Bougainville News : Testing times for Bougainville’s mining future


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A lone copper dump truck that was completely burned out during the crisis at Panguna mine. Photo by Ian Booth.

Autonomous government needs to weigh the cost and benefits of extractive industries, writes MATTHEW ALLEN. 

The recent passage of new mining legislation on Bougainville comes at an especially troubling time for large-scale mining operations in the Western Pacific.

One of the first major laws to be enacted since the transfer of a suite of powers to the Autonomous Bougainville Government under the terms of the 2001 political settlement with Papua New Guinea, the transitional mining law is a significant step towards the possible recommencement of large-scale mining on the island.

However, an assessment of how some of the region’s largest mines have been travelling in recent times makes for sobering reading and points to the need for deep and careful reflection as Bougainville contemplates a mining future. The report card reads like this.

In April of this year the PNG government declared a state of emergency at the Porgera gold mine in the highlands province of Enga – operated by the Canadian miner Barrick Gold – and launched a three-month operation to stamp out what it describes as “illegal” mining. Over a hundred police and military personnel were deployed to the region and hundreds of houses allegedly belonging to illegal miners were razed by security forces.

Two weeks ago the Chinese-owned Ramu nickel mine, also in PNG, was reportedly attacked by “armed villagers” resulting in injuries to five Chinese workers, damage to equipment and a three-day halt to mine production.

Late last year the PNG government effectively expropriated the lucrative yet environmentally and socially problematic Ok Tedi mine in Western Province, a move that remains the subject of a court challenge in Singapore.

In neighbouring Solomon Islands, the country’s only mine, Gold Ridge on north Guadalcanal, has been closed since the site was flooded during heavy rains in April. The Australian operator returned staff to the site in June but has recently pulled out again citing a serious escalation in security incidents and the presence of large numbers of “illegal miners” in the mine lease area.

Further south in New Caledonia, the Vale nickel mine in the Southern Province was closed for several weeks earlier this year following a chemical spill that triggered a series of fatal clashes between riot police and Kanak youth.

And so the list goes on.

Unfortunately there is nothing particularly new about this association between large-scale mining and violence in Melanesia (and nor is it peculiar to the region – a 2009 United Nations study found that at least 40 per cent of intrastate conflicts globally are related to natural resources). Gold Ridge mine was a flash point during the so-called “ethnic tensions” that gripped Solomon Islands in the late 1990s, eventually closing down as a result of the violence.

And of course local grievances associated with Rio Tinto’s giant Panguna copper mine on Bougainville were a major contributor to the 10-year civil war in which thousands died. The mine has remained closed since the conflict, but Rio Tinto’s subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), had, until the passage of the new legislation this month, retained its mining lease under PNG law.

Bougainville’s political leaders are in the unenviable position of having to weigh the costs and benefits of a mining future. At the forefront of their minds is the prospect of a referendum on full independence from PNG which, according to the autonomy arrangements, must take place between 2015 and 2020. A key question is whether an independent Bougainville can be economically viable without large-scale mining.

The avowed policy of the ABG’s current leadership is to actively explore the possibility of at least one large-scale mine, with the preferred candidate being the mothballed Panguna mine. The need for the ABG to be able to regulate Bougainville’s mining sector has been given added urgency by the increasing activities of foreign investors with questionable credentials and intentions, as well as by the recent boom in small-scale and artisanal mining activities.

There are aspects of the new mining law that are innovative and clearly informed by the problematic history of the Panguna mine and the legacy of the conflict. For example, the legislation vests the ownership of mineral resources in customary landowners, who can veto exploration but not mining once an exploration license has been granted. It also contains provisions for the development of the island’s poorer regions.

That said, the legislation has not been without its detractors – in large part reflecting the highly fragmented character of Bougainville’s politics – with the parliamentary debate and subsequent passage of the bill met with an outpouring of opposition across mainstream and social media.

Opponents claim that the new law gives privileged treatment to BCL, which loses its mining lease but automatically gains an exploration license and therefore the right to negotiate for a new mining lease. Other critics have long maintained that Bougainville should follow a path to development based on smallholder agriculture and artisanal mining rather than large-scale mining.

For its part BCL’s chairman Peter Taylor has described the new legislation as a “set-back” and Rio is to review its majority shareholding in BCL. Whatever the legal status of BCL’s claim, the history of mining on Bougainville and elsewhere in Melanesia shows us that no new mining is likely to take place without the agreement of landowners, and such agreements are open to frequent renegotiation.

One thing we can be certain of is that despite demonstrable economic recovery, Bougainville’s social and economic development indicators remain well below pre-conflict levels. There are pressing human development needs on Bougainville, which only heighten the urgency of the tough choices that must be made about its economic future.

Matthew Allen is a fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He is conducting research on mining and political change in Melanesia funded by the Australia Research Council.

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