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Environment News| Environment News

Environment News| Environment News

schoolgirls in pale blue uniforms play amid the ruined buildings of the panguna mine

Panguna, the controversial mine that was abandoned for more than 30 year after civil war broke out on remote Bougainville islands, is being revived to support plans for nationhood.

The Autonomous Bougainville Government reached an agreement with local landowners in order to proceed with plans to reopen the huge open-cut copper mine located in the central mountains on Bougainville Island. This mine was the center of a decade-long conflict between Bougainville, PNG, and ended in 2001.

Today marks the end and the beginning of a new chapter in Bougainvilles history, Bougainvilles President Ishmael Toroama stated in a public statement today following the February deal with chiefs of local landowning tribes.

Panguna was under Rio Tinto’s control from 1989 until 1989. This was a source of anger and concern for the local community, who were concerned about its environmental impacts and the fact that most of the revenue went to Rio Tinto or PNG.

Overall, the resolution calls on transparency in both parties to the process of reopening the mine. As a landowner, I support the development. However, the development must be seen as upholding and respecting the fundamental human rights of humanity and our Indigenous rights. Peter Arwin, a Panguna landowner told Al Jazeera.

There was strong opposition for years to the return of foreign extractive firms from communities that still live with the effects of mine waste pollution and suffered trauma during conflict. Foreign investors could only meet the enormous cost of reconstructing the mine in a post-war region that is struggling with postwar recovery. This figure is between $5-6bn. Rio Tinto sold its interest in the mine in 2016, and no new investor has been found.

schoolgirls in pale blue uniforms play amid the ruined buildings of the panguna mine
Schoolgirls play among the ruins of the Panguna mine, Central Bougainville [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

They were persuaded by the argument of the government that the revival of the mine (estimated to hold 5.3million tonnes of copper and 19.3million ounces gold) is essential to bankroll Bougainville’s dream of independence. The referendum, held three years ago, received overwhelming support.

Bougainville’s economy is still weak, and its government is still dependent on PNG as well as international aid donors. Its people are still struggling. Bougainville is home to one hospital and 35 health centers of varying sizes. The maternal mortality rate in Bougainville is up to three times that in PNG, which has 230 deaths per 100,000 live-born children.

Around 40% of the population is below the age of 15.

The five clans, especially the Panguna pit owners, have signed an understanding. This is the first step towards the Panguna mining reopening. The agreement was signed to show unity, peace, and support for the government as well as the landowners in coming to an agreement about the mine’s reopening.


Arawa, the closest town to the mine, with a current population greater than 38,000, has been severely affected by the conflict. The civil war resulted in the destruction of many buildings, services, and infrastructures. Reconstruction has been slow.

Indigenous clans own more than 80 per cent of PNG’s land. They have a significant influence over public and commercially driven development projects. Bougainville’s 2015 mining laws reinforced these rights. They recognize Indigenous ownership of minerals on customary land and allow landowners to participate in major decisions regarding their exploitation.

The core triggers of the conflict that raged from 1989 to a ceasefire 1998 included exclusion of local owners from mining-related decision making, resentment against foreign interference in Bougainvilles government and economy since late 19th century, growing environmental damage from mines waste and the majority claim for its revenues by Rio Tinto/PNG.

Barbara Tanne, president and founder of the Bougainville Womens Federation said that it was important that a future mine contributes both to peace and prosperity in this region.

As president of Bougainville Womens Feder, I would like to express my gratitude for this agreement being honoured and inclusive to all. Women must maintain their status as landowners and continue to reflect back [on the past]She stressed that peace dialogues with landowning tribes is essential to ensure stability and security.

Bougainville resideWomen in traditional dress gather at a polling station to vote in the independence referendum
Bougainville residents turn out to vote in 2019’s independence referendum Officials state that reopening the mine is crucial for Bougainville’s independence to be sustainable. [File: Ness Kerton/AFP]

Before the Panguna mine is reopened, there are many things that need to be done.

Rodney Osioco is the Bougainvilles Minister of Mineral and Energy Resources. He insists that the preparations for the development of mining in the region will be thorough at all stages to ensure the islanders rights and equitable distributions of the mines benefits. This will also ensure peace and stability. The government plans to strengthen its laws, regulatory framework, and any future investor in this mine will be decided in consultations with landowners.

The first priority should be to address grievances and issues surrounding the distribution of benefits. This must be done in a more transparent manner. [than in the past]. Arwin said that the issue regarding landownership needs to be resolved through proper social mapping processes.

Gavin Mudd, associate professor of environment engineering at Australias Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology believes that addressing unresolved problems from the mines past such as environmental damages and demands for compensation are crucial.

Bougainville’s people are not anti-mining. They are anti-bad mining. There is still a lot to do before we can address the historical legacy.

Toxic hazard

Villagers have a number of priorities when it comes to dealing with the environmental waste from the mine. For instance, rivers near the mine have been polluted in toxic heavy metals such as mercury, zinc, copper and other chemicals. This has led to significant health risks for people and decimated fish populations.

The mine pit’s polluted water flows unabated into the local rivers. This is compounded with the ongoing erosion caused by massive amounts of tailings waste that the company has dumped in the Jaba river Valley. Each heavy rainfall brings huge amounts of tailings and sand into the rivers. They flood large tracts downstream with polluted water, displace villages, and destroy new areas of agricultural land. Human Rights Law Centre(HRLC), which has been supporting the remediation process since last year, reported in 2020.

Rio Tinto, assisted by the HRLC, has reached an agreement to conduct an expert assessment of the mine’s environmental and human rights impact as part of initial discussions with Bougainville communities and stakeholders.

It is certain that future operations will require new waste disposal methods. Mudd suggests that a tailings dam be built, which is a dam designed to store water and other waste products from the mining process. Although we are more adept at building tailings dams now than we were 50-years ago, it will take some time. He explained that they are large structures and very expensive.

The polluted river near the mine has turned a glowing turquoise
The copper residue and waste from the mine’s former operations, 1972-1989, remains in high levels in local rivers and streams. [Catherine Wilson/Al Jazeera]

The cost to rebuild the mine from its ruins is estimated between $5-6bn. It will take a lot of variables to determine the time, but Mudd estimates that it could take up a decade.

People on the islands are more aware of the realities and potential pitfalls of resource extraction, especially since land is so important to their culture.

Arwin explained that to be landless in a Melanesian society means I have no value in the local community. He also stressed the importance of the government ensuring the community’s needs are met.

He is aware of the delicate balancing act Bougainville is currently trying to perform.

He said that the place would become a barren wasteland, all covered in rocks, after the mining era ends. However, there will no longer be any monetary benefits. However, our future generations will still live on.

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