On 21 July 2021, Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, committed to funding an independent assessment of ongoing environmental damage caused by one of their former mines on Bougainville Island, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea. This commitment is in response to a formal human rights complaint filed in September 2020 by SRT grantee Human Rights Law Centre on behalf of 156 residents of local communities downstream of the Panguna mine. The claim noted: “The mine pollution continues to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of these indigenous communities, including their rights to food, water, health, housing and an adequate standard of living”. The assessment marks an important step towards greater accountability for companies that have caused environmental and social harms.
The Human Rights Law Centre, an Australian human rights organization, visited 38 sites in communities impacted by mine waste to inform a major report, After the Mine: Living with Rio Tinto’s Deadly Legacy, in 2019 and 2020. The report documented the extensive environmental damage and human suffering that had resulted from Rio Tinto’s inaction, including rivers poisoned with copper, large-scale flooding of villages and farmland with mine waste and a range of health problems which residents attribute to their exposure to the pollution, including skin diseases, respiratory problems and pregnancy complications
The Panguna mine was previously one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. It was established in 1972 by Rio Tinto and operated by its subsidiary Bougainville Copper Ltd. During its 17 years of operation, over a billion tonnes of mine waste tailings was disposed of directly into the Jaba river. Local anger over the ensuing environmental and social damage and unequal distribution of the mine’s profits ultimately sparked an uprising against the mine in 1989 that led to a brutal civil war. The mine has never reopened and Rio Tinto divested from it in 2016.
The complaint brought by the communities and the Human Rights Law Centre called on Rio Tinto to commit to funding both an independent assessment to identify the most urgent risks to Bougainville residents and to establish a substantial, independently-managed fund to address these risks.
The complaint was filed with the Australian OECD National Contact Point (AusNCP), a part of the Australian Department of the Treasury, which also helped to facilitate the negotiations. So far, Rio Tinto has only committed to fund the assessment, not the extensive cleanup work that is required. Nevertheless, Rio Tinto’s acknowledgment of the serious concerns raised by the communities through the funding of the assessment is a promising first step towards a safer future for Bougainville residents. At the conclusion of the assessment, the company and communities will hold further discussions regarding its recommendations and the next steps.
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