The controversial Panguna mine, which lay idle for more than 30 years after civil war broke out on the remote islands of Bougainville — now an autonomous region of about 300,000 people in eastern Papua New Guinea (PNG) — is set to be revived with support from the Plans of the region for a nationality.
The Bougainville Autonomous Government has reached an agreement with local landowners to advance plans to reopen the massive open-pit copper mine in the central mountains of Bougainville Island, which was at the center of a destructive decade-long conflict between Bougainville and PNG that ended in 2001.
“Today marks the end and the beginning of a new chapter, a chapter in realizing Bougainville’s independence,” Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama said in a public statement following the February deal with chiefs of local landowning clans.
For almost 20 years until 1989, Panguna was under the control of global mining giant Rio Tinto and a source of anger for the local community, concerned about the environmental impact and that most of the revenue went into the pockets of Rio Tinto and PNG .
“Overall, the resolution calls for transparent engagement by both parties in the mine reopening process. As a landowner, I personally support development, but development must be seen as upholding and respecting the fundamental rights of humanity and our indigenous rights,” Peter Arwin, a Panguna landowner, told Al Jazeera.
For years, there has been significant resistance to the return of foreign extractive companies from communities that continue to live with mine waste pollution and suffered brutality and trauma during the conflict. For a region struggling to recover from the war, the huge cost of rebuilding the mine, estimated at $5 to $6 billion, could only be borne by a foreign investor. Rio Tinto exited its stake in the mine in 2016 and has yet to select a new partner.
But they have been swayed by the government’s argument that revitalizing the mine, which is estimated to be home to up to 5.3 million tonnes of copper and 19.3 million ounces of gold, is imperative to fund Bougainville’s dream of independence in a referendum held three times, found overwhelming support years earlier.
Bougainville’s economy remains weak as the government remains financially dependent on PNG and international donors. Meanwhile, people keep fighting. Bougainville has one hospital and 35 health centers of varying sizes for a population of 300,000, while the maternal mortality rate is estimated to be up to three times higher than in Papua New Guinea, where it is already among the worst in the world, with 230 deaths per 100,000 live births.
About 40 percent of the population is under 15 years old.
“The signing of the agreement by the five clans, particularly the pit owners of the Panguna mine, is the way forward to reopening the Panguna mine to support political will,” said Theresa Jaintong, chairwoman of the Arawa, Siokatei and Landowners Association Loloho in Arawa is 12 kilometers from Panguna, Al Jazeera said. “The signing of the agreement signifies unity, peace and support for the government and landowners coming to terms with the reopening of the mine.”
Arawa, the town closest to the mine with a current population of more than 38,000, has been badly affected by mining and the conflict. The city’s buildings, services, and infrastructure were destroyed during the civil war, and reconstruction progressed slowly.
In PNG, more than 80 percent of the land is owned by indigenous clans, who have significant influence over public and commercial development projects. These rights have been strengthened in Bougainville with new mining laws introduced in 2015, which recognize Indigenous ownership of mineral resources on customary lands and the involvement of landowners in important decisions about their exploitation.
Key triggers of the conflict, which raged from 1989 until a ceasefire in 1998, included the exclusion of local landowners from mining-related decisions, resentment at foreign interference in Bougainville’s governance and economy since the late 19th century, and growing environmental impacts the mine waste and the majority claim to its revenues from Rio Tinto and PNG.
Barbara Tanne, President of the Bougainville Women’s Federation, said it was critical that a future mine contribute to peace and prosperity in the region.
“As President of the Bougainville Women’s Federation, I wish to say that this agreement be respected and inclusive to all. Women need to maintain their status quo as landowners by thinking further back [on the past]Engaging in peace dialogues with the land-owning clans and ensuring peace and stability is ingrained in them,” she stressed.
Much remains to be done before the Panguna mine can reopen.
Bougainville’s Secretary of Minerals and Energy Resources, Rodney Osioco, insists that preparations for mining development in the region will be rigorous at every stage to ensure the rights of the islanders, the equitable sharing of the mine’s benefits, and peace and stability are secured. The government plans to strengthen its laws and regulatory framework while deciding on future investors in the mine in consultation with the landowners.
“The handling of complaints and problems related to the distribution of benefits should be given priority and be more transparent [than in the past]. Then there is the issue of land ownership, which also needs to be resolved through proper social mapping processes,” Arwin told Al Jazeera.
Gavin Mudd, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, believes it is vital to address the mine’s unresolved issues of the past, such as environmental damage and compensation claims.
“People in Bougainville have never been against mining, they’re against bad mining, and there’s still a long way to go before we’re really close to addressing heritage,” he said.
Dealing with the environmental waste from the never closed mine is a priority for the villagers. For example, rivers near the mine have been contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as copper, zinc and mercury, which poison the water, decimate fish populations and pose a significant risk to human health.
“Contaminated water from the mine pit flows unabated into local rivers… Chemical pollution in the rivers is exacerbated by continued erosion from the huge mountains of tailings dumped by the company in the Jaba River valley. With every heavy rain, huge amounts of spoil sand are washed into the rivers, flooding large tracts of land downstream with polluted mud; Displacing villages, polluting water sources and destroying new forest and cropland,” reported the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center (HRLC), which has supported the remediation process that began last year, in 2020.
In initial discussions with local communities and stakeholders in Bougainville, Rio Tinto, with the support of the HRLC, has agreed to an expert assessment of the mine’s environmental and human rights impacts.
In future operations, waste disposal methods will no doubt have to change. A key option, Mudd says, is the construction of a tailings dam, a dam specifically designed to store water and waste byproducts from the mining process. “We are better at building tailings dams than we were 50 years ago, but it will take time. They’re huge structures and they’re expensive,” he explained.
The cost of rebuilding the mine from its current ruins is estimated at $5-6 billion. The time it takes will depend on many variables, but Mudd estimates that rebuilding “could take up to a decade or more.”
This time around, the people of the islands are wiser about the realities and potential pitfalls of resource extraction, especially when land is so central to their culture.
“Being landless in our Melanesian society means I have no value in the community,” Arwin said, stressing that the government must ensure that community needs are adequately met.
He thinks of the difficult balancing act that Bougainville is now attempting.
“I know that at the end of the mining lifespan, the place will become a desolate wasteland covered in rocks with no financial benefits in sight,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that our future generations will live on beyond that.”