Tag Archives: Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto about to offload stake in Grasberg mine for $3.5 billion

Grasberg mine on the island of New Guinea, one of the world’s biggest sources of copper and gold. (Image: Google Earth)

Commentary from SkyTruth: “News that Rio Tinto is negotiating to sell out its stake in the massive Grasberg Mine in West Papua (Irian Jaya). We’ve written about this mine before: uncontrolled dumping of tailings into rivers flowing past the mine has caused the deposition of tailings across a broad swath of former rainforest downstream, creating a moonscape 30 miles long and up to 2-1/2 miles wide. By selling out, Rio Tinto might be able to dodge any liability for that damage — although their partner Freeport McMoRan may still be on the hook, and apparently the “tailings issue” is holding up the sale”

Cecilia Jamasmie | Mining.com | 23 May 2018

World’s No.2 miner Rio Tinto confirmed Wednesday is ready to sell its stake in the giant Grasberg mine, the world’s second largest copper operation, to Indonesia’s state mining holding company Inalum for $3.5 billion.

The move could mark the end to a long-drawn-out, three-way dispute over the mine, which has been centered on bringing local ownership of Grasberg up to 51%, a main requisite set by the Indonesian government to allow Freeport-McMoRan to keep operating in the country.

Discussions with  PT Indonesia Asahan Aluminium, known as Inalum, and Freeport — the other two companies engaged in talks — were ongoing, Rio said, “including as to price,” noting that no agreement had been reached.

Rio’s deal with Freeport was struck in 1995 and entitles it to a 40% share of production when certain output levels are hit. But as a result of strikes and other disruptions and as the open pit at Grasberg nears the end of its life, the Melbourne-based miner hasn’t seen any benefit since 2014.

Chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques publicly questioned Grasberg’s place in Rio’s future back in February 2017. He followed in June with a remark about the mine being a world-class copper deposit, which might not be a world-class mining investment.

“There is a fundamental difference between a world-class resource and a world-class business,” he said again last week at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Mining, Metals & Steel Conference.

Indonesia and Freeport have been negotiating the terms for the company to give the government a majority ownership in Grasberg for over a year. But until today, it wasn’t clear what would happen to Rio’s interest in the mine.

Grasberg, the world’s second-largest copper mine and fourth largest gold operation, has transitioned to a fully underground operation, set to reach full capacity by 2022, when it will produce 160,000 tonnes per day of ore.

The additional Deep Mill Level Zone block cave mine, currently under construction, is projected to contribute an additional 80,000 tonnes per day of ore once at full capacity, expected in 2021.

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Papua New Guinea’s resource curse

Armed clan near Komo, Hela Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo by Michael Main

Disaster strikes the nation’s massive gas project

Jo Chandler | The Monthly | May 2018

Brisbane, February 17, 2010. A clutch of ExxonMobil executives gathers for a briefing from Papua New Guinea specialists: a geographer, an epidemiologist and an agronomist. All academics at the Australian National University, they’ve clocked up decades of fieldwork in the remote highlands. They’ve assembled some slides that they hope will give the overseers of ExxonMobil’s $US19 billion liquefied natural gas project, PNG LNG, insight into the lives of the people whose resource they are preparing to pump out of the country’s hinterland and ship to markets across Asia.

The specialists’ pitch is a hard-headed evaluation of looming risk. And it is pointedly plain-spoken, assuming little, if any, knowledge of Papua New Guinea’s geography, history or staggeringly complex cultures.

The good news, they say, is that local people, and the provincial and national governments, want the project.

And the bad news? Expectations are perilously high. The desire for PNG LNG is founded on the belief that it will bring not only wealth to landowners in its footprint but also desperately needed services, roads, power, jobs and economic growth to the region. Health care for most locals is a long walk to an aid post that in all likelihood has no health worker or medicines. Child mortality rates are almost 40 times what they are in Australia, and markedly worse than elsewhere within the nation. Education levels are woeful – 64 per cent of men and 77 per cent of women living around the gas source have no formal education.

The PNG LNG operation will be dropping into a landscape in which the state barely casts a shadow. Violence is rife, and police and justice elusive. Tribal conflict, deeply rooted, has waxed and waned over the years in what is today called Hela Province. Now anxieties and rivalries are flaring around who will and won’t benefit from the gas mother lode, the experts say, with the potential to escalate to blockades, sabotage and armed resistance. Colleagues have been warning about the stockpile of heavy weapons in the highlands for years.

While numerous promised works were built into the benefits-sharing agreements wrangled with landowner representatives a year earlier, these PNG specialists in Brisbane urge ExxonMobil to invest deeply in education, health, livelihoods, infrastructure, security and monitoring. They point to the junior project partner, PNG veteran Oil Search, which has long-established health programs that are highly valued by local people – why not piggyback on those relationships?

Next slide. “Contexts: other large resource projects.”

There’s the Porgera goldmine (“Police attack migrants and locals, burn houses, shoot people – company accused of breaches of human rights”) and Ramu Nickel (“Chinese company ignored local social and employment conditions – Riots … Mine closed temporarily”). And then there’s Ok Tedi, which in the ’80s became shorthand for BHP’s international shame after a monumental environmental disaster when a tailings dam collapsed.

At the top of the list is Bougainville, a shattering and multilayered episode distilled thus: “Second generation unhappy with benefits … [Bougainville Copper Limited] said it was the PNG Government’s responsibility to fix … Power supply sabotaged / PNG Defence Force soldiers attacked civilians … Years of civil war result [in] permanent closure of mine and high death rate.”

The PNG LNG operation, however, is touted as a game changer, the biggest resources project in the Asia­-Pacific, with capacity to double GDP. The Australian government has backed it with a $US350 million investment. Compared to the mines in the slideshow, its environmental footprint is light.

But PNG LNG will sit in one of the most culturally fascinating and incendiary landscapes imaginable. The Huli people of Hela Province, keepers of the gas flame, have forever seen themselves at the centre of the universe. For better or worse, the implications of this project – regionally, economically, geopolitically – are seismic.

The last slide is titled “The beginning, not the end”. A small Huli boy is juxtaposed with a barefoot youth crouched by a roadside and nursing a high-powered automatic rifle. “I will be 18 years old in 2022,” says the caption. “And if I have not been educated and I am still a subsistence farmer living in relative poverty, I am going to be really angry! I may be armed and dangerous!”

Tari, capital of Hela Province, February 1, 2018. By the time the Air Niugini Dash 8 drops through the highlands pall we’re almost jumping distance above the forest canopy. It’s broken by the contortions of rivers and the odd road, and clearings occupied by round huts and crops of sweet potato and greens.

Beyond the blur of the propeller, the clouds close like shutters on the distant ranges. There was no world beyond this fortressed horizon for the Huli until first contact in the 1930s. The first permanent colonial patrol post didn’t arrive in Tari until 1951. Then came the missionaries. The prospectors. The oilmen. And then, a decade ago, after a few false starts, the advance guard of PNG LNG.

The ancestors had seen them coming, these “red-legged” men. The Huli knew all about the subterranean power buried within their country, the fire (gas) and water (oil). They navigated around it with ritual. Their lore was selectively enlisted for the PNG LNG hard sell. It was destiny that the underground fire the Huli call Lai Tebo would “light up the world”, bringing in wealth that would transform the nation’s economy and the lives of its citizens.

But as I learnt on a previous visit in 2009, en route to villages with a health outreach team, that account neglected certain critical elements.

“When the white people come to take the power from the earth, there will be terrible fighting and Huli culture will fade away,” Dr Hewali Hamiya, the then CEO of Tari hospital told me. He was at the wheel of a 10-seater troopie, navigating broken roads, expanding on politics (“the poor and illiterate are spectators in our own land”) and explaining Huli Cosmology 101.

In an ancient narrative once described by ANU anthropologist Chris Ballard as “a user’s guide to apocalypse”, the Huli seek to influence the nature of the final event. This apocalypse would be “the terminal point in a long, linear process of moral and ecological decline”. It’s a mythology that has provided fertile ground for fire-and-brimstone Christian missionaries. And it has endured, fuelled by unfolding events.

Much of the mountainous interior of Papua New Guinea is too steep, too high or too wet to produce crops. But the town of Tari, at 2100 metres, sits in a hospitably undulating agricultural sweet spot, a magnet for people and trade from far-flung hamlets. From a window seat on the final approach, it looks like tropical Arcadia. It’s not.

By all accounts, there is a social emergency playing out, one that has ancient heritage but in modern times is enmeshed with both the history and the fate of PNG LNG. The project taps its source in the nearby limestone ridges. Concerned chatter among the Pacific cognoscenti has been gaining volume, the most dismayed among them fearing that Hela could explode. They recall and contrast memories of the Bougainville situation. But PNG pundits know better than to try to anticipate the future in the “land of the unexpected”. The cataclysm that will occur in 25 days’ time is beyond anyone’s control.

By now PNG LNG has been operating for almost four years, dispatching hundreds of shipments worth $US13.9 billion at last count. But none of the estimated $300 million worth of landowner royalties has so far found its way to the people at its highlands source. Indeed, the beneficiary landowners in Hela have yet to be identified. Their dues are meanwhile held by the PNG government.

There’s also no sign of many other promised benefits: the tertiary campuses, an agricultural research centre, roads, water and sewerage projects. The province sends power over the mountains to run the Porgera mine, but its people still have no lights. Even in Tari, power hiccups with the dodgy town generator. Oil Search’s managing director, Peter Botten, says more than $237 million has been paid to government entities and landowner groups to build infrastructure, but “the reality is they haven’t been delivered on the ground”. (ExxonMobil declined an interview, but in a statement said the project had put more than $300 million into projects and programs.)

In a dilapidated church hall in Tari, I meet Janet Koriama, the president of the Hela Council of Women. She is explaining why she declined an invitation to attend the legendary 2009 gathering of thousands of project stakeholders, where benefits-sharing deals worth more than $7 billion over the 30-year life of the project were thrashed out among (overwhelmingly) male landowners after days of negotiations and, infamously, much beer and debauchery.

Koriama thought it was wrong to host the forum in the town of Kokopo, 1000 kilometres away from the project site. (So does PNG law, and so the deal had to then go to a series of local forums.) “And I was a bit scared because of what tradition says.” Koriama is referring to the belief that you can give away “the water” (the oil, which has been pumped out nearby for decades), but not the gas. “They said you give Lai Tebo away, the fire will fuel so many conflicts. The prophecy is fulfilling.”

Downtown Tari comprises the airstrip, roads so fractured that it’s quicker (though not safer) to walk, the heaving open market, the bank (hour-long queues for the working ATM), the hospital, roadside trade stores (bigger Chinese stores have shut down in fright), a handful of tired public buildings, and the bones of several unfinished two- and three-storey structures – relics or promises of the mother lode, it’s hard to tell. It services a population somewhere upwards of 300,000.

Koriama is one of half a dozen leaders who come to me for interviews after I abandon plans to venture out to the project villages – only an hour’s drive away, but too risky. Hela Province is infamously combustible, and things are hot. Fighting flares unpredictably, with guns and bush knives. Police are lying low after two officers were murdered, the shooter accusing them of selling ammunition and weapons to his tribal enemies. Young men in dark glasses and long coats – to conceal their weapons – work their phones, their backs protected by the red-earth cliff that falls away at the edge of the market. Oil Search health workers I’d hoped to meet at Tari hospital have been hastily extracted because of a scare.

One way or another, the trouble is all about money, says Koriama. “The truth is we don’t have funds. No funds – royalties, equities, support grants.”

The project has been shattering for women and children, she says. “Women are the ones who are in the house … we pay for school fees, for the clan compensation [for deaths], all these things. But women are not recognised and we are not benefiting from the LNG … The big money – where is it going?”

Koriama is savvy – politics in PNG is no place for the faint-hearted. She’s dealt with corporates as a landowner in the Mt Kare goldmine. But she can’t get traction with PNG LNG. She travels to Port Moresby and talks to ExxonMobil and the government. “I said, ‘We are the women of Hela, but we are not benefiting’ … I said, ‘How do we do it?’ Do we write a letter? Do we dress up? … But we are not recognised.”

All that said, she declares that none of the problems are the fault of ExxonMobil or its partners, Oil Search and Santos. “They are here to help us.” She sits on the hospital board with Oil Search’s Peter Botten, under whose chairmanship (and resources) that neglected facility has become unrecognisably functional. (The host of my guesthouse has twin baby girls, Faith and Grace, and a dramatic birth story that none of them might have survived without what the hospital has become.)

Koriama lays responsibility for all the disappointments squarely with PNG authorities, the national and provincial governments, and “our own sons, who were educated, who were supposed to put it together, to look into who is owning the area … I am blaming ourselves.”

The distance between what PNG LNG promised and what it has delivered is an issue preoccupying many close observers of the project. ANU economist and PNG specialist Stephen Howes has highlighted concerns about the failure of royalties to flow to landowners, for this and future projects. “The other surprise is that it has generated hardly any revenue for the PNG government.” This is despite outputs being much higher than anticipated. Most of the blame is put on tax concessions criticised by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as too generous. But “we still don’t have a complete answer on why tax revenue has been so far below expectations”.

Botten blames a dramatic drop in oil prices. He defends the project’s economic contribution to the country, citing PNG National Research Institute modelling that says PNG LNG “has delivered tremendous benefits to the PNG economy and is expected to do so in the future”.

But a new analysis by the economist Paul Flanagan, an associate of Howes at the ANU Development Policy Centre and a former executive in the Australian and PNG treasuries, catalogues a “yawning chasm between spruiked expectations and outcomes”. Oil prices are not the explanation, he says – they are in line with predictions, “[but] all the other predictions about economic gains were well off”.

His report for Jubilee Australia, an anti-poverty research centre attached to the Australia Institute, found that rather than a doubling of the economy there has been a gain of only 10 per cent, all focused on the largely foreign-owned resource sector. Household incomes were expected to increase 84 per cent but have fallen 6 per cent; jobs were to grow by 42 per cent but are down 27 per cent; government spending on services and infrastructure was to kick up by 85 per cent but has fallen 32 per cent; imports were expected to rise 58 per cent but have fallen 73 per cent. “On almost every measure of economic welfare,” Flanagan concludes, “the PNG economy would have been better off without the PNG LNG project.”

A trio of male leaders comes in to meet me in Tari from project hotspots: Henri Harinda from the town of Angore, Pipe Tundu from Komo, and Haguai Kamia from Hides. Like Janet Koriama, they are damning of the PNG government, but they don’t share her regard for the companies. They each bring piles of worn paperwork tracking their land claims and, in English and the local languages of Tok Pisin and Tok Ples (via an interpreter), attempt to explain their rights through the labyrinthine local lore of customary landholding.

Individuals might have a tie to a piece of land on the father’s line (“A” class), or on the mother’s or wife’s line (“B” class), or through association (“C” class). Any piece of land might have several custodians with overlapping rights. These rights are archived not in titles but in fine-grained memory going back generations. ANU geographer Bryant Allen, who worked on contract for ExxonMobil, has stood in the bush with his GPS and a posse of clan leaders countless times trying to determine boundaries. “Sometimes they will say, ‘Bryant, you go over there, we have to talk about this.’ And there will be some shouting and screaming. Then it stops. Three or four people have said their genealogies and argued their case, and someone has said, ‘You’re right,’ and they all agree.” Mostly, he says, it sticks.

In the years leading up to PNG LNG, local landholding custom was explored and explained in depth to corporates and bureaucrats by experts such as Allen and the anthropologist Laurence Goldman. Goldman likens residency arrangements on the land to hotels: some rooms are occupied by descendants of the hotel ancestor, some get a room by virtue of a female link (but might get kicked out at any time) while others are occupied by friends – so long as nothing rocks the boat. Yet as the landowners I meet tell it, the strongest land claim these days sits with the man who is drinking buddies with the company community affairs rep or who has the most persuasive English.

The village of Hides sits on a ridge the locals call Gigira, home of the underground fire, Lai Tebo. It is at the heart of the project, hosting the gas-conditioning plant and several wellheads. Haguai Kamia has spent five years in court seeking rental payments for key sites. He won his case in 2017 and was awarded $100,000 back rent. The court orders, filed in a worn leather satchel, cost him most of that in legal fees, he says. So far he hasn’t been able to retrieve a larger payment, for environmental damage, that he says ExxonMobil gave to the wrong person. Like everyone, he’s still waiting on royalties. When the money comes he will be obliged by custom to share it between seven clans – dozens of individuals – and the church. All of them, waiting.

Kamia was one of the landowners involved in a blockade of the Hides plant in August 2016, a defining escalation in tensions between locals and the project. ExxonMobil’s blanket position is that payment and distribution of royalties and other benefits is the responsibility of the PNG government – nothing to do with the company. Many landowners accept this, but they also know that they won’t get action from the government unless they bring pressure to bear on the project. And around it goes.

Later I speak to three senior village women who live near the plant. They say that fighting has displaced many people, many schools are closed, and many families are hungry. Meanwhile, “the government is employing policemen to just look after the camp, and neglect the people”. The three women also worry about waste from the plant contaminating the water they rely on to cook and wash. They ask me not to publish their names.

Kamia says his boys dropped logs over the Hides access road “because we are crying for the royalties to be paid”. Armed men occupied the plant and shut it down. An ultimatum was given to the national government to honour benefits-sharing agreements within seven days. In the end a deal was brokered, including a government offer of $14 million “to try and soften the mood”, says Kamia, “make [us] feel, Oh, there is something bigger coming, just sit down and relax.

Things could have gone differently. Kamia says a lot of big weapons were moved into the area. There was potential for the situation to explode. But soldiers and police guarding the project are mindful that locals outstrip them for firepower, says Michael Main, a Melbourne-based anthropologist who was doing fieldwork in the area at the time. “One [police officer] told me, ‘We’re not going to risk our lives for ExxonMobil – I can see people have got nothing out of this project. We’re not going to go against the locals.’”

Main also tells of encountering young men who had hauled 20-kilogram rice bags packed with marijuana through the bush to the West Papua border and traded it for Indonesian military weapons. He observed landowners growing emboldened. Whether the Huli have the cohesion to mount a Bougainville-style resistance is a matter of lively dispute, but their firepower is not in doubt.

In December 2016, shortly after an ambush on a political convoy killed two men, and with a national election looming, the PNG government announced it would deploy the PNG Defence Force to the project area to quell violence. But skirmishes continued, including kidnappings of PNG LNG personnel and attacks on facilities. Last November, after an ExxonMobil security manager was kidnapped and released unharmed at Angore (thanks to the intervention of a local pastor, according to Main’s sources), the company evacuated non-essential staff.

Main has written a report exploring the backstories of recent clashes, often identifying threads relating to PNG LNG. His analysis, which will also be published shortly by Jubilee, echoes warnings from a gathering of development and resources specialists and scholars at ANU back in 2007 that “far from improving the wellbeing of [highlands] communities, these new sources of revenue have created new sources of friction”.

The question of how powerfully the PNG LNG project factors in the tempo of tribal conflict provokes intense debate among scholars and old PNG hands. Peter Botten says he’s seen profound cultural change over 25 years in PNG. “There were no mobile phones, tribal culture was relatively straightforward, and the elders and leaders were respected and listened to.” But it’s simplistic to blame big projects, he says. “The resources industry has really had very little effect apart from bringing more money in. Fights aren’t over jealousies [about] resources issues; the fights are very strongly around traditional issues of ‘you took my wife’ or ‘you took my pigs’, and then someone gets killed and then it’s payback.”

The Huli are infamous fighters. (We are sharing, caring and loving, says Janet Koriama, until you take what is ours.) But warfare was historically highly regulated and centred around compensation for losses, says anthropologist Chris Ballard. The LNG project “has massively ramped up rivalries, fuelled the arms race, and provided everyone with some level of grievance”. That said, apportioning blame is “hugely complicated, and I would be deeply suspicious of any narrative that claimed to know otherwise”. Another expert, who lived in the area for many years, argues that “government at all levels must bear responsibility”.

I ask Pipe Tunda, a landowner from Komo, how people are feeling. He lets rip. The interpreter summarises: “They are traumatised, it is really pressuring them, it could explode at any time … They are hungry and they have nothing.” During the construction phase, Komo was buzzing with jobs, aircraft bringing in equipment, camps full of workers. Now it’s a no-go ghost town.

Tunda is party to a judicial dispute-resolution process set up to try to resolve competing landowner claims that have dragged on for more than three years. He’s also involved in a process of “clan vetting” set up by the PNG Department of Petroleum and Energy to try to find ways to get royalties paid to rightful clans or sub-clans in Hela. That mission is now eight years over deadline.

Janet Mbuda, a schoolteacher from Hides who interprets some of my other interviews, says much of the danger comes from young men, teenagers mostly, who left school because of fighting or the lack of school fees. “They can kill anyone … the white men, the black men, they don’t care … their mindset is spoiled. They were expecting something high, but their life went back to zero.”

Around 80 per cent of Papua New Guineans live beyond the reach or interest of a largely dysfunctional state. Land, most of which is still in customary ownership, is cherished as central to security, society and survival. Papua New Guinea law recognises this. The Oil and Gas Act 1998 requires that before convening a development forum for a new project – the meeting where stakeholders thrash out terms and conditions – the petroleum minister shall determine the persons who will receive royalties and equity benefits. Yet today those beneficiaries remain unidentified in Hela.

“Somehow all the construction went ahead without this important part of the law being complied with,” says Stephen Howes, who with PNG lawyer Sam Koim co-authored an analysis on the stalemate. Howes says the responsibility – and the failure – to make the determination rests with the PNG minister. But “it’s the responsibility of all parties to ensure compliance”.

“In hindsight, it’s a mystery as to how this happened given ExxonMobil is a multinational and pretty risk averse, and worried about its reputation. And the only answer I have been able to come up with is that they thought [the determination process] would happen pretty quickly.” But Howes says that assumption meant that “Exxon and the other developers were taking on a massive project risk”.

Howes also questions Australia’s $US350 million investment in the project, through the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC) in 2009. At the time it was the biggest foreign loan made by the Australian government. “Given that it was a legal requirement prior to construction, EFIC should have put as a condition of disbursement that landowner identification be determined by the minister.”

ExxonMobil deflects questions on this issue. But Oil Search’s Peter Botten answers emphatically. Determinations were made for every licence area, he says, albeit with landowner leaders rather than individuals. “I was there on the ground [in Hides] at four in the morning when it was signed. They had the mandate from their people, I assume, to sign off on that, otherwise they wouldn’t have done it.”

Colin Filer, an anthropologist and resources expert at ANU who helped write the PNG legislation, explains that what the law requires is for companies to undertake and submit to PNG authorities “full-scale social mapping and landowner identification studies”. But what that means is open to interpretation.

Filer says that in 2006, as the PNG LNG project was rapidly taking shape, meetings were held in Brisbane and Canberra between the PNG government and ExxonMobil to try to sort out what the process should and would entail. He was there as an independent consultant. The PNG side argued it wanted a kind of “telephone directory” of Huli landowners, something that would identify individual beneficiaries.

“And we said to ExxonMobil, ‘Well, that’s probably what you ought to produce.’ But then the question was, who was going to pay for it? Because it was going to be an expensive thing. And ExxonMobil said, ‘Well, we’re not paying for it – we’re not required to do this [in] the Act.’”

So no telephone directory, partly because it was going to be extremely difficult (some argued impossible) and costly. And “because basically these guys in Texas can’t see the point”, says Filer.

“They don’t seem to have ever been able to adapt their corporate management style to the realities of Papua New Guinea. They are still operating as if it was just any other gas project anywhere else in the world. It could be Siberia.”

The upshot is that four years down the track the landowners of Hela are still waiting. As angry as many of them are, the rationale is that they can’t and won’t mount any substantial, sustained or coordinated attack on the project for fear of never seeing their money.

But Howes argues that “people aren’t always rational, especially over long periods of time in a conflict-prone area. And the second problem is that once the [distribution of royalties] is finally made, there will be winners and losers, and the losers then will protest.”

In the capital, Port Moresby, I got a glimpse of the superheated tensions among landowners when I found myself squashed in the National Court’s tiny public gallery with about 60 Huli men hearing rulings on a disputed portion of the $13 million payment that was promised to break the Hides blockade 18 months earlier. (The only other woman in the court was the judge.) The desperation of the Port Moresby–based landowners, some of whom have been enlisted for years by the companies to keep a lid on tensions at home, was palpable.

When I recall the scene for lawyer Sam Koim a couple of hours later, he provides the backstory. “These people have come to Moresby, they live on borrowed money, they hire vehicles, they are chased after by loan sharks.” Koim has observed the fallout, the fragmentation even within families, fighting and suing one another. Hela Province is not like Bougainville, he says, where you had an organised and cohesive society. “But the people [in Hela], with due respect, are the last people you want to play games with. They may not be organised, but it needs just a spark.

“I’ve warned the Exxon guys, told them, ‘Don’t be arrogant.’ They think these people up there are ignorant, but the moment they are enlightened, they cannot continue to be suppressed,” says Koim. “They have the weaponry to do it, they have the potential to do it, they have the might to do it.”

And then the earth roared.

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck under Mt Sisa in Hela Province at 3.44am on February 26. It poured mountains of earth into rivers and destroyed food gardens, choking the lifeblood of countless families, so its cruelty has barely begun. As well as many deaths there were reports of communities desperately eking out supplies waiting on unreliable food drops and suffering outbreaks of diarrhoea. Damage shut down PNG LNG facilities for more than six weeks, with ExxonMobil declaring force majeure on its exports. It announced it would be restarting operations on April 13.

The response from the outside world to the crisis was slow, largely blamed on remoteness. ExxonMobil said it would give $1.3 million to earthquake relief, and Oil Search $6.4 million in cash and kind. The latter quickly mobilised its helicopters to take a lead role in assessing needs and delivering relief, ferrying Prime Minister Peter O’Neill into the crisis where he consoled bereft survivors daubed with mourning mud.

But distress soon turned to anger on the ground. “This is 5th Day,” wrote Hela governor Philip Undialu in a Facebook post.

Where are all the helicopters used to fly around Hela looking for Oil and Gas? Why a number of helicopters still flying around the disaster areas but not interested in helping victims? Why we have helicopters for evacuating employees but nothing to rescue injured people? Don’t we have social obligation to the communities?

“The Tari fight is getting worse,” tweeted the Catholic bishop of Mendi, Donald Lippert, on March 30. “They’ve come to the Mission primary school and burned down four staff houses. What’s next???? Most people have run away carrying their belongings on their backs and dragging their pigs behind them. PNG 2018!!!! Good Friday!!!”

The same day, James Komengi, the disaster response coordinator with the Uniting Church in Tari, sent me an email. “We are outside on the road watching the communities on one side of town burn down. We are told many men and women have been shot dead. Will confirm deaths.” Seven fatalities were later reported, among them three teenage schoolboys – one shot, two hacked with bush knives. The killings were described as tribal payback for the shooting in the Tari market of a local councillor two weeks earlier.

Seismic and social aftershocks continued, one crashing upon another. In Tari, violence spiralled. Under the headline “Tari on the Brink of Anarchy”, The National’s reporter wrote that people were more fearful of the fighting than they were of the earthquake. Governor Undialu said he had fewer than 20 police to secure the town. Meanwhile, a specialist squad was up the road, guarding the ExxonMobil plant at Hides. “Why should PNG LNG Project be given preference over the lives of ordinary people?” Undialu asked. “I’ve been asking the police commissioner to … give us additional manpower, which has fallen on deaf ears.”

By mid March the quake’s death toll stood at 125. Soon after, more than 55,000 people had been displaced by either the quake or the fighting, and 270,000 were in need of assistance.

With the landscape rolling and roiling with powerful aftershocks, the traumatised population looked for explanations. While all else was broken, Digicel’s communications towers were working overtime. Some turned to the spiritual, recalling the Lai Tebo prophecy, some to science. Social media erupted with a mix of passionate religious rants appealing for mercy from the Huli god Dadagaliwabe, and cut-and-pastes from geological journals on “induced seismicity” (where minor earthquakes and tremors can be triggered by human activity). These “Facebook scientists”, as James Komengi describes them, were “confusing people who are 80 per cent uneducated” by blaming the earthquake on gas extraction. Either way, the project was squarely in the frame.

“I now demand answer[s] from Exxon and my own government as to the cause of this unusual trend in my Hela,” wrote finance minister and local MP James Marape on Facebook. The prime minister appealed to the Australian government to provide scientific advice.

When Geoscience Australia responded with a report explaining that the quake was consistent with the regional plate tectonics that have shaped the highlands over millions of years, and that it was highly unlikely to have been triggered by mining, exploration or extraction, Hela governor Undialu wasn’t persuaded. Nor was former justice minister Kerenga Kua, who in parliament argued that the Australian government could not carry out an independent assessment because it had a financial stake in the project.

Peter Botten was quoted saying that the Huli superstitions around the cause of the earthquake represent “a communication issue”. But anthropologist Michael Main argues it is, rather, a critical development issue, arising from the collision of the conditions in Hela before the quake and the trauma in its wake. “Huli cosmological belief that the extraction of their gas will bring about the end of the world has been fuelled over the past four years by growing resentment over the failure of the project to come good on its development promises,” he wrote for the scholarly blog EnviroSociety.

If the PNG LNG project had delivered on its promises of education and training opportunities, infrastructure, business development and alleviation of poverty, then the concern of its Huli landowners might be over how to utilise their resource to better develop their province to cope with earthquakes into the future. As it is, the PNG LNG project is logically understood in the context of their resource curse.

In an email to me, American-born Bishop Lippert described a maelstrom of factors at play: frustration at the failed promises of the PNG LNG project (“no matter what the causes … legitimate and illegitimate”); young men impaired by blind rage and the abuse of cannabis or alcohol; the breakdown of traditional society with nothing to take its place … “The perversion of cultural constraints has opened the door to killing women and children, something that would be rare in the past, so I’m told.”

On March 30, an emergency order was issued, declaring that “the security situation in Hela Province (and specifically the town of Tari) has deteriorated to the point where the lives of relief workers, public servants and the general public are manifestly in danger”. The order mobilised the PNG Defence Force to bring the situation under control using “all reasonable force”. There was a “shoot to kill” curfew from 6pm to 6am, Bishop Lippert wrote. The United Nations and other agencies evacuated their relief teams, who had still not returned by mid April.

James Komengi keeps a running list of requirements for when the relief teams return: tarpaulins, water containers, building materials, tanks … “The rains are saving many families,” he writes. “Without rain, many people will become very sick.”

In a closed Hela Facebook group, someone posts a picture of four high-powered automatic weapons leaning against the wall of a grass hut. The post says the guns were stolen from a mobile police squad – they’re being offered for sale. Papua New Guinea’s highly active social media commentariat furiously debates whether this might become another Bougainville, and what else it signals for the fragile nation’s future.

“The worst-case scenario is one that PNG has already experienced,” argues ANU economist Paul Flanagan in an article for East Asia Forum.

The loss of social licence for the Bougainville copper mine in 1989 started a decade-long civil war that led to thousands of deaths, undermined development prospects on the island for a decade, damaged PNG’s economy more broadly, and quite directly led to the removal from office of prime ministers Paias Wingti and Julius Chan.

“There are real risks that the parallels [in Hela Province] will be much more manifest than to date,” Flanagan tells me. “Almost every wrong policy is being pursued – everything we wouldn’t want to avoid a resource curse.”

If the crisis in the wake of the earthquake persuades the PNG government to find a way to get overdue royalties to Hela landowners, and along the way rethink some of its macroeconomic policies, “hopefully things will go well”, Flanagan says. It’s not too late, he argues, to change the development path from a resources focus to something more inclusive that builds on agriculture and other areas. “It will take a decade. It’s got to start.”

If not, he warns, the consequences will be worse than what Papua New Guinea endured through the 1990s, when incomes across the country fell by 25 per cent. Provinces with healthier economies would resent the drain of poorer ones. “That is the sort of thing that leads to these fracturing tendencies in the nation state of PNG,” says Flanagan, an observation that feeds into increasing anxiety about the fragile geopolitics of the Pacific.

Stephen Howes argues that the failure of royalties to flow to Hela landowners already casts a significant pall over the prospects of future resource projects. “The PNG LNG project was supposed to send the global investment community a strong signal that PNG could manage large resource projects. But it is increasingly evident that this one very important piece of the puzzle was never put in place. And that will surely be a deterrent to other potential investors.”

Michael Main says that not so long ago, despite all the distress of landowners around the project, he would not have imagined that they would ever organise to put an end to it. “But things change, and the structures that were there – and that I thought would mean this project would keep going – are themselves subject to change in a way I hadn’t expected.” And that was before the Huli apocalypse.

Laurence Goldman, an anthropologist with many more years’ experience in the highlands, albeit not recently, won’t venture any such bets. “PNG has a wonderful way of contravening the best guesses that people have.” It’s an observation that evokes a favourite line from another PNG veteran, the late historian Hank Nelson: “As is often the case in Papua New Guinea, unfolding events have continued to unfold.”

Back in Australia, I receive an email from James Komengi in Tari. He says that there’s a lot of talk about protests planned in Hides and Tari against the project, maybe another shutdown. “Many people here [even outside the project area boundaries] are demanding they be compensated as landowners because the ‘man made’ earthquake disaster has affected us.” Events are unfolding.

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Bougainville imposes moratorium on Panguna mine over fears of civil unrest

The Panguna mine, located in the east of Papua New Guinea in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, was at the centre of Bougainville’s decade-long civil war.

In dramatic policy turnaround, government determines people feel Bougainville Copper Limited doesn’t deserve a social licence to run the controversial mine

Helen Davidson | The Guardian | 10 January 2018

The Bougainville government has enacted an indefinite moratorium on renewing the licence of a controversial mining company over fears it could reignite violent civil conflict.

In December Bougainville landowner groups were called to vote on allowing Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) to renew their mining licence and potentially reopen the Panguna mine, but the vote was split.

“If we went ahead now, you could be causing a total explosion of the situation again,” the Bougainville Autonomous Government (ABG) president, John Momis, told the ABC on Monday.

The Panguna copper mine was central to the civil war and blockade in the 1990s that killed tens of thousands of people. Conflict escalated after landowners protested environmental damage by the mine and the lack of economic benefit for local people.

The Rio Tinto-owned BCL was forced to close the mine, and discussion in recent years about reopening it has sparked hostilities in the nearby communities.

In June protesters blocked Momis and other political leaders from accessing Panguna to sign an agreement with landowners, which the ABC reported would have opened the way for BCL to work towards returning.

Legislation passed in 2015 gave traditional landowners greater ownership over resources as well as powers over the establishment or reopening of mines, but confusion and division remains.

At the time of the BCL vote local journalist Aloysius Laukai reported Momis said mining by any company would be “untenable” under the circumstances. However on Monday Momis told the ABC the moratorium only strictly applied to BCL, not other potential operators.

The moratorium is a dramatic turnaround in policy from the ABG, which determined people felt BCL didn’t deserve a social licence to run the mine.

The ABG owns a 36.4% share in BCL, and has consistently said reopening Panguna was essential for the island’s economic self-sufficiency if it is to become independent.

Luke Fletcher, the executive director of an Australian-based NGO, Jubilee, said it wasn’t clear if the turnaround was “a temporary retreat or a permanent change of direction”.

“It could be they’re just biding their time for another couple of years, or they’re considering opening Panguna with other operators,” Fletcher said. “It does seem the intention is still to reopen the mine.”

The Papua New Guinea government is the only other major shareholder after Rio Tinto left in 2016. It has said it will give its 17% share to Bougainville, making the ABG majority shareholders of a company that has just one project – a mine over which the ABG has now placed a moratorium.

BCL is yet to be officially informed of the moratorium, but learned of it through media reports.

The company’s Port Moresby general manager, Mark Hitchcock, said it had sought further clarity, as it still “firmly believed” it had strong support among landowners.

“Hitchcock said previously held community forums led by the ABG had also demonstrated strong majority support and this reflected the company’s own experiences on the ground,” a spokesman told Guardian Australia.

“He stressed that BCL was a local company majority owned by the people of PNG, including Bougainville and had always acted in good faith after being invited to enter a new process for the redevelopment of Panguna by the ABG and landowners.”

BCL claimed it had support from eight of the nine landholder groups, as well as the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association. It said minority elements – and competing mining interests – were disrupting consensus.

There were disputes with the association’s chair, Philip Miriori, BCL said, citing a letter from 367 authorised customary heads who disputed Momis’s characterisation of the vote as a “narrow divide”.

The customary heads told PNG’s Post Courier the meeting was given a submission signed by 320 of the heads giving their support to BCL.

As the resource-rich country moves on from civil war and towards independence, it is increasingly looking to mining for its economic future.

West Australian company Kalia Ltd recently announced it had signed a land access agreement with north Bougainville landowners, allowing the start of a “full-scale exploration program”.

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Momis announces moratorium on Panguna mining and exploration

Panguna copper mine on Bougainville … the catalyst for decade-long civil war. Image: Aloysius Laukai/Bougainville Forum

Aloysius Laukai | Asia Pacific Report | 23 December 2017

The President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, Chief Dr John Momis, has announced an indefinite moratorium on exploration and mining in Panguna.

He said the Bougainville Executive Council had its meeting on Wednesday made a “thoughtful and considered” decision to impose an indefinite reservation moratorium from any exploration or mining over Panguna in the best interest of the landowners and the people of Bougainville.

The council debating the issue following advice from the Bougainville Mining Advisory Council.

“It is with much regret that the basic requirement for obtaining the landowners consent under the Bougainville Mining Act 2015 could not be met,” Momis said.

The voice of the Panguna landowners was clearly heard during the mining warden hearing that decided in a narrow split between those supporting the mine reopening by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) and the opponents.

Dr Momis also said that to develop the mine by any other developer would be “untenable” under current circumstances.

“We will not allow this project once again to reignite the wounds of the Bougainville crisis and distract our focus for restoring peace and our preparation for our referendum in 2019,” he said.

Continued consultations

While imposing this Panguna moratorium, Dr Momis said his government would continue to consult with Panguna landowners and the people of Bougainville over an “appropriate arrangement” or best alternative models of development of the mine if the people still had an appetite to develop the mine in the future.

The Bougainville Civil War was fought in 1988-1998 between Papua New Guinean military forces and secessionist guerrillas of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

The conflict led to an estimated 15,000-20,000 deaths on Bougainville before a peace agreement was brokered by New Zealand in 1998. This led to the establishment of the Bougainville Autonomous Region Government.

Bougainvilleans are due to vote in a referendum on possible independence in June 2019.

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Bougainville and Brazil linked by the disastrous consequences of mining: UN

The polluted Jaba river on Bougainville

UN Environment Assembly moves to curb pollution from extractive industries

UN Environment | 14 December 2017

The city of Mariana, Brazil, and the town of Panguna in the autonomous province of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, occupy two diametrically opposed parts of the world, separated by more than 10,000 miles.  

They have distinct historical differences, dating several centuries ago, but in a very unique way they share a common story and destiny: that of the adverse effects of a well-intentioned exploitation of natural resources gone awry.

While few inhabitants of both urban centres may have interacted with each other, they have a common story to tell about the disastrous, and often unintended, consequences of natural resource extraction. 

Both settlements experienced the worst mining disasters in their respective countries and highlighted the need for integration of local communities in the planning and execution of extraction of natural resources.

In Panguna, the discovery of copper deposits in 1969 heralded the establishment of what was then the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, which began production in 1972. However, and unbeknownst to many locals at the time, a dispute over revenue-sharing and mine waste management between the local community and mine-operators, would lead to a protracted armed conflict which cost nearly 20,000 lives. 

Despite the official end of the conflict in 2001, Panguna is still grappling with the disastrous effects of the mining.

“Even though the mines and logging on our island produced hundreds of millions of dollars in profit the island didn’t become prosperous. Less than one per cent of the profits of the mine went to local communities. The mine had an enormous impact on our capacity to produce food and access safe water,” said Helen Hakena, the director, of the Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency, in Bougainville, during a side event at the Third UN Environment Assembly on 4 December.

“The mine polluted our water and redirected our economy,” she said. 

“Even now much of the population is exposed to mercury used by artisanal miners, including pregnant women, who access the gold. We have a high rate of birth complications and deformities as result,” Hakena added. 

Alluvial miners at work on Bougainville

Alluvial miners at work on Bougainville

Similarly, in 2015 Brazil experienced its worst mining disaster when two dams, owned by the Samarco mining company, collapsed and spewed forth their iron-ore mine waste into nearby rivers including the Rio Doce – an important river basin in southeast Brazil. 

The incident affected communities along the approximately 650 km course of the river, disrupted livelihoods and necessitated a $250 million clean-up operation by BHP Billiton, which jointly run the Samarco mining operation together with Brazil’s Vale mining company.

Inhabitants of both Mariana and Panguna, and numerous other mining communities around the world, are likely to benefit from a UN Environment Assembly resolution aimed at curbing pollution. 

The resolution, which was passed on 6 December, urges governments, and corporations, to work closely with local communities to ensure pollution is addressed.

The resolution aims at strengthening efforts to integrate conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in various sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, tourism, mining and energy, infrastructure and manufacturing among others. It also points to the need to prevent and reduce pollution from these sectors.

“A new paradigm needs to be promoted: people and planet over profits. It is crucial to have responsible mining and sourcing of metals. There is need for a convergence of ethics and views among governments, business and society as well as the reform of production systems and practices that currently benefit only a few so that they can benefit many people,” said Ligia Noronha the Director of UN Environment’s Economy Division. 

David Granger, President of the South American nation of Guyana, echoed that message in his statement to those assembled for the side event: 

“The world’s natural resources are the patrimony of humanity,” Granger said.

“People therefore, must be at the heart of the development of our natural resources. In the final analysis people must come before profits. The pursuit of profits has been accompanied over the past century by an exponential increase in extractive industries. This expansion, however, has aggravated environmental damage which can have a long lasting and harmful negative impact on human dignity and well-being. 

“Pollution in the extractive industries threatens environmental security.” 

The event coincided with the release of a report on mine tailings dam failures. The publication, Mine Tailings Storage: Safety is No Accident, was jointly produced by UN Environment and GRID-Arendal.

It highlights six case studies of mine tailings dam failures dating back to 1985 and recommends the establishment of a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international regulation of dams.

Among the most recent major incidents highlighted include the Mount Polley, western Canada, when a mine storage facility failed in August 2014 and 25 million cubic metres of waste water contaminated Lake Polley. 

It also assessed the impact of the 2015 Samarco incident in south-east Brazil when approximately 33 million cubic metres of mine waste travelled 650 km to the Atlantic coast and disrupted water supplies for hundreds of thousands of people.

The side event was attended by delegates from communities that have been affected by mine waste pollution. They talked about some of the adverse, long-lasting and negative effects on their water, land and lives. Representatives of the private sector were also in attendance. 

John Atherton, a director at the International Council on Mining and Metals, said electrification of the mining industry holds “great promise” of cleaner extraction and called for “shared responsibility” in ensuring the reduction of pollution.

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Bougainville landowners back rival consortium to take over controversial Panguna copper mine

People supporting a rival mining consortium hold anti-BCL signs at the Panguna mine site. (Facebook: Me’ekamui)

Eric Tlozek | ABC News | 11 December 2017

The Bougainville Government is holding a crucial mining warden’s hearing at the abandoned copper mine which sparked a decade-long armed insurgency against the Papua New Guinea Government.

Key points:

  • RTG Mining chairman Michael Carrick says a proposal by the Central Me’ekamui Exploration Limited consortium is more realistic and “for the benefit of the people of Bougainville”
  • But BCL company secretary Mark Hitchcock says the consortium’s conduct is “less than honourable”
  • Bougainville’s Mining Secretary Shadrach Himata says all landowners will be asked for their views

The hearing will help determine if the company Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), which was forced to abandon the Panguna mine in 1989, should retain an exploration licence for the site.

The Bougainville Government now owns part of Bougainville Copper Limited and wants it to redevelop the mine, but a rival consortium is challenging their bid, and said it has the support of key landowners from Panguna.

That consortium, Central Me’ekamui Exploration Limited, includes ASX-listed RTG Mining.

RTG’s chairman Michael Carrick said the group’s proposal was more realistic and better-supported by the people of Panguna.

“[It’s] a sensible and well-supported and economically deliverable proposal to develop the mine for the benefit of all the people of Bougainville,” he said.

RTG Mining has told the Bougainville Government that BCL’s exploration licence for Panguna has expired and legally cannot be renewed.

It wants the Bougainville Government to consider its application instead, saying the landowner association for the mine pit, the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), backs its bid and would present a 2,000-signature petition in opposition to BCL.

“For the first time in 30 years a mining company has been endorsed and supported by the SMLOLA,” Mr Carrick said.

RTG Mining said longstanding resentment against BCL over the conflict and the ongoing environmental problems caused by their sudden withdrawal would prevent the company from being able to operate the mine again.

“The legacy issues for BCL are insurmountable,” Mr Carrick said.

He said the landowners would present a 2000-signature petition in opposition to BCL.

There is a legal dispute over who rightfully chairs the landowner association.

RTG Mining said the dispute had been settled with their preferred candidate, Philip Miriori, in charge; the Bougainville Government said the mediation had failed and that the matter is still before the courts.

PHOTO: The Panguna mine was abandoned in 1989 after an armed uprising known as the Bougainville Crisis. (AAP Image: Ilya Gridneff)

The Bougainville Government has also criticised the consortium for paying landowners who support them and implied it is not respecting the approval process.

“The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) will not entertain companies who use the back door or break and enter through the window using self-centred individuals who think they have a monopoly over the people’s resources or represent their interests,” Mining Minister Raymond Masono said in a statement.

“… The ABG rejects companies that think they can bribe their way into people’s resources by giving certain individuals money to gain landowner consent.”

The ABG has had the PNG Government ban the key executive from Central Exploration, Sydney lawyer Renzie Duncan, from coming to Papua New Guinea.

Michael Carrick from RTG Mining says the consortium has been dealing openly with the Bougainville Government and that landowner payments are wages for its employees.

“The wages paid are in respect of services rendered to the joint venture,” he said.

“The joint venture is a commercial operation and landowners, like anyone else, are able to work and to get paid for their services.

“Our dealings with landowners have been completely transparent and professional.”

Mr Carrick said the intent of the travel ban against Mr Duncan appeared to be to help Bougainville Copper Limited.

“It is clear the ABG, on the appointment of the new mining minister, supported BCL and the temporary banning of Renzie, I assume, is designed to limit the support that could be afforded to the landowners of Panguna,” he said.

Bougainville Copper Limited is deeply unhappy with RTG Mining and its partners.

“We think they’re less than honourable in how they’re carrying on their conduct and their activities in the area,” BCL company secretary Mark Hitchcock said.

He said BCL’s licence application was legal, and wasn’t processed on time because the Bougainville Government wasn’t ready to implement the processes of its new Mining Act.

“The department didn’t have the resources to manage the application at the time it was taking place,” he said.

“It now has all those facilities in place.”

Landowners set to weigh-in on hearing

Mr Hitchcock said many landowners do support BCL, but are not being properly represented.

“From what we’ve seen, there is widespread support for mining in Panguna and mining with Bougainville Copper,” he said.

Bougainville’s Mining Secretary Shadrach Himata said all landowners will be asked for their views as part of the approval process, not just the leaders of the association.

“The warden’s hearing is a process that will engage the views of all the landowners in the resource areas,” he said.

“It won’t be affected by the leadership tussle of the SMLOLA landowners.”

Crucially, Mr Himata, said BCL is the only company currently being considered by the Bougainville Government.

“Right now, the only legal applicant on the exploration tenement is BCL,” he said.

“Until that process is completed, there are no other applicants or applications over the same tenement. That’s the position of Government.”

The eventual decision on the exploration licence will be made by the Bougainville Executive Council, the regional government’s Cabinet, probably sometime in 2018.

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Bougainville locals give thumbs up to RTG project; shares soar 83pc

RTG shares over the past month. Source: Investing.com

Melissa Yeo | Stockhead | December 6, 2017

RTG Mining hit 52-week highs on Tuesday after the junior explorer got the green light from Bougainville locals to start work on its copper and gold mine.

The historic partnership, the first of its kind in 30 years, pushed RTG shares as high as 34.5c before they cooled to 28c — a gain of 83 per cent for the day.

Consent from the traditional land owners is required for the issue of any exploration licence on their customary land at the Panguna 1.5 billion tonne copper and gold project on the central island of Bougainville, a process which has historically escalated to wide-scale political unrest on the island.

The region has long been known for its copper and gold prospects, but disputes between regional residents and explorers such as Rio Tinto subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) have marred production since the early 1970s.

Conflict between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and Papua New Guinea Defence force escalated to a civil war in 1988 and took almost ten years to cease.

Now, the Autonomous Regional of Bougainville is seeking independence for its population of 250,000, with a target date of June15, 2019 set for a referendum on the topic.

They will be the ones to decide the fate of RTG’s application, now led by the traditional landowners, the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA) and chairman Philip Miriori.

“We believe the proposal presented by the SMLOLA consortium represents a unique and once in a generational opportunity to responsibly re-open the Panguna Mine for the benefit of all Bougainvilleans,” the company told the market.

“RTG has always suggested that this is best achieved by discussion and negotiation with all relevant parties, including the ABG.”

In 2016, Rio’s subsidiary BCL was forced to abandon the mine in the face of attacks by rebels, transferring its take to the provincial and national governments at no cost.

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