Tag Archives: Rio Tinto

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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Can Bougainville rebuild on the broken corporate dreams of the colonial age?

Bougainville Revolutionary Army guerillas stand next to a destroyed dump truck at Panguna mine in 1994. CREDIT: BEN BOHANE

Ben Bohane | Fairfax Media | November 16, 2019

To view the Panguna pit is to witness an industrial apocalypse and one of the largest man-made holes in the world; a vast open-cut copper and gold mine in the highlands of Bougainville island, slowly being reclaimed by jungle.

Bits of twisted metal and rusting debris lie scattered everywhere, buildings and heavy machinery smothered under moss and creeping vine. Here lie buried the broken corporate dreams of a colonial age but also the promise of a future with local landowners in control.

Before guerrillas from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army forced its closure in May 1989, Panguna was one of the most advanced – and profitable – mining operations in the world. It was operated by a company called Bougainville Copper Limited. Its parent company Rio Tinto, one of the biggest in the world, called Panguna “the jewel in our crown”.

Yet locals saw little of the wealth. Australian officials administering Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s made it clear to local landowners that Panguna’s riches were to underwrite the economy of the whole country as it headed to independence in 1975 and beyond. And that, inevitably, led to war.

‘Kastom’: responsibility

Although anthropologists had told the company that Bougainville was matrilineal – that it was women who owned the land, not men – the mine proceeded to do all its dealings with men. Women opposed it from the start.

In 1988 the New Panguna Landowners Association usurped the previous one and the senior woman in the area, Perpetua Serero, issued a demand to the mining company: pay 10 billion kina ($4.2 billion) in compensation for use of the land and renegotiate the mine lease. Their demands were ignored.

When Serero died soon after, her brother, Francis Ona, a former surveyor at the mine, took on the “kastom” – responsibility – on behalf of the women owners to reclaim the land, even if it meant war. Ona went bush with a stack of stolen dynamite from the mine and formed the first cell of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), soon launching attacks on the mine. Several mine workers, including an Australian, were shot, prompting closure of the mine and declaration of a State of Emergency by PNG.

Within months Bougainville descended into a war as the PNG Defence Force tried, unsuccessfully, to regain control of the island. In the next 10 years, an estimated 10 to 15,000 people died, mostly from preventable disease because PNG imposed a naval blockade of the island which stopped vital medicines getting in.

The mine – or more accurately, the total mineral wealth of this island in the south Pacific – remained at the centre of the dispute. When I interviewed Ona in his Guava village above the mine in 1994, at the height of the war, he showed me plans by BCL to establish several other mines on the island.

BRA leader Francis Ona with his men in his home village of Guava, above the Panguna mine, in 1994. CREDIT: BEN BOHANE

“When we broke into the company safe and I saw the plans, I knew our fears were true,” he said. “BCL wanted to mine the whole island and our people were worried they would all be moved off the island so the company could mine everywhere.”

Although it’s unlikely the mine could have done so, or the PNG government would have allowed it, such concerns in a community with little access to information or understanding of the space-age project planted on top of a tribal culture added to resentment and suspicion. People were already angry at pollution from the mine, the lack of royalties accruing to them and the growing number of PNG mainlanders arriving to take jobs that locals believe should have been reserved for them.

Ceasefire and reconciliation

By 1997, the women had had enough of the war and convinced their men among the rank and file of the BRA to seek a peaceful, diplomatic route to achieve their common goal: independence.

A ceasefire was brokered in 1997 by New Zealand and in 2001 the comprehensive Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed by PNG and all the warring factions, except a BRA breakaway group called the Me’ekamui Defence Force (MDF). The MDF still controls the Panguna site today. Nevertheless they have recently contained their weapons under UN supervision and will join the rest of Bougainville in voting.

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

Any grievances about the mine and colonial administration need to be weighed against the fact that Bougainville was the most prosperous province of PNG during the 1970s and ’80s. It had good infrastructure, including roads, hospitals and schools. BCL paid substantial tax but was caught in tensions between provincial and national governments. Many Bougainvilleans were trained by the mine and local businesses, with some going on to careers elsewhere in PNG and overseas.

Today, Bougainvilleans have reconciled after a 20-year peace process and are poised to vote in a referendum they have long awaited. Although it is expected a large majority will vote for independence, the final outcome must be ratified by the PNG parliament – which is not certain. If successful, Bougainville will become the newest nation in our region since East Timor.

A sign advertising a weapons surrender process and urging an independence vote on Bougainville. CREDIT: BEN BOHANE

More than 206,000 voters are registered and 246 polling teams have spread across the Bougainville islands, Australia, PNG and the Solomons. The two-week voting period begins on November 23 and ends on December 7, with results expected soon after. Overseeing the vote is the chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC), former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, who has said the referendum “should be celebrated”.

Despite being scarred by the history of mining there, Bougainvilleans are pragmatic and many believe they need mining to underwrite a newly emerging nation. Although its infrastructure has been destroyed, Bloomberg recently estimated that the Panguna mine alone still contains up to $US58 billion ($84 billion) worth of copper, gold and silver.

In fact, the whole island is known to be rich in minerals and mining has never stopped. Villagers continue to pan for alluvial gold in rivers and streams across Bougainville, as well as the tailings area of the Panguna mine. Recently I watched young and old villagers close to Panguna clawing away at the hillside, using high-powered hoses and pickaxes to create a slurry they could then pan through to find precious little nuggets.

During the war I saw Nescafe jars filled with gold being smuggled out of the island to buy essential goods in the neighbouring Solomon Islands. Estimates vary, but since the war ended somewhere around $50 million per year is being earned by locals through alluvial panning.

But big external players are circling too, hoping to get exploration licences to mine Bougainville’s riches. Apart from the contested Panguna licence, four exploration licences have been issued by the Autonomous Bougainville Government since they were able to draw down mining powers from PNG.

The Panguna mine: one of the largest man-made pits in the world.

Former BRA commander “General” Sam Kauona has one licence, Filipino company SRMI has another while Perth-based Kalia has two licences. Other Australian companies such as Fortescue are in talks, while China is also pitching infrastructure deals based on the “collateral” of Bougainville’s mineral wealth.

Last December a delegation of 10 Chinese businessmen approached the “Core” group of Bougainville veterans and leaders offering up to $1 billion to invest in mining, agriculture, tourism and the “transition” from autonomy to independence.

Even today, some Panguna landowners are in favour of BCL or its former parent company, Rio Tinto, returning “after they have properly reconciled with us and cleaned up their mess”. Amidst the uncertainty of new players circling, as well as growing geopolitical tensions, there is an oft-heard refrain: better the devil you know.

‘Australia’s secret war’

While some worry about growing Chinese influence, others are equally critical of Australia’s failure to present a viable alternative and the lack of personal engagement by Australian officials on the ground. Although Australia’s leaders are mindful of PNG sensitivities ahead of the referendum and want to avoid being seen to favour either side, Bougainvilleans wonder if Australia is indeed “neutral” now or will continue to work with PNG to deny Bougainville’s independence.

PNG army troops on patrol in heavy jungle in 1997, hunting for guerillas who had shot a boy dead nearby. CREDIT: BEN BOHANE

This has geopolitical consequences as China woos key players on Bougainville who remain suspicious of Australia’s position.

Australia has a long and sometimes troubled history with Bougainville. Today it is a valuable aid partner, providing around 12 per cent ($50 million per year) of Bougainville’s bilateral aid program, the highest of any donor. It has positioned itself as the partner of choice for Pacific nations, particularly after the “step up” began in 2017.

Between 1915 and 1975 Australia directly administered the territory. The very first action of the national Australian military at the outbreak of World War I – well before the Gallipoli landing – was to take control of German New Guinea, including Bougainville.

In World War II, 516 Australian soldiers and up to 40,000 Japanese died fighting on Bougainville. Australian Coastwatchers, hiding in the hills and protected by loyal locals, provided such valuable intelligence to the Americans taking Guadalcanal to the east that after the war US admiral “Bull” Halsey personally thanked them, saying they had “saved the Pacific”.

After the war, large cocoa plantations were established along with the Panguna mine. Australian riot police were used several times to quash the budding local independence movement. Two universal declarations of independence, first in 1975 and then in 1991, went unrecognised.

And during the Bougainville war between 1988 and 1998, Australia continued to train and equip  PNG forces. Some called it “Australia’s secret war” since Canberra tried to maintain an appearance of neutrality while supplying PNG with four helicopters that were soon turned into gunships.

Since the war Australia has funded a 20-year peace process and has won local and regional admiration for the way it allowed traditional reconciliation processes to unfold.

While Bougainvilleans remain suspicious of Australia’s real position on independence, they are thankful for the role it has played in the peace process and its ongoing development assistance.

Rough seas ahead?

In the wake of the referendum, if PNG, Indonesia or Australia were to attempt to deny or campaign against Bougainville independence, there is a strong possibility that hardliners on the island would issue another unilateral declaration of independence that some countries in the Pacific – and Beijing – might recognise. In that scenario, the potential for another security crisis in the region is real.

If the outcome of the referendum is an overwhelming vote for independence, Canberra must be prepared for two possibilities: either the creation of a newly independent nation in the region, or a crisis unfolding if the PNG government refuses to ratify the result.

Heavy trucks sit rusting on the edges of Panguna copper mine, closed in 1989 as a result of sabotage. CREDIT: FRIEDRICH STARK / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

On top of all this there are Australian miners courting various groups within Bougainville to get access to the hidden riches of the Panguna mine and other mineral resources across the islands.

It has prompted some observers to wonder if these new mining players in Australia and China are fully aware of the history of mining and conflict here, as they try to cash in at this sensitive moment when Bougainville is on the cusp of nationhood and trying to forge unity among its people.

Recent reconciliation ceremonies between the PNG military and Bougainville militants declared there will be “no more war”. Now, as polling day nears, Bougainvilleans look set to accomplish something Francis Ona told me during the war he wanted.

“We have been ruled by four colonial masters over the past 100 years: first the Germans, then the Australians, then the Japanese, the Australians again, then PNG.

“We believe it is time we ruled ourselves now.”

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Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights, Papua New Guinea

Breathtaking images depict Bougainville’s ‘blood generation’

Sami and the Panguna mine – Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller.

A photography exhibition featuring more than 200 images that explore the phenomenal complexity of modern life is being staged at the National Gallery of Victoria from 13 September to 2 February 2020.

Titled Civilisation: The Way We Live Now, the exhibition will feature images from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe.

Among the images is series dedicated to the ‘blood generation’ of young people born during the bitter and prolonged war between Papua New Guinea and the people of Bougainville (1988–98). The war, which was triggered by external interests in mining and sustained by local acts of political self-determination, resulted in 20,000 deaths and forced many Bougainvilleans to desert their villages in fear of their lives.

Bougainville-born artist Taloi Havini and Australian photographer Stuart Miller explore the repercussions of copper mining and armed conflict on the young people of the region and address the destruction of the natural environment that, for matrilineal societies of Bougainville and Buka, is foundational to their political and social organisation.

The image shown above, Sami and the Panguna mine, revisits a moment in history when female landowners in Bougainville protested against the gouging of their land by mining. In a powerful manifestation of opposition, dissenting mothers held their children, squatted and chained themselves to the mine’s earth-moving trucks in protest.

The National Gallery of Victoria describes the image as a magical and numinous image, yet its dark and traumatic history, as the heart of the Bougainville war, insinuates its presence through a row of burnt and rusted heavy equipment left behind when the Panguna mine closed in 1990. Sami, a child refugee, escaped with her family to Honiara in the Solomon Islands before obtaining refugee status in the Netherlands. The white cloud rising over the hills suggests that nature is there to welcome and shield Sami as she re-enters contested matrilineal land where the world’s largest open-cut mine of its time once stood. A pool of aquamarine-coloured water at the bottom of the pit, contaminated with the copper solution, is the result of a leaching process still happening today.

Siwai on the airstrip. Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller

Siwai on the airstrip shows a young man from Siwai, a large area of the coast, central plains and hinterland of Bougainville. He is dressed in torn jeans and a hessian bag embellished with an image of a skull, which reflects the style of today’s Bougainville youth. In the background, other Siwai young men sit at the centre of the airstrip, as is customary, except when the landing of a plane forces them to move to the edge.

Gori standing in a Buka passage. Taloi Havini and Stuart Miller

Gori standing in a Buka passage shows a young man standing in front of a narrow strait, less than a kilometre wide, which separates the Island of Buka from the northern part of Bougainville. Gori gazes directly into the camera as if to ask what happened, or to say, ‘I know what happened but I don’t understand why’. This is a common feeling among the blood generation, the silent victims of the Bougainville war, who were far too young to comprehend its inexorable repercussions.

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Australia to be sued over mining project’s ‘unmerciful’ destruction of Indigenous land

Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who is launching legal action against the commonwealth, says Nabalco and its successor, Rio Tinto, failed to ask the local people where they could and couldn’t go on the Gove peninsula. Photograph: Peter Eve/AAP

Galarrwuy Yunupingu taking legal action for loss of native title as well as destruction of dreaming sites

Helen Davidson | The Guardian | 4 August 2019

The federal government is facing a lawsuit over damage done to Indigenous land by the decades-old mining project that sparked the Yirrkala Bark Petitions.

Gumatj leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu revealed on Saturday that he and his people were taking legal action against the commonwealth, seeking compensation for the loss of native title over the minerals exploited by mine operator Nabalco and its successor, Rio Tinto, as well as the destruction of key dreaming sites.

The suit is expected to use the historic precedent set by the Timber Creek judgment by the high court in March, which ruled on monetary compensation for loss of native title.

“They’ve come to Gove peninsula without asking properly of the landowners of the place,” Yunupingu told the crowd at Garma festival, in north-east Arnhem Land.

“They have all come, getting the OK from the PM and the government of the country, to come all the way and start digging and insulting the country.”

He accused the two companies of having “ripped some land unmercifully”.

“They have damaged our country without seeking advice to us and they have damaged a lot of dreamings – dreamings that were important to Aboriginal people.”

He said the companies failed to ask the local people where they could and couldn’t go on the Gove peninsula in north-east Arnhem Land.

Traditional owners have received royalties from the mine, a fraction of the total revenue drawn from the site. They have recently opened their own mine and training centre, Gulkula Mining, of which Yunupingu is chair.

Prospecting for what would become the bauxite mine and refinery began in the 1950s, and Yolngu traditional owners were strongly opposed.

Leases were granted and excised without consultation of the people of Yirrkala, and the now historic Yirrkala bark petitions were delivered to the federal government in 1963. Yunupingu, whose father was then Gumatj clan leader, helped draft the petitions.

However, the mine went ahead, with the Gove agreement signed five years later between the commonwealth and Nabalco.

Traditional owners took the mine to court in 1971, the first ever native title litigation, but lost, with the judge citing the doctrine of terra nullius in his judgement.

The loss sparked the establishment of the Woodward royal commission, and NT land rights act.

The case flagged by Yunupingu on Saturday will rest on the precedent set by this year’s Timber Creek decision from the high court, which awarded more than $2.5m in compensation to native title holders over dozens of acts by the NT government between 1980 and 1996 which were later found to have “impaired or extinguished” native title rights and interests.

More than half the amount was to compensate for “cultural loss”.

The March judgment reduced the amount ordered by the federal court in 2016 but otherwise held up the new precedent of quantifying the monetary value of native title and associated compensation for the removal of land rights.

Native title experts responded to the ruling with predictions it would pave the way for potentially billions of dollars in liability payments by Australian governments.

The attorney general, Christian Porter, said on Sunday: “There is a well established process for native title claims and those processes would be followed for any such claim lodged regarding bauxite mining.

“I note that at this point what has been said is an intention to lodge a claim and that a claim has not yet been lodged.”

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AFP PRESENCE AT BOUGAINVILLE MINE RAISES SUSPICIONS

Presence of the Australian Federal Police at Panguna is being questioned

Chris Baria | June 8 2019

The Chairman of Bougainville Hardliners Group and former combatant turned businessman, James Onartoo has called on the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) Police Minister to explain what the Australian Federal Police (AFP) were doing at the site of the controversial Panguna mine on Wednesday, June 5.

According to Mr. Onartoo, members of the communities around the mine site became suspicious when they saw the Australian police taking GPS readings at various points around the mine. This points included the one where the mining company BCL considered building an airstrip in the early part of the Bougainville crisis, to bring in aircraft supposedly to evacuate expatriate mine workers and their families out of Panguna.

“I think the public is owed an explanation as to what is happening. To the best of my knowledge the AFP were ousted in 2007 on suspicions of spying on the ABG and the people of Bougainville by the former President, late Joseph Kabui.

“Their presence at Panguna, which is the site of so much controversy and disagreements plus issues of sensitive nature stemming from proposed reopening by ABG, raises serious questions considering the fact that in the past Australia always supported military intervention by Papua New Guinea Defense Force to regain control of the mine.

“If AFP can raid ABC office in Australia itself then they are capable of anything including maybe gathering intelligence on ground for the purpose of regaining control of Panguna and restarting the mine with use of force,” Mr. Onartoo said. 

Mr Onartoo said that it is a well known fact that Australia’s interest in the mineral deposits at Panguna never declined and Australian advisors to ABG have denounced agriculture, tourism, fisheries and other sustainable industries saying that only mining is able to finance Bougainville’s independence. Several companies which are vying to reopen the Panguna mine, which was shutdown by landowners in 1990, are also of Australian origin. 

The AFP party, which comprised of three policemen and two civilians including a doctor were escorted on their visit to the autonomous region by the Bougainville Service Commander, Francis Tokura and police personnel. They are also said to have visited the proposed border posts sites at Koromira and Kangu Beach.

Mr Onartoo said he had nothing to say about AFP visiting other parts of the Autonomous Region.

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Another ‘World Class’ Mining Company in ‘World Class’ Coverup

Rio Tinto’s QIT Madagascar Minerals mine in southeastern Madagascar. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Madagascar: Rio Tinto mine breaches sensitive wetland

Edward Carver | Mongabay | 9 April 2019

  • A large mineral sands mine in southeastern Madagascar has trespassed into a “sensitive zone,” violating national law and raising the possibility that radionuclide-enriched tailings could enter a lake that local people use for drinking water, two recent studies confirm.
  • Rio Tinto, the London-based multinational that owns the mine, acknowledged the breach for the first time in a March 23 memo, more than five years after the breach initially occurred.
  • Rio Tinto will hold its annual general meeting April 10 in London.
  • The director of an NGO that commissioned one of the studies is a shareholder and said she hopes to speak about what’s happened at the lake.

A large mineral sands mine in southeastern Madagascar has trespassed into a “sensitive zone,” violating national law and raising the possibility that radionuclide-enriched tailings could enter a lake.

There is no evidence that radioactive elements or mine tailings have entered the lake so far, but two recent studies confirmed the encroachment of mining activities into the lake. Rio Tinto, the London-based multinational that owns the mine, acknowledged the breach for the first time in a March 23 memo to the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT), a social and environmental advocacy group that commissioned one of the studies.

The breach raises health and safety concerns in one of Madagascar’s most impoverished regions. The lake, part of a forested estuary system a few miles from the city of Tôlanaro, commonly known as Fort Dauphin, serves as a fishing and foraging ground for people in nearby villages.

“It would be a human rights and environmental catastrophe if you flood that estuary with radioactive water,” Steven Emerman, a Utah-based geophysicist and hydrology consultant who authored the 2018 study commissioned by ALT, told Mongabay.

Emerman said he worries that a cyclone could cause tailings in the mining basins to overflow into the lake or seep in if the water table level changes. The mineral sands being mined have high levels of uranium and thorium, and the removal of the mine’s main product, ilmenite, can increase the concentration of radioactive elements. Ilmenite yields titanium dioxide, used as a whitener in products like paint and toothpaste.

A different study published today by ALT found safe radionuclide levels in rivers and lakes in the area. It also found that the area around the mine, including river water, had high levels of uranium that could pose risks to local residents, although it’s not known if these levels are naturally occurring or caused by mining activities. The author of the study noted that she had to rely on “limited” and “questionable” data provided by Rio Tinto, and called on the company to improve its monitoring and management of radioactive materials. In response to the study, Rio Tinto maintained that the high uranium levels were naturally occurring and cited a baseline study as evidence.

Emerman and Rio Tinto have sharply different opinions about how best to protect the lake from mine tailings. Rio Tinto has set a barrier in place, but in his study, Emerman writes that the safety criteria that the company used to build it would be more appropriate for “storm drains at a shopping mall parking lot” and that reading Rio Tinto’s reports leads him “to believe that the dam was not designed to meet any safety criteria, but was simply ‘designed’ by piling up sand with a bulldozer.”

Emerman expressed further concern that the dam itself was made largely out of tailings — a fact acknowledged by Rio Tinto. This could contribute further seepage into the lake that the dam is meant to protect. “If you build the dam out of tailings, what good is the dam doing?” Emerman said to Mongabay.

Rio Tinto has initiated an action plan to assess and possibly redesign the dam (or berm — there’s debate about what to call it) before the end of the year, the company said in the memo.

In 2018, Rio Tinto commissioned Ozius Spatial, an Australian consultancy, to determine whether mining activities had breached the lake and buffer zone, as ALT had claimed. Like Emerman, Ozius found that the company’s mining activities had encroached not only all the way through the buffer zone on one side of the lake — littoral forest made up of unique evergreen species — but onto the lake bed.

Rio Tinto declined to publish the Ozius study and has not acknowledged the breach publicly, aside from its communications with ALT. The company did provide a copy of the Ozius study to ALT so that Emerman could use it is in his work. Neither Rio Tinto nor Ozius responded to requests for comment for this article.

It is unclear whether Rio Tinto’s encroachment into the lake was intentional. In its recent memo, Rio Tinto called the breach an “unintended occurrence that has produced several important learnings.” However, the company had been aware of the possibility of a breach for several years. In 2014, it asked Madagascar’s National Environment Office (ONE), a regulatory body, for permission to change the buffer zone around the lake from 80 meters (262 feet) — the standard, per national law — to 50 meters. ONE granted the request. Yet the Ozius study shows that by the start of 2014 Rio Tinto had not only already worked its way through the buffer zone but had encroached 52 meters into the lake itself, according to Emerman, who reproduced this finding in his own study

ONE inspected the breach in August 2018, deemed its impact “negligible” and chose not to take regulatory action, according to Rio Tinto’s recent memo to ALT.

Financial considerations appear to have driven Rio Tinto to mine near the lake, where the highest-quality ilmenite in the area occurs. In a 2017 memo to ALT, Rio Tinto explained its actions from a dollars-and-cents point of view. “The impact of complying with the 80m buffer zone would be 1) A 9 % loss of Reserves; 2) a non-optimal life of mine plan, the higher grade and lowest cost ore to the North East would only be accessible at the end of the mine life.”

In Madagascar, Rio Tinto operates through QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), which is 80 percent owned by Rio Tinto and, at least on paper, 20 percent by the government of Madagascar. QMM is the second-largest mining operation in the country. Rio Tinto has invested more than $1 billion in the project and sends most of the ilmenite to be processed in Canada. The company shipped its first batch of ilmenite in 2009 and operations could continue for 40 years across three sites, including places that border protected areas. Operations are currently underway only at the Mandena site, which breached the estuary system. (The estuary system is now a freshwater wetland, as Rio Tinto built a weir to close it off from the ocean before it began mining.)

Critics have questioned ONE’s independence and ability to act as a neutral regulator. ONE’s website lists Rio Tinto alongside the World Bank and the European Union as a financial backer. And because of government funding issues, Rio Tinto has to pay for the regulatory body’s staff to fly down from the capital, stay in local hotels and monitor the company.

“This sets up an obvious conflict of interest that no one is happy with, including QMM,” Pete Lowry, a Paris-based botanist with the Missouri Botanical Garden who has decades of experience working in southeast Madagascar and sits on QMM’s biodiversity and natural resource management committee, told Mongabay. “But the reality is that if monitoring is going to get done, QMM is going to pay for it.”

A ONE representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Rio Tinto will hold its annual general meeting in London on April 10. Yvonne Orengo, ALT’s director, owns one share of the company and said she hopes to speak about what’s happened at the lake.

“It’s taken the Trust [ALT] two years and a huge effort to get Rio Tinto to admit the breach,” she told Mongabay in an email. “This highlights just how difficult it is for local people to hold QMM to account when it does wrong or fails in its obligations.”

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Bougainville’s tinderbox threatens to reignite

Bougainville Revolutionary Army fighters look down on the Panguna mine in 1996

An independence referendum and unresolved issues over the rich Panguna copper mine threaten to tilt Papua New Guinea’s tumultuous autonomous island back to civil war

Alan Boyd | Asia Times | December 4, 2018

Foreign mining companies are jostling for exploration rights on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville ahead of a crucial independence vote next year that some fear could revive tensions that sparked a civil war that killed 20,000 in the 1980’s.

The island will need mining royalties to maintain a viable economy if the referendum backs independence, but unresolved issues over the Panguna copper mine are still a sensitive point with traditional landowners. Villagers shut the pit down in 1989, triggering the previous lethal conflict.

The referendum is the culmination of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which formally ended the decade-long bloody civil war. It will take place as the US and Australia aim to work closely with Papua New Guinea to develop its Lombrum Naval Base to counterbalance China’s growing maritime influence in the region.

In January, the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) said that an indefinite moratorium had been imposed on work at Panguna, which was the world’s biggest open-cut copper mine when it was being operated by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a unit of Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.

Rio exited in 2016, transferring its 53.8% shareholding to the ABG and the Papua New Guinea government, but there has been speculation the mine could reopen. Papua New Guinea’s government gave its shareholding to traditional landowners in the Panguna area.

“If we went ahead now, you could be causing a total explosion of the situation again,” ABG president John Momis said after the moratorium was declared.

“As far as the people are concerned and as the government, we cannot allow foreign companies to be causing division and using a very emotional situation [on] the ground to cause another war.”

In 1972, there were suggestions of colonialism and commercial exploitation over a decision to grant a mining license to Rio Tinto after minimal consultation with local villagers. Bougainville was then being ruled by Australia under a United Nations mandate that ended with Papua New Guinea’s achievement of independence in 1974.

The Panguna mine effectively underwrote that process: at one point copper from the mine was contributing 45% of Papua New Guinea’s annual export earnings and generating more than US$740 million from tax income and dividends.

But little of this money reached tribal groups; instead, they complained that trailings from the mine were killing their fish and poisoning farmland. In 1989, the Nasioi people broke into the site and shut the mine down.

Autonomous Bougainville Government President John Momis. Photo: Youtube

When Papua New Guinea sent riot police and troops to the island, villagers formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, a rag-tag separatist group that plunged the region into a decade-long civil war that left most of its infrastructure in ruins.

A fragile peace was achieved in the late 1990s under monitoring groups led by Australia and New Zealand, but the wounds remain raw. Several tribes maintain “no-go” areas to keep foreign firms out, and the remnants of the BRA, known as the Me’ekamui group, only disarmed this October.

Bougainville, which has closer ethnic links to the Solomon Islands than Papua New Guinea, was granted a limited form of autonomy under a formal 2001 peace treaty. The referendum, tentatively scheduled for June 15 next year, will decide whether the island should become completely independent.

However, it will not happen unless the ANG can find some way to bridge the gap between developers and traditional landowners who fear a repeat of the Panguna fallout.

Rio Tinto left behind an environmental mess of sludge and rusting equipment that some analysts estimate could cost US$1 billion to put right. The firm contends that it has already complied with regulatory requirements.

Momis knows that without mining, Bougainville will stay part of Papua New Guinea, as the island managed to cover only 14% of its total expenditure of US$50 million last year from domestic sources — mostly sales of farm products. It is expected to need a budget three times bigger if it votes for independence.

Resistance fighters from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

Leaving the door ajar, Momis has said that the moratorium only covers mining at Panguna, which is inaccessible in any case because of a “no-go” order. A new mining law passed in 2014 clarified the regulatory situation and has attracted interest from firms in Australia, China, Canada and elsewhere.

But there is a catch: the law gave traditional landowners control over minerals on their land and the right to participate in any development decisions that might affect their interests. So the fate of Bougainville’s separatist movement now rests with those who started it in the 1980s.

Landowners that do deals with mining companies will have to face the wrath of neighboring tribes that could bear the consequences of mining. There are strong risks that tensions could boil over even before the referendum.

The wild card in this game of chance is Papua New Guinea, which is not obliged to allow Bougainville to break away even if there is a “yes” vote.

Indeed, it may prefer to keep a tight rein on its renegade region, especially if predictions of a vast untapped treasure of copper, gold and other minerals are realized.

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