It seems that filing the complaint has finally forced them to the table
Published by MAC on 2020-09-30
Source: Human Rights Law Centre, Reuters, SMH (2020-09-29)
More than 150 Bougainville residents are petitioning the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over claims its failure to clean up millions of tonnes of waste from its former copper mine on the island has caused severe environmental damage and human rights violations. Particularly interesting Reuters article Where Rio Tinto says “We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint” (which seems to show that filing the complaint has finally forced them to the table).
Bougainville communities file human rights complaint against Rio Tinto for impacts of mine waste pollution
Human Rights Law Centre press release – https://www.hrlc.org.au/news/2020/9/28/bougainville-communities-file-human-rights-complaint-rio-tinto
29 September 2020
Today 156 Bougainville community members have filed a complaint with the Australian Government against Rio Tinto for environmental and human rights violations caused by its former mine on Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.
The complaint, filed with the Australian OECD National Contact Point, alleges that the massive volume of mine waste pollution left behind by Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine is putting communities’ lives and livelihoods at risk, poisoning their water sources, flooding their lands and sacred sites and causing a range of health problems.
The copper and gold mine was majority-owned by the British-Australian mining giant for forty-five years, but in 2016, Rio Tinto divested from the mine.
An estimated 12-14,000 people live downstream of the mine along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley.
The complaint alleges that Rio Tinto’s failure to clean up the billion tonnes of waste pollution left by the mine and mitigate the risks it poses to these communities breaches human rights and environmental standards set out in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, a leading international standard on responsible business conduct.
Theonila Roka Matbob, a traditional landowner from Makosi village who has recently been elected to the Bougainville parliament, said Rio Tinto’s failure to act had left communities with no choice but to escalate the complaint to the international stage.
“We live with the impacts of Panguna every day. Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution. Every time it rains more waste washes into the rivers, causing flooding for villages further downstream. Some communities now have to spend two hours a day walking just to get clean drinking water because their nearby creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”
“These are not problems we can fix with our bare hands. We urgently need Rio Tinto to do what’s right and deal with the disaster they have left behind,” added Mrs Matbob.
The communities are seeking commitments from the company to engage with them about these problems and contribute to an independent fund to address the immediate health and safety dangers being caused by the mine and assist with long-term clean up and rehabilitation.
Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, which filed the complaint on behalf of the communities said Rio Tinto’s failure to address its legacy in Bougainville was shameful.
“This is a company that holds itself out as a global leader on human rights, and yet as we saw at Juukan Gorge in Australia and we see here in Bougainville, there is a total disconnect between Rio Tinto’s rhetoric and the reality experienced by Indigenous communities impacted by the company’s operations. If Rio Tinto is serious about learning lessons, it needs to listen to communities and take responsibility for the human impacts of its activities.”
Panguna was previously one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. During its operation from 1972 to 1989, the mine generated almost $US 2 billion in revenue for Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea Government. In 1989, an uprising by local people against the mass environmental destruction caused by the mine and inequities in the distribution of its profits forced the mine’s closure and triggered a brutal decade-long civil war. The mine has never been reopened.
A clear path had been identified to deal with the environmental devastation at Panguna in 2014 but despite being aware of this, Rio Tinto divested from the mine before this could be implemented. The company passed on its shares in the mine to the Bougainville and PNG Governments and side-stepped entirely the cost of clean-up.
The Australian OECD National Contact Point, based in the Department of Treasury, has the power to investigate complaints made against Australian companies operating overseas, to issue findings on whether companies are in breach of their obligations under the OECD Guidelines and recommend actions to address any breaches that have occurred.
A copy of the human rights complaint can be found here. A list of the complainants from the community can be found here.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s recent report After the mine: Living with Rio Tinto’s deadly legacy about the impacts of the Panguna mine can be found here.
Michelle Bennett, Communications Director: 0419 100 519
Rio Tinto changes tack, ready for talks over Bougainville mine
28 September 2020
MELBOURNE – Rio Tinto Ltd RIO.AX said on Tuesday that it was ready to talk to stakeholders over allegations of human rights breaches at a giant copper mine in Bougainville that it formerly owned, after community members filed a complaint with the Australian government.
“We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint,” it said, adding it would also speak with current mine owners as well as the Bougainville and Papua New Guinea governments.
The stance marks a change from April, when Rio rebuffed a request by the same group for a review of health and safety concerns at the mine as a starting point for discussion around compensation and remediation.
It also highlights a different approach by Rio to social responsibility, after its destruction of sacred and historically significant rockshelters for an iron ore mine in Australia in May cost its chief executive and two other executives their jobs.
Rio Tinto subsidiary Bougainville Copper (BCL) ran the Panguna copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea from the early 1970s to 1990 when it was abandoned during a civil war that was largely fought over how mine profits should be shared.
Rio handed its shareholding in the mine to national and local governments in 2016.
The complaint, backed by 156 community members, was filed on Tuesday to the Australian OECD National Contact Point by Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre. It alleges that the large volumes of mine waste left behind poisoned water sources, flooded lands and sacred sites, and caused a range of health problems.
Rio said that it was aware of the “deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts,” despite not having had staff at the mine since 1990.
While global miners have not been forced to account for mines they operated in the past, or those they inherited, they have come under increased pressure from shareholders in the past few years to ensure high standards of responsible mining.
The Bougainville mine – Bougainville Copper Ltd BOC.AX – is part listed on the Australian stock market and part-owned both by the Bougainville and PNG governments .
Bougainville, which held an election last week, is in talks with the Papua New Guinea government over its independence.
Reporting by Melanie Burton. Editing by Jane Merriman
‘Our rivers are poisoned’: Residents raise Rio Tinto human rights claims
29 September 2020
More than 150 Bougainville residents are petitioning the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over claims its failure to clean up millions of tonnes of waste from its former copper mine on the island has caused severe environmental damage and human rights violations.
The complaint, sent to the Anglo-Australian miner and the federal Treasury department this week, says the pollution left behind from Bougainville’s Panguna mine that Rio Tinto ran for decades has poisoned local
Theonila Roka Matbob, a traditional landowner who has recently been elected to the Bougainville parliament, said residents were “living with the impacts of Panguna every day”. She said Rio Tinto had left them no choice but to take the matter to the international stage.
“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution,” she said. “Every time it rains, more waste washes into the rivers, causing flooding for villages further downstream. Some communities now have to spend two hours a day walking just to get clean drinking water because their nearby creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”
The complaint, signed by 156 Bougainville residents, has been lodged with the Australian OECD Contact Point within the federal Treasury Department, which has the power to investigate complaints made against Australian companies operating overseas, issue findings on whether they were in breach of their obligations under the OECD guidelines and recommend actions.
Rio Tinto, which was forced to suspend operations at Panguna due to the civil war in 1989 and divested its interest in 2016, on Monday acknowledged the filing of the complaint by the Panguna communities and said it was “ready to enter into discussions” with them.
“While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to ongoing security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts,” the spokesman said.
Rio Tinto’s treatment of community stakeholders has been in the spotlight in recent months as it faces the ongoing fallout from its decision to blow up two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge. The disaster left the land’s traditional owners devastated and eventually led to the resignations of chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives.
Lawyers from the Human Rights Law Centre, which filed the complaint on behalf of the Bougainville residents, said the actions at Juukan Gorge and at Bougainville revealed a “total disconnect” between Rio Tinto’s rhetoric – holding itself out as a global leader on human rights – and the reality experienced by Indigenous communities impacted by its operations.
“If Rio Tinto is serious about learning lessons, it needs to listen to communities and take responsibility for the human impacts of its activities,” the group’s legal director Keren Adams said.
The outbreak of civil war in Bougainville led to Rio Tinto’s majority-owned Bougainville Copper suspending the Panguna mine operations from 1989. The company has had no access to the site since then due to the conflict and ongoing security concerns.
Rio Tinto cut ties with Bougainville Copper in 2016, gifting its 53 per cent stake to Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Bougainville Government.
Bougainville residents and human rights advocates have been seeking commitments from Rio Tinto to contribute to an independent fund to address the immediate health and safety dangers caused by the mine and assist with the long-term clean-up and rehabilitation.
“These are not problems we can fix with our bare hands,” Ms Matbob said. “We urgently need Rio Tinto to do what’s right and deal with the disaster they left.”