Once the world's richest open cut gold mine, nowdays Panguna Mine is a hole in the earth full of toxic substances and big enough for clouds to live in (see video above). Since its inception, it has been the carrot dangled by politicians and entrepreneurs to the people of Bougainville. The mine and its value to Bougainville is such a complex equation that I am only slowly coming to understand it after four years of working on my documentary project. The President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, Dr John Momis, once said "Papua New Guinea was Australia's only colony, and the Bougainville mine bankrolled PNG's independence," to express his disappointment with how little concern Australia has shown for the environmental and social impact that has been caused by the mine.
Historically, the incredible wealth offered by the mine has created infinitely more problems for Bougainville than opportunities. It could be likened to a family winning the lottery, resulting in it slowly tearing itself apart through greed, envy, naivety, jealousy and betrayal. The mine provided the most benefit to the people of Bougainville in the 1970's and 80's through the construction of roads and basic services and by providing direct and associated jobs. Ironically, during this time it was also slowly poisoning other parts of the island as a result of the minimal, shortsighted environmental controls of the day. The owners of the mine, Rio Tinto deny all wrongdoing. Their Group Executive of Health, Safety & Environment, Joanne Farrell told the Sydney Morning Herald in a legally worded response that they believe they were fully compliant with "all regulatory requirements and applicable standards the time". A sufficient response for everyone except the people left with the mess...
The communities along the Jaba River, downstream of Panguna see things very differently. It is believed that Bougainvilleans received between 0.5–1.25% share of the total profit of the mine, and now, over 25-years since it was shut, some of the communities are coming to terms with it being reopened under drastically new terms.
As it exists the open cut mine is like a festering wound that won't heal without help. In its current state it would take more time and money than the Bougainville Government could ever afford without it being reopened. A catch-22. For the communities down river, it would be very difficult to endure this amount of uncertainty. On top of this, for Bougainville to survive as its own self-governed country, something that almost every Bougainvillean I have spoken to in the last four years has said they unquestionably want, the mine must reopen.
It would seem that the only solution is for the mine to reopen with the highest standards of sustainability and environmental management, the complete rehabilitation of the affected environment before a single ounce of gold is mined, and an assurance for a comprehensive reinstatement at the end of the agreed mining operation such as the agreed cost of rehabilitation deposited in a trust, prior to operation.
On my last trip I heard rumour of a group of Filipino lawyers making a bid to take over the mining lease. They were offering massive amounts of money and gifts despite having never mined anything other than liabilities and legal fees. Some of the people I met considered a new operator as a new opportunity. They had forgotten the old tricks of the 'cargo cults' and earlier miners. Big talk, big promises, big gifts and big long-term problems. The world has become much more aware of environmental impacts of mining companies since Panguna shut. What was agreed to in the 1970's is not something they could offer today. There are no words that Joanne Farrell could use to justify any agreement in a modern, publicly listed Australian / British mining company without repercussions. For this reason I believe that it is a case of 'better the devil you know'. Knowing the devils old tricks is a far better situation than letting a new one introduce them self bearing gifts and all the promises you've ever wanted to hear.
From all that I can see, the only way the mine can be fixed is if the mine is used to fix itself. Perhaps it is time for Bougainville to dangle the carrot for a change?