Michael Carrick was also loath to talk about the issue.

“Politics is played extremely robustly in PNG and the facts/truth are often amongst the first casualties,” Carrick said via email from his Perth office. However, he added that mining would be part of Bougainville’s future.

“There can be no independence without first setting the country on a pathway to fiscal self-reliance and Panguna is the only asset which can assist this fundamental objective.”

BCL company secretary Mark Hitchcock said from his office in Port Moresby that the company retained strong support among landowners and rejected suggestions the company had lost its social licence to operate.

“There is at times frustration when some purporting to speak on behalf of all landowners are in fact representing a narrower interest. Regardless, all views are to be respected.”

Luke Fletcher, a long-time Bougainville watcher and executive director of think tank Jubilee Australia warns of the “resources curse” that has plagued PNG.

“This is one of the problems of the resource curse, you have these big revenues sitting in bank accounts that can be misappropriated quite easily,” he said.

It’s a curse that many think is worth risking.

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Mining Hopes for Independence

An aerial view of the Panguna mine located in the autonomous region of Bougainville on July 20, 2015, in Papua New Guinea.(USGS/NASA LANDSAT/GETTY IMAGES)

A copper quarry helps fuel Bougainville’s hopes for separation from Papua New Guinea, a move that would resonate across the Pacific.

By Geoff Hiscock | U.S. News | July 1, 2019

THE Pacific island of Bougainville is moving a step closer to potential independence from Papua New Guinea as preparations begin for a long-promised referendum later this year.

Whether it can survive as a stand-alone nation is a key question for its 250,000 inhabitants, and for other separatist movements in the Pacific. The future course of the island could ripple across the region, as the question of Bougainville’s independence will touch on a complicated mixture of business concerns, environmental worries and geopolitical interests stretching from Australia and New Zealand to ChinaJapan and the United States.

It’s an outsized international role for Bougainville, which lies 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of the Papua New Guinea mainland. The roots of the referendum stem from a bitter inter-clan and separatist conflict that ran from 1988 to 1997, fighting that claimed between 10,000 and 20,000 lives through a combination of violence, disease, poverty and dislocation.

A truce brokered and maintained by regional neighbors that included Australia, New Zealand and Fiji helped restore order, and a comprehensive peace agreement was signed between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville in 2001. The island has had its own autonomous government since 2005.

Bougainville’s people are expected to vote decisively for independence in the Oct. 17 referendum, according to Jonathan Pryke, Pacific Islands program director at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based policy think tank. The vote is not binding and any move toward independence will require agreement from the central government of Papua New Guinea, commonly referred to as PNG.

Most people hope the two sides can find a “Melanesian solution” that will deliver a workable form of autonomy for Bougainville, says Pryke, using the term that describes the region of the South Pacific that includes PNG, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and other island nations and territories.

James Marape, who took over as Papua New Guinea’s prime minister in late May, said on June 14 he would prefer Bougainville to remain part of a unified nation, but would listen to the people’s voice and then consult over future options.

Papua New Guinea’s new prime minister, James Marape, arrives at the house of Governor-General Bob Dadae to be sworn in as the new leader in Port Moresby on May 30, 2019.(GORETHY KENNETH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Sydney, says the desire for independence in Bougainville remains strong, but from a regional perspective it will be best if the Bougainville people decided to stay in Papua New Guinea. “We don’t need another microstate emerging in the Pacific.”

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who visited Bougainville on June 19 with PNG’s new minister for Bougainville Affairs, Sir Puka Temu, said Australia will work to ensure the integrity of the referendum and will not pass judgment on the result. Australia is by far the biggest aid donor in the Pacific region, giving $6.5 billion between 2011 and 2017, according to research last year by the Lowy Institute. Most of Australia’s aid goes to Papua New Guinea.

Scars Remain From a Civil War

The Bougainville conflict, in which rival clans on the island fought among themselves and with the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, evolved from multiple issues, including land rights, customary ownership, “outsider” interference and migration, mineral resource exploitation, and perceived inequities and environmental damage associated with the rich Panguna copper mine.

Under the terms of the 2001 peace agreement, a vote on independence within 20 years was promised.

A reconciliation ceremony will be held on July 2 between the central PNG government, the national defence force, the Autonomous Bougainville Government and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

Deep scars remain from the conflict, both physical and emotional. Much of the island’s public infrastructure remains in poor shape, educational opportunities are limited, and corruption is pervasive. Clan rivalry and suspicion persists, particularly in regard to land rights and resource development.

Since Panguna closed in May 1989, Bougainville’s people have led a life built around agriculture and fishing. The cocoa and copra industries ravaged by the war have been re-established, there is small-scale gold mining, and potential for hydroelectric power and a revived forestry industry. For now, a lack of accommodation inhibits tourism.

Copper Mine Underscores Doubts over Bougainville’s Economic Viability

Almost 40 years ago, Bougainville’s Panguna mine was the biggest contributor to Papua New Guinea’s export income and the largest open-cut in the world. But the mine, operated by BCL, a subsidiary of Conzinc Riotinto Australia (now Rio Tinto Ltd.), became a focal point for conflict over pollution, migrant workers, resource ownership and revenue sharing, and has been dormant since 1989.

Apart from any foreign aid it may receive, Bougainville’s future prosperity may well depend on whether it can restart the mine, which contains copper and gold worth an estimated $50 billion. But customary ownership claims – land used for generations by local communities without the need for legal title – remain unresolved and at least three mining groups are in contention, which means an early restart is unlikely. Jennings cautions against investing too much hope in Panguna, with remediation costs after 30 years of disuse likely to be high.

Likewise, Luke Fletcher, executive director of the Sydney-based Jubilee Australia Research Centre, which studies the social and environmental impacts of resources projects on Pacific communities, says reopening Panguna would be a long, expensive and difficult proposition. He says the challenge for any mine operator would be developing a project that is environmentally safe, yet still deliver an acceptable return to shareholders and to the government.

Bougainville’s leader, President John Momis, believes that large-scale mining offers the best chance for income generation and is keen both to revive Panguna and encourage other projects. That would require outside investment, which was a factor contributing to the outbreak of violence in the late 1980s. The local community perceived that it was not getting its fair share of Panguna’s wealth.

Rio Tinto gave up its share in BCL in 2016, and ownership now rests with the government of PNG and the Bougainville government, each with 36.4%. Independent shareholders own the remaining 27.2%.

At least two other groups are vying to operate Panguna. Sir Mel Togolo, the BCL chairman, told the company’s annual general meeting on May 2 that continued uncertainty about Panguna’s tenure remains a big challenge. “We will need to work cooperatively with all stakeholders to achieve our objective of bringing the Panguna mine back into production,” he said.

Regional, International Eyes on October Referendum

With doubts persisting about Bougainville’s economic viability if it cuts ties with the central government, the referendum outcome will be closely watched by other PNG provinces pushing for greater autonomy, such as East New Britain, New Ireland and Enga.

Across the region, some parts of neighboring Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands are agitating for their own separate identities. In the nearby French overseas territory of New Caledonia, voters rejected independence from France by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin in November 2018. European settlers were heavily in favor of staying part of France, while indigenous Kanak people overwhelmingly voted for independence.

At the international level, Australia will be keen to ensure that whatever the outcome of the Bougainville referendum, stability is maintained in Papua New Guinea, if only to counter China’s growing interest in offering aid and economic benefits as it builds a Pacific presence.

Along with Japan, New Zealand and the U.S., Australia has committed to a 10-year $1.7 billion electrification project in Papua New Guinea. Australia and the U.S. have agreed to help Papua New Guinea redevelop its Manus Island naval base, which sits 350 kilometers north of the mainland and commands key trade routes into the Pacific.

Jennings says Australia would be likely to give aid to an independent Bougainville to try to keep China at bay. “China is everywhere. Its destructive connections co-opt leaderships in a way that doesn’t work out well for people.”

From a strategic perspective, Jennings says it would be best if Melanesia looked to Australia as its main partner on matters of security.

While China gives most of its aid to PNG and Fiji, the region’s two biggest economies, Jubilee’s Fletcher says China giving aid to an independent Bougainville was “feasible.”

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Top Lawyer Queries ABG’s Interpretation Of Mining Act

The controversial Panguna mine which land holders are fighting to stop being re-opened for foreign profiteers.

Post Courier | June 21, 2019

One of the world’s leading mining lawyers, Michael Hunt, an advisor to the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), has issued a stinging attack on the statement which attempted to justify the proposed changes to the Bougainville Mining Act (BMA).

The changes were rejected by the Bougainville Parliamentary Committee on Legislation last week (read the full legal assessment).

This statement was a submission to that committee lodged by Minister Wilson and was published on June 19, 2019.

Mr Hunt said, the Statement, entitled “Interpreting Part 17 of the BMA”, “pretends to explain the Bougainville Mining Act (Amendment) Bill 2019 (Bill) in laymen’s terms but in reality, it is a false and misleading manifesto riddled with errors.”

Mr Hunt categorically confirmed that the proposed amendments would actually abolish all of the landowners’ rights relating to any application by the company 40% of which will be owned by McGlinn’s Caballus Mining and other foreign investors.

He added that all the provisions in Parts 1 to Part 16 of the BMA which protect the rights of landowners are over-ridden by the stroke of a pen in Part A of the Bill.

The confiscation of the landowners’ property and rights under the Bill is “unreasonable, unfair and unconstitutional.” said Mr Hunt in his formal legal opinion.

Mr Hunt confirmed the view previously expressed by SMLOLA: that the Bill “effectively confers a near monopoly on one company over exploration and mining on Bougainville”.

Mr Miriori, the Chairman of the SMLOLA further questioned how it was possible that they got the interpretation of the amending legislation so grossly incorrect?

“Why was Parliament misled? Something profoundly wrong is going on here,” he added.

The Parliamentary Committee reported that the normal practices and safeguards were sidestepped.

Mr Hunt is an Australian legal practitioner, who has written the authoritative book, Mining Law in Western Australia (the fifth edition of which was published in October 2015), the “Energy and Resources” volume of Halsbury’s Laws of Australia and the book Minerals and Petroleum Laws of Australia.

Mr Hunt has been recognised nationally and internationally as a leading mining lawyer, regularly named as such in legal market surveys. He was named in both Chambers Global Guide and Chambers Asia Pacific, putting him amongst the world’s top mining lawyers. Chambers’ review reports: “Michael Hunt is regarded as Western Australia’s pre-eminent expert on mining law.”

In 1987 he conducted a public inquiry into PNG’s mining laws on a commission from the PNG government. His comprehensive recommendations for reform were incorporated into entirely new mining legislation, the Mining Act 1992. The BMA is obviously based in part on the PNG Mining Act 1992.

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