The Rio Tinto mine has destroyed the island of Bougainville with war, human rights abuse, and environmental poisoning.
An estimated 156 residents of Papua New Guinea's (PNG) Autonomous Region of Bougainville submitted a petition to the government of Australia to make Rio Tinto responsible for the devastation caused by the copper and gold mine they abandoned.
The Panguna mine caused disputes which in 1988 erupted into a long civil war in the region, killing 20,000. The unfortunate legacy of the abandoned mine is still being felt decades later.
Causing Civil War
The mine began during the 1960s, with operations conducted between the years 1972 & 1989. Bougainville Copper Ltd. operated the mine as a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. In 2016, the PNG and Bougainville governments took over.
Such a massive mining operation must conduct a complete closure and proper rehabilitation after it ceases to operate; however, the company abandoned the site due to an uprising by landowners. This rebellion was spurred by the negative social and environmental impacts of the mine, such as the lack of profit-sharing with the local communities.
The PNG government intervened, apparently due to political pressure from Bougainville Copper, and this caused the conflict to turn into a full separatist civil war that affected the entire province.
The Panguna mine released tailings amounting to more than a hundred million tons, polluting the river system of the Kawerong-Jaba. Silt increased in its streams and rivers, which also widened significantly. The water was blocked in several parts, which created extensive swamplands and affected residents' livelihoods downstream, poisoning their drinking water and subsistence gardens.
The mine caused the relocation of about 200 households from 1969 to 1989.
Due to the lack of closure operations, the problems worsened, as tailings continued polluting and contaminating waterways.
Affected Poor Communities
The complainants are residents of downstream communities, many of whom come from the Dapera village, which is in the immediate area of the mine pit. Their complaint was sent to the Human Rights Law Center in Melbourne and the AusNCP or the Australian National Contact Point.
According to the complaint, the mine infringed on the human rights of the community, breaching the OECD responsible business conduct procedures for multinational companies.
According to a Rio Tinto spokesperson, the company is aware of the mining infrastructure's deterioration, which resulted in negative impacts on human rights and the environment. The company is ready for discussions with the complainants and other affected parties, including the government.
There have been many calls for the company to take responsibility for the strife it caused to the region. In 2016, after Rio Tinto separated from Bougainville Copper, John Momis, past president of Bougainville, said that Rio Tinto should take full responsibility for a cleanup.
In 2000, Bougainville locals also filed a class suit in the US, saying Rio collaborated with the government to cause human rights abuses. They also included a complaint about the environmental damage caused by the mine. The lawsuit failed to prosper due to jurisdictional technicalities.
Rio Tinto has delayed too long in taking responsibility for its actions in Bougainville. It is an example of the problems involved in going after mining companies operating in other countries, mainly if the impacts it causes occurred a long time ago.
The present mining industry operates under a paradigm that includes CSR or corporate social responsibility, which did not exist when Rio Tinto began operating in the 60s. It is way past time Rio Tinto rehabilitated Bougainville and answered for human rights abuse and environmental poisoning.
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