MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto Evades Questions On Panguna At Agm

Published by MAC on 2006-05-06
Source: Mineral Policy Institute ()

Rio Tinto evades questions on Panguna at AGM

Press release from Mineral Policy Institute, Australia

6th May 2006

Rio Tinto directors evaded questions over whether they would take responsibility for the legacy of environmental problems at the Panguna mine on Bougainville Island, and failed to make any clear commitments that they would engage the Indigenous traditional landowners before continuing discussions over resumption of the operations. While they said they had "no plans' to reopen the mine, they did admit that discussion where taking place amongst some stakeholders.

The issue is highly charged, given the tens of thousands of lives lost when the environmental problems caused by riverine waste dumping and the exclusion of traditional landowners concerns shut down the mine and lead to a civil war. There remains significant sentiments on the island that the project should never be reopened, and legitimate concerns that failing to respond to community sensitivities could be a receipe for disaster.

Moses Havini, the International representative for Bougainville for the last fifteen years who attended the A.G.M in Melbourne sought commitments for independent environmental studies and acknowledgement of the rights of traditional owners before discussions on the mine could continue, and sought commitments that Rio Tinto would halt any talks until traditional landowners impacted by the mine would be included as equal participants.

Mr. Havini is concerned that the essential commitments and necessary discussions with local people are not taking place.

"Mining companies must radically change their terms of agreement with traditional landowners in the Pacific region. Firstly, further independent environmental impact studies must be carried out before any decisions are made regarding mining in Panguna, or elsewhere. Secondly, the traditional landowners should be given a fair share of any mining venture, and their right to free, prior and informed consent for any developments respected.

Thirdly, mining companies in the Pacific must not pump their tailings any more into the river systems or into the seas. Fourthly, the Panguna Landowners Association are still to be fully compensated including arrears by Bougainville Copper Limited, and Fifthly, RTZ must fully commit itself to a full environmental cleanup of toxic materials and chemicals strewn from the Panguna Copper mine to the Port of Loloho" Mr. Havini said.

Rio Tinto said that they were continuing discussions with the other shareholders in the mine and the provincial and P.N.G. national government, but made no commitment that the traditional landowners would be included in these discussions.

With customary landownership by traditional indigenous owners the primary form of landholding across Papua New Guinea and the recent approval of a Constitution for Bougainville that firmly places the ownership of land and resources with the people, Rio's top down approach, and the question of ownership of the lease itself is unresolved and set to inflame issues.

"One would have hoped that previous experiences would have taught the company that customary indigenous landowners whose lands will be impacted need to be included from day one of any discussions, and their rights to exercise free, prior informed consent over projects on their land acknowledged." stated Techa Beaumont of the Mineral Policy Institute. " Rio Tinto has done as much in Australia at mine such as Jabiluka, so why will they not do the same in our neighbouring countries? In the context of what people of Bougainville have suffered as a result of Rio Tinto's former operations, any other approach shows a reckless disregard for the suffering and loss of life that has occurred."

Rio Tinto was also under fire for its involvement in the Freeport mine.

"Freeport is contributing to the suffering in West Papua because it funds the Indonesian government and military", West Papuan refugee Herman Wanggai told the meeting.

"You can't separate what the mine is doing from the political situation in West Papua. It is directly linked to the human rights problems."

Claims about the environmental impact of tailings released into the river system, and ongoing breaches of environmental laws were also raised following the release of a report into the mine this week by Indonesian environmental NGO WALHI.

Rio Tinto defended the contraversial practice, which BHP Billiton ruled out ever using again after admitting the environmental disaster it caused at the Ok Tedi mine. Chairman Paul Skinner continued to defend its use at Freeport, saying that the company believed its use was best practice for the Freeport mine. He did concede however that they would not consider utilizing it again in any proposal to reopen the Panguna operation.

"Rio's defense of riverine tailings disposal at Freeport as an example of 'best practice' is disturbing," Minerals Policy Institute Executive Director Techa Beaumont said.

Skinner also refused to answer questions on when the mine would stop breaching Indonesia's environmental regulations. The breaches led to the Indonesian environment ministry calling on the company to comply with Indonesian laws earlier this year. Mr Witoelar was reported by Reuters news service in April as saying "If they don't do it (points necessary to comply) then we would give a warning. If they still don't do it then we will bring them to court."

For more information: Techa Beaumont, Executive Director, Mineral Policy Institute: 0409 318 406

Moses Havini, International Representative of the Bougainville Autonomous
Government: 0409 226 428

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