A recent agreement by Rio Tinto to fund an independent assessment into the environmental and human rights impacts of a mine it owned in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, offers a first step for local communities whose lives have been blighted. They have endured a bloody conflict sparked by the mine, which worked for the benefit of outsiders but caused little but problems for the people of Bougainville, which seeks independence from Papua New Guinea. Rio Tinto only acted when civil society organised to bring a formal complaint, and the company can expect to face continuing pressure to do the decent thing and pay to clean up its toxic legacy.

It took a long time for hope to arrive for people living with the devastating impacts of mining in Bougainville. In recent decades, people living in this island group, an autonomous territory of Papua New Guinea that demands self-determination, have experienced a deadly civil conflict, repression from the mainland and immense harm caused by mine waste. But in July, mining giant Rio Tito, which opened the mine in the 1970s, finally decided to show some responsibility, when following civil society pressure it agreed to fund an independent assessment of the environmental and human rights impacts of the mine.

A dismal legacy

Rio Tinto pulled out of the Panguna copper and gold mine in 1989 in response to an uprising that marked the start of a bloody 10-year conflict. After the conflict, it handed its majority stake in the mine over to the national government of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Bougainville Government, which came into being as part of a peace agreement. But this meant that none of the usual closure, clean-up and rehabilitation procedures that companies should follow when a mine is shut down happened. Rio Tinto was accused of washing its hands of the problem, effectively abandoning it without a plan. This allowed mine waste – known as tailings – to leak into the water.

Some 12,000 to 14,000 people live downstream of the mining site, and they rely on the water, poisoned by copper, for their essentials: for drinking, farming and fishing. For them the mine is no historical issue but an ongoing everyday problem.

Rio Tinto finally responded when 156 local residents, aided by Australian civil society organisation the Human Rights Law Centre, filed a formal complaint with the Australian government over breaches of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines. The Australian government’s OECD national contact point accepted the complaint and brought the two sides together, resulting in Rio Tinto’s commitment to fund the impact assessment.


Keren Adams is Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, the organisation that worked with the 156 community members to bring the successful complaint.


Rio Tinto’s former Panguna mine left a massive legacy of environmental and social devastation. Panguna had been one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. During its operation, between 1972 and 1989, over a billion tonnes of waste from the mine were dumped directly into the Kawerong river downstream. In 2016, Rio Tinto divested from the mine and walked away without accepting any responsibility for this legacy.

As a result, communities all along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley continue to live surrounded by vast mounds of tailings left over from the mine’s operation. Their water sources are heavily polluted with copper, and with every rainfall, huge volumes of tailings erode into the rivers, flooding farms and forests downstream with polluted mud, displacing villagers and destroying peoples’ livelihoods. Many people in the area live with serious health problems, including skin diseases and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, which local health workers attribute to their exposure to pollution.

The communities we are working with called for Rio Tinto to fund the impact assessment as a first critical step towards addressing the massive and ongoing environmental and human rights problems being caused by the mine. But it is only the first step. They hope and expect that once the impact assessment is complete, Rio Tinto will contribute to a substantial, independently managed fund to help address the harms caused by the mine and assist long-term rehabilitation efforts.

These communities urgently need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. They need solutions to stop the vast mounds of tailings eroding into the rivers and flooding their villages, farms and fishing areas. They need their children to be able to walk to school without having to wade through treacherous areas of quicksand created by the mine waste. These are just some examples of what remediation means in real terms for the people living with these impacts.

The extent of the environmental destruction at Panguna and the myriad health and social problems caused by the mine, left unaddressed for over 30 years, mean that substantial resources and a long-term commitment will be needed to find solutions and undertake proper rehabilitation of the site.

So far, Rio Tinto has only committed to funding the independent assessment of the mine. While we see this as an important development, it remains to be seen how serious the company is about addressing its legacy on the island and providing remedy in accordance with its human rights and environmental obligations. We will be continuing to work with local communities and other stakeholders like the Autonomous Bougainville Government to ensure that they do so.


This is an edited extract of our interview with Keren Adams. Read the full interview here.

The spark of a violent conflict

Before the conflict erupted, Panguna brought a great deal of profit to Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea government. It was one of the world’s most profitable mines and at one point generated some 45 per cent of all of Papua New Guinea’s exports. But hardly any of that went to Bougainville residents, who experienced all the negative impacts with almost none of the benefits; only one per cent of profits were invested in Bougainville.

Bougainville is culturally distinct from the mainland and geographically part of the Solomon Islands group. It briefly attempted to declare its independence before Papua New Guinea gained its own from Australia in 1975. The opening of the mine saw many workers come in from the mainland and Australia, further fuelling resentment. An act of sabotage against the mine sparked a conflict that led to around 20,000 deaths. Mainland troops were accused of brutal actions, including aerial bombing, the burning of villages and sexual assault. A blockade stopped vital supplies reaching Bougainville, and the Papua New Guinea government recruited South African mercenaries.

The peace deal that brought the conflict’s end saw an agreement that a referendum would be held on Bougainville’s independence. When the vote took place in 2019 it produced an overwhelming 98.3 per cent vote in favour of independence. The peace agreement commits to a deadline of 2027 for Bougainville to become independent, and although the referendum is non-binding and the final decision on whether to grant full independence or some lesser status will rest with Papua New Guinea’s parliament, the referendum result suggests a unanimity that is hard to ignore.

By the time independence arrives, will the damage Rio Tinto caused have been cleared up? It’s fair to say the corporate giant, the world’s second-largest metal and mining company, didn’t get rich by respecting the environment and human rights. It has a long track record of ignoring the environmental impacts of its mines and has faced accusations of political lobbying to evade environmental protections.

In 2020, Rio Tinto’s chief executive resigned after the company faced widespread condemnation for destroying ancient sacred Aboriginal sites in Australia so it could get to iron ore. In Madagascar, communities have been struggling for several years to get the company to compensate them for water pollution caused by a mine. In relation to the Panguna mine, a lawsuit filed in the USA in 2000 alleged that Rio Tinto was complicit in human rights abuses committed by the Papua New Guinea military, caused environmental harm and engaged in racial discrimination.

Time to do better

For too long, big companies have got away with wrecking the environment and violating human rights, and communities have remained the sites of extraction while benefits have filled the pockets of distant business and political elites. This can’t go on, and huge corporations and the financial institutions that invest in them can expect to face increasing activism, including in the form of group complaints, lawsuits and shareholder action, to hold them to account on the harm they do. 2021 has seen many such actions. Civil society is increasingly targeting its activism at corporate giants, while moves towards developing a binding international convention on business and human rights continue.

For Rio Tinto, this independent assessment should be just a start. As Bougainville takes further steps towards self-determination, here is an opportunity for Rio Tinto to do better than it has done in the past and play a more positive role in the country’s future. The company can expect to face ongoing civil society pressure to go beyond its first, reluctant move to deal with the mess it has made.


  • Rio Tinto should commit to fully funding the clean-up and rehabilitation of the mine site and surrounding area.
  • Corporations should commit and adhere to high environmental, climate and human rights standards, and enable civil society to scrutinise their performance.
  • The government of Papua New Guinea should respect the results of the 2019 referendum and the evident will Bougainville’s people have expressed for independence.