MAC: Mines and Communities

What has Bougainville to teach us?

Published by MAC on 2001-09-15

Lessons from the Pacific

What has Bougainville to teach us?

Partizans, September 2001

Roger Moody

Hardly anyone has remarked on it outside of the southern Pacific but September 2001 hopefully saw the penultimate acts in settling the bloodiest mining-related conflict of the past twenty years: the Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed (see news articles which follow).

In late 1988 a small group of Panguna villagers, led by elder Francis Ona, a former employee at the RTZ-CRA (Rio Tinto) Panguna copper-gold mine, blew up some of its installations (ironically with explosives seized from the company). The action came in the wake of demands for huge compensation for loss of land and resources to the project, and appalling toxic pollution of the Jaba river system. One of the reasons for the landowners' action was Rio Tinto's proposal to alleviate this, by piping copper tailings into Empress Augusta bay - an early advocacy of STD (submarine tailings disposal). Refusal by Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea government to even discuss these demands prompted escalating guerilla action against the mine and its employees. The company closed down Panguna the following year, by which time PNG central government forces, strategically backed by the Australian government, were waging full-scale war on a large proportion of the population of Bougainville.

At this point, it should suffice to say: "the rest is history", but alas that's not true. Not only does Bougainville barely feature in recent examinations of conflict or conflict resolution, but I find remarkably few mining "activists" realise the significance of what started as a "revolt" and now has a reasonable prospect of ending in full independence for a new nation - albeit in a decade or more's time. And doing so without the revival of the devastating mine which was at the heart of (though not by any means the only factor in) the uprising.

The war on Bougainville cost the lives of 20,000 inhabitants (perhaps more) - mostly women and children: a toll approaching that in East Timor. Attempts by Rio Tinto to dismiss (sometimes in flagrantly racialist language) the revolution as "nothing to do with the mine" persisted throughout the holocaust. Yet, it was the Panguna landowners who were last to put down their weapons, testifying continually over nearly thirty yers that the mine lay at the core of their grievances, and that they would never allow it to re-open. Rio Tinto has admitted it "made mistakes" in Bougainville - nothing more; certainly no apology. Whether the new administration of Bougainville will sue for reparations of any kind is currently moot. Last year landowners submitted an alien tort claim in California, claiming multi-million dollar damages against Rio Tinto for human rights violations.

Not the end of the story

So this is surely not the end of the saga. Proposals to re-open the mine will probably be made (one or more may be under secret discussion at present). No doubt these will be seriously entertained in some quarters, even though there's not yet been adequate assessment of the technical or commercial feasibility of such an enterprise. Any moves to re-open would certainly precipitate new conflict. Meanwhile, there is growing testimony to the alternative methods of guaranteeing survival which have grown out of, and around, the ruins of the Bougainville mine and the determination of
the island's people to promote a thriving agricultural economy. The roles of the Australian government, some Papua New Guinean leaders, and others (not least missionaries, mercenaries and murderers of Bougainville premier Miriung), have yet to be properly recounted or accounted for.

We may care to reflect for a moment on a simple but stark southern Pacific reality: Bougainville was just the first of the vast copper-gold mines financed by western investors, and managed by three of the world's most powerful mining companies. The resistance to massive social and ecological assaults on the island during the late sixties and throughout the seventies and eighties, seems to have succeeded, though the attrition has been appalling. (Parallels with East Timor again).

Freeport-Rio Tinto

The second major project was Freeport McMoran's Ertsberg mine (predecessor to Grasberg) in West Papua, which came on-stream in 1973, a year after Bougainville (in fact both mines began construction in 1967). Most of us do not require much detail on the succession of disasters which followed in the wake of the US company's plunging of its development "spear" into the Amungme heartland. But tragically, after even longer conflict between Indigenous communities and the company - mightily backed by the military - West Papua still seems far from meaningful autonomy (let alone independence).

In 1977 the fledgling OPM (Operasi Papua Merdeka) blew up Freeport's copper concentrate pipeline. Nearly two decades later, in 1995 (even while conflict still raged on Bougainville and first evidence emerged of atrocities against the Amungme and Komoro peoples in the mining concession area, in which Freeport was complicit), Rio Tinto decided to invest just under two billion dollars in the
faltering US company. Thanks solely to this injection of funds, the Grasberg mine could commence its current spate of massive expansion, while exploration teams moved into new highland areas.

No-one has yet (in my view) adequately determined why the British mining monster ignored the warning signals (which came not only from Partizans, the British dissident shareholders group, but also Germany's biggest investment bank, the Deutsche, and reportedly from Rio Tinto's own due diligence survey team). At a stroke Rio Tinto became indispensable to the world's single most destructive mining enterprise. Was this simply corporate hubris - an insatiable desire by this supremely arrogant enterprise, to control the globe's most promising copper-gold resource? Had Rio Tinto by then already decided to quit Bougainville, whatever the outcome of the war?

Ok Tedi

By then Ok Tedi had arrived. This was a Papua New Guinean mine for the twenty-first century, accompanied by different patterns of resistance and recuperation, with company and government evolving consideraly more sophisticated, complex and contradictory procedures, to settle compensation claims and promote community "development". But even - perhaps especially - here the precedent set by the Bougainville uprising was not lost. (Early blockading of the mine-site was dubbed "to bougainville" by local people). In a much shorter period than at Grasberg or Panguna, the impacts of the mine - specifically of its riverine tailings disposal, following abandoment of a land-based system - became the focus for local, national and international condemnation. Despite flagrant attempts to change Papua New Guinean legislation in its favour, BHP was hauled before an Australian judge and eventually settled out-of-court (or rather it didn't settle, as recent proceedings serve to show), promising to pay out an unprecedented amount on damage claims.

Later the Australian conglomerate was hypocritically to condemn the operation out of its own mouth, and call for the mine's closure. The World Bank (which has never condemned Freeport/Rio Tinto's operations in West Papua) joined the call, displaying its own brand of sophistry. (Although exceptional, the manoeuvre wasn't unique: Rio Tinto had itself wanted to close its copper mining and smelting operations in Spain during the eighties, but was restrained by trade unionists: it later sold up and quit).

Unanswered questions

There are surely many lessons in all this; numerous questions which have not been answered; some, as pointed out, have not even been raised. Who is to raise them now? Who is analyzing the roles of all the players in this triad of mining battlegrounds, seeking to resolve outstanding issues and prevent continued bloodshed or new discontents? Who is to provide, not only the intellectual but - critically - the organisational space (one of Indigenous community empowerment) in which arguably the three most significant mining conflicts of the past thirty years can finally be resolved?

We know that the corporate-prompted Global Mining Initiative cannot (and expressly will not) do so. Using the law (there are current court actions against all three mines) is costly, time-consuming and the cases may not even be heard (the Beanal-Yosefa case against Freeport in Louisiana was not).

Are we reluctantly to concur with George Bernard Shaw that "the only lesson we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history"?

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