‘Our rivers are poisoned’: Residents raise Rio Tinto human rights claims

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 water sources and put the community’s lives and livelihoods at risk.

Theonila Roka Matbob in front of an area destroyed by mine waste flooding.
Theonila Roka Matbob in front of an area destroyed by mine waste flooding.

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.

Another area flooded by mine waste.
Another area flooded by mine waste.

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.”

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