The Panguna mine on the Pacific island of Bougainville is one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world.
The mine was also at the center of a decade-long civil war fought between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force in the 1990s. The conflict cost as many as 15,000 lives and displaced 40,000 of the island’s 200,000 inhabitants.
Before the war, the Panguna mine generated more than $1 billion in national tax revenue and accounted for about 45 percent of Papua New Guinea’s total exports, 17 percent of its internal revenue, and 12 percent of its gross domestic product. It essentially paved the way for the nation’s transition to independence from Australia. But Panguna landowners and local employees — angered by the environmental destruction from the operation, poor wages, and unfair distribution of revenue (less than 1 percent of profits were reinvested in Bougainville) — eventually took up arms.
In 1988, landowners led by Francis Ona broke into storerooms at the mine, stole explosives, and blew up Panguna’s power lines. In response, Papua New Guinea (PNG) sent in the military. Soldiers burned down villages, executed collaborators, and raped with impunity. When that failed to crush the resistance, PNG, with the support of Australia, enforced a naval blockade cutting the island off from the rest of the world.
When that, too, failed the government hired a U.K.-based private military company to carry out its operations in Bougainville. The Sandline affair, as it came to be known, was eventually leaked in the Australian media – first there was a public outrage, and then came the resignation of then-PNG Prime Minister Julius Chan.
Bougainville Copper Limited, (BCL) a subsidiary of the British-Australian resources giant Rio Tinto, owned the mine at the time of the conflict and despite extracting around 550,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and 450,000 ounces of gold in its final year of production was forced to close as it appeared the separatists were not going to back down. The conflict officially ended nine years later, but Rio Tinto never returned.
In 2001, after a peace agreement was reached that gave Bougainville autonomy within PNG and ensured that an independence referendum would be held by 2020, some of the islanders launched a class action lawsuit in the United States against Rio Tinto.
Panguna landowners accused the company of genocide, citing the company’s support for the blockade of the island by PNG forces. The plaintiff’s lawyers claimed the mine’s manager in Bougainville at the time “encouraged the continuation of the blockade for the purposes of starving the bastards out.”
Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare provided the court with a sworn affidavit stating that it was Rio Tinto calling the shots during the war.
“Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the Government. The Government of PNG followed Rio Tinto’s instructions and carried out its’ requests,” he wrote.
“BCL was also directly involved in the military operations on Bougainville, and it played an active role. BCL supplied helicopters, which were used as gunships, the pilots, troop transportation, fuel and troop barracks.”
Due to the unrest in the area in the years that followed Rio Tinto’s withdrawal, no official investigation has been conducted on the impact the mining operation has had on the surrounding environment. It is known, however, that around 300,000 tonnes of ore and water were excavated every day in Panguna and that the mine tailings were discharged down the principal river system, the Kawerong-Jaba, which now flows blue because of toxic mixtures of heavy metals and other chemicals. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2002 that the mine was pumping 110 million cubic meters of waste, contaminated with cyanide and other chemicals, into the sea each year.
For years, the Bougainville government has asked the company to make contributions to help with the clean up. It has also asked Australia, as the former colonial power responsible for authorizing the mine. Rio Tinto has refused. So, too, has the Australian government.
Now, Australian Iron ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest as well as several other smaller mining companies have shown interest in resuming operations at the mine.
Forrest has friends in high places. In September, along with several other high-profile Australian business chiefs, Forrest was invited to U.S. President Donald Trump’s state dinner hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Forrest’s company, Fortescue Metals Group Ltd, is the fourth largest iron ore producer in the world. Its main areas of operation are in Western Australia, but in recent years the company has increased its efforts abroad, especially in South America, where it was granted 32 exploration licenses in Ecuador alone. Last week, it was confirmed that representatives from Forrest’s company had traveled to Bougainville in recent months to explore “potential opportunities.”
Also interested in Panguna is the Australia-based RTG Mining Group, which has the support of Philip Miriori, the chairman of the Panguna landowner association. Bougainville President Dr. John Momis, however, has accused RTG of attempting to bribe his government and of waging a subversive propaganda campaign.
Another landowner group, the Panguna Development Company, supports the mine’s former operator, BCL, in its bid to return to Panguna — pitting the two groups against one another.
They are, however, united in their opposition to Momis’ plan for Panguna, which would see the government and Australian mining company, Callabus, set up a new joint company that would be given a monopoly over the island’s mineral wealth. It is not clear how the government intends to proceed with this scheme since the legislation to enable it was blocked by the Bougainville legislature several months ago.
Recently, the battle for Panguna entered new territory when rumors emerged of a Chinese delegation having offered $1 billion to fund the transition to Bougainville independence along with offers to invest in mining, tourism, and agriculture. An independent, resource-rich Bougainville would be a valuable ally to China as it seeks to have more influence in the South Pacific.
In a public presentation to ward councillors and MPs, filmed by a crew from 60 Minutes, Sam Kauona, a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army general, unfurled a large map of Bougainville with Chinese script highlighting proposed bridges, highways, ports, airports, and luxury hotels.
“This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China,” he said. “Where is Australia and the U.S. and Japan? Earlier this year I met representatives from Fortescue mining, but I have been waiting 10 months for them to make a commitment.”
It’s estimated that Panguna mine still holds around $60 billion worth of copper, gold, and silver.
With the independence referendum beginning on Saturday, many local leaders admit that they would like to see the mine reopen as a way to boost revenue, yet distrust of giving a foreign mining company access again still looms large. No matter the results of the referendum, any company looking to make a buck is sure to find opposition in Panguna. This is, as long as past mistakes are not forgotten.
As Bougainville Revolutionary Army leader Francis Ona once said, “Land to us is our lifeline, and we cannot be separated from it.”