MAC: Mines and Communities

Quest for American justice on a South Pacific island

Published by MAC on 2004-07-19

Quest for American justice on a South Pacific island

By Jennifer Langston, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

July 19 2004

Everett man battles mining company on behalf of Bouganville residents

Paul Stocker's son went to the South Pacific to build a coral airstrip on his dad's coconut plantation. He stayed for a pretty girl peeking out from behind a palm tree.

The Everett attorney couldn't foresee how that moment would define his life: the grandchildren and great-grandchildren that would follow and the international quest for justice he would wage on their behalf.

World War II veteran Paul Stocker, seen with a photo of himself as a Navy gunner, is fighting another battle, this time for the indigenous people of the island of Bougainville.

Two decades after his son went to the South Pacific, civil war would erupt in Papua New Guinea over a vast copper mine that villagers blamed for destroying rivers and rain forests that no longer fed them.

And Stocker, now 80, would persuade Steve Berman, the Seattle class-action lawyer whose firm won billions from tobacco companies, to help indigenous residents of Bougainville Island sue one of the biggest mining companies in the world.

Histry of Bougainville crisis inUsing an obscure law that allows foreign nationals to seek damages for violations of international law in U.S. courts, they're on the leading edge of attempts to hold corporations responsible for their actions in developing and unsettled countries.

Last month, the Supreme Court issued its first ruling on a suit brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act, which victims of human-rights abuses in other countries have used to win judgments here.

The justices dismissed that case, brought by a kidnapped Mexican doctor, and limited the scope of the 18th-century law. But Berman and other attorneys say the ruling should still allow egregious crimes such as genocide to be pursued.

"It has all the hallmarks of the kinds of cases that interest us," he said. "You've got these people from Bougainville with no power, no economic might, who've been horribly mistreated by this giant mining company that not only flagrantly violated their rights, but also participated in war crimes."

Rio Tinto, a London-based mining company with operations worldwide, "vigorously" disputes the claims advanced in the suit and contends that the case has no business being heard in an American courtroom.

A federal district judge agreed, dismissing the complaint after the State Department argued the suit could damage a fragile peace process under way in Bougainville and impair foreign relations.

Both sides appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is now poised to decide whether the suit can move forward.

The suit alleges Rio Tinto bulldozed rain forests and dumped billions of tons of toxic mine waste into rivers and the ocean, killing fish that locals depended upon.

In villages where people believed foreign objects such as cars or tinned food came from their dead ancestors, the mine at Panguna eroded their culture and decimated a subsistence economy, the suit says.

Tensions over environmental problems and distribution of the mine's profits grew. Angry landowners, who morphed into a revolutionary movement seeking independence for Bougainville, blew up power sources to the copper mine in 1988.

The Papua New Guinea government -- which had received 19 percent of the profits from one of the world's largest open-cut copper mines -- established a military blockade preventing food, medicine, books and clothes from reaching much of the island.

Rebels slipped into the rain forest, making fuel from coconuts and guns from leftover World War II ammunition. The eight-year blockade and war killed about 15,000 civilians, according to the residents' complaint.

The suit contends that Rio Tinto should be held responsible for war-related deaths because it transported soldiers and pressured the government to do whatever was necessary to reopen the lucrative mine.

Rio Tinto says it played no part in the civil strife. Neither the company nor its employees conspired to commit any acts of violence, a spokesman said.

Stocker, whose grandchildren have blood ties to Bougainville through their maternal grandfather, has spent the past 10 years and his life savings seeking reparations for the tropical island's people.

His immediate family members, including a grandson and two great-grandchildren who lived there, left before the war broke out. But he's always stuck up for underdogs.

A Navy gunner in World War II, the octogenarian also remembers how islanders there carried wounded soldiers on their backs and allowed the allies to have airstrips that enabled them to fight the Japanese.

"To me, when someone has helped you, you try a little bit to help them out," Stocker said. "Couldn't they just spend a few days in our courthouse?"

Stocker has never shied away from a fight: He battled Taiwanese pirates stealing from a black pearl farm he established. He sued the city of Lynnwood for failing to provide proper signs on a dangerous road and automobile manufacturers for making cars that explode.

He has boxes of mementos from the 17 years he spent in New Guinea, including photographs with Jean-Michel Cousteau, the late movie star William Holden and more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

There's a newspaper story about the 1994 volcano eruption that sank a schooner he built to ferry medicine to the scarcely developed Solomon Islands.

The do-gooder isn't opposed to making a buck. Stocker developed what is now a world-famous golf course on several hundred acres of cow pasture he bought on the Australian coast.

After serving two terms in the Washington Legislature, he ended up with hit pavilions at the Seattle and New York world's fairs in the 1960s that financed his travels.

"He just kind of starts talking to people, and the next thing you know, he's off doing something else," said Kay Anderson, a former Snohomish County clerk who has known Stocker for 50 years and been his partner for the last decade.

"Paul is an adventurer. He's not satisfied with the routine of making money," she said.

That gift for networking led Bougainville leaders to approach Stocker about negotiating a settlement with Rio Tinto, which owned 54 percent of the Panguna mine.

Fruitless negotiations convinced Stocker that a lawsuit was the only hope for just compensation. He eventually approached Berman and Paul Luvera, who accepted and agreed to finance the complicated class-action suit.

The payoff could be substantial: An Australian lawsuit filed against another company on behalf of landowners near Papua New Guinea's Ok Tedi copper mine resulted in an out-of-court settlement worth roughly $500 million, according to a lawyer involved in that case.

Landowners in Bougainville describe chemical spraying in the 1960s that poisoned wide swaths of trees. Villages were moved to make way for the mine.

Flying foxes, possums and other animals died; cocoa trees stopped producing; and fruit trees started bearing fruit in the wrong seasons, the suit says.

Tailings contaminated with copper, zinc, cadmium, mercury and arsenic turned river valleys into moonscapes. A bay that once held plentiful fish now contains only sick crocodiles and dead water rats, the suit alleges.

An independent study conducted for Papua New Guinea government in the late 1980s found environmental damage from the mine, according to material provided by Rio Tinto.

But it also concluded that the mine's operations were not likely responsible for any loss of wildlife, declining crops or health problems.

The company was in the final year of a $76 million project to begin transporting tailings away from the river and allow for rehabilitation when militants shut down the mine, Rio Tinto spokesman Ian Head said. Since then, it has not had access to Panguna to assess current conditions.

The suit also tries to hold the company responsible for international crimes against humanity, acts of rape, torture and execution committed during the war and racial discrimination.

"They took their land away from them; they polluted the water and air and cut off their medicine. I can't think of anything they did that wouldn't make Adolf Hitler happy," Stocker said.

Alexis Sarei, a former priest and Bougainville provincial prime minister who now lives in Los Angeles, said the mine created a poisonous cultural divide.

Mine officials who were eventually pressured into compensating landowners refused to recognize that under local custom, non-blood relatives who belonged to the same eagle or chicken totem family held rights to the land, too.

The introduction of everything from bulldozers to supermarkets upended what had been a village-based subsistence economy, he said.

Rio Tinto points out that life expectancy improved and mortality rates dropped significantly during the first 10 years that the mine operated. But Sarei, a plaintiff in the class-action suit, said there were negatives, too.

"After the mine I couldn't believe the change it had on the people," he said. "They didn't work anymore. There were a lot of people losing their minds. They went crazy."

There was unspeakable cruelty during the war, he said, including burned villages, rapes and executions. Two of his nephews were suffocated in a culvert that soldiers plugged on either end with smoldering tires.

Whether or not Rio Tinto aided government troops or could be held legally responsible for actions committed during the war would be a fiercely debated aspect of the suit, if it's allowed to move forward.

"This whole issue of holding corporations responsible for their participation in what we clearly believe were war crimes is on the edge of the envelope," Berman said.

"Rio told the government to take any steps necessary to quell the rebellion."

For Stocker -- equally at home in his partner's Mill Creek golf course town house or the rosewood thatch house he still keeps in Papua New Guinea -- the issue is simple.

And the 80-year-old is patiently waiting for a day in court to prove it.

"I think it wasn't fair, that's all," he said. "People were killing people just to make money."

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