'Deal with the disaster': the girl from Bougainville who grew up to take on a mining giant

For all of Theonila Roka Matbob’s 3 a long time, the scar on her land that was once as soon as the arena’s greatest copper mine has solid a pall.

The Panguna mine in Bougainville, japanese Papua New Guinea, has now not yielded a unmarried ounce in her lifetime – pressured close the yr earlier than Matbob was once born – however she grew up within the shadow of the violent civil conflict it provoked.

When she was once simply 3 years outdated, her father, John Roka, was once murdered by means of the secessionist infantrymen who had pressured the mine to near. Spending years in a “care centre” run by means of the PNG defence pressure, she recalls a adolescence ruled by means of an all-pervasive concern, the place the sound of gunshots often rang out around the valley, the place neighbours disappeared from their houses, their our bodies later discovered slaughtered.

Theonila Roka Matbob stands in front of the Pangua mine in Konawiru, Bougainville.
Theonila Roka Matbob stands in entrance of the Pangua mine in Konawiru, Bougainville. : Human Rights Regulation Centre/Reuters

There may be peace now, however reminiscences stay, and “we are living with the affects of Panguna each day,” Matbob says.

“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our houses get stuffed with mud from the tailings mounds, our children get in poor health from the air pollution.

“Each and every time it rains extra waste washes into the rivers, inflicting flooding for villages additional downstream. Some communities now need to spend two hours an afternoon strolling simply to get blank ingesting water as a result of their within reach creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”

Families live in the disused mine pit at Panguna, attempting to make a living from alluvial mining. Polluted, unnaturally blue water, contaminates the pit and there are frequent landslides.
Households are living within the disused mine pit at Panguna, making an attempt to make a residing from alluvial mining. Polluted, unnaturally blue water, contaminates the pit and there are widespread landslides. : Equipped/Human Rights Regulation Centre

Panguna is quiet at the moment. The mining vans lie rusting in Bougainville’s clammy warmth; the huge pit carved into the center of a mountain is inhabited by means of a handful alluvial miners, digging with hand equipment for what gold stays; and the Kawerong-Jaba river delta downstream is flooded with vivid blue poisonous waters which poison the land and the individuals who are living there.

And Matbob, the little woman who grew up within the shadow of the mine’s violence, is now a parliamentarian, made up our minds to hunt redress for her other folks.

Newly elected to the Bougainville parliament for the voters of Ioro, which encompasses Panguna, Matbob has led a proper grievance filed with the Australian govt in opposition to Rio Tinto for environmental and human rights violations led to by means of the mine.

The grievance, supported by means of greater than 150 participants of her voters and by means of the Human Rights Regulation Centre, alleges that the huge quantity of waste air pollution left in the back of by means of the mine is striking communities’ lives and livelihoods in danger, poisoning their water, destructive their well being, flooding their lands and sacred websites, and leaving them “in a deteriorating, more and more bad state of affairs”.

A poisonous legacy

Panguna was once an immensely winning mine. Over 17 years it made greater than $US2bn for the mine’s former proprietor and operator Rio Tinto, who pulled 550,000 tonnes of copper listen and 450,000 oz of gold from the mine in its final yr on my own.

At one level, Panguna accounted for 45% of all of PNG’s exports, and 12% of its GDP.

However for the ones whose land it was once, Panguna introduced however a sliver of the wealth and building that was once promised – not up to 1% of income – leaving in the back of a legacy most effective of department, violence, and environmental degradation.

In 1989, amid emerging fury on the environmental injury and the inequitable department of the mine’s income, normal landowners pressured the mine closed, blowing up Panguna’s energy strains and sabotaging operations.

A mining truck rusts at Panguna mine.
A mining truck rusts at Panguna mine. : Ilya Gridneff/AAP

The PNG govt despatched in troops in opposition to its personal electorate to restart the foreign-owned mine – on the behest of Rio, it says – sparking a civil conflict that will rage for a decade. In conjunction with a chronic army blockade, it resulted in the deaths of as many as 20,000 other folks.

Rio Tinto lower and run, and hasn’t ever returned to the island, claiming it’s unsafe, in spite of pleas from landowners to fix the huge and ongoing environmental injury.

“Those don’t seem to be issues we will be able to repair with our naked palms,” Matbob says. “We urgently want Rio Tinto to do what’s proper and maintain the crisis they have got left in the back of.”

‘We think a fair proportion’

A made from Bougainville’s matrilineal society, which bestows girls with custodianship of land and group authority, Matbob speaks quietly however forcefully.

A trainer by means of career, and mom of 2, she studied at universities in Madang and Goroka earlier than running as a social employee and operating for parliament. She beat a box of 15 applicants, together with a number of former innovative infantrymen, or even her personal brother.

However the parliament to which Matbob has been elected has any other number one and overwhelming fear, regardless that one in detail comparable: negotiating independence from Papua New Guinea.

Final yr, the province voted 98% in favour of seceding from Port Moresby, and the brand new president, former Bougainville Modern Military commander Ishmael Toroama, has promised to ship liberation.

Regardless of resistance from PNG’s govt to shedding its resource-rich japanese province, there’s authentic expectation among Bougainvilleans that their resolution to secede can be honoured.

Upe men line up to vote in the 2019 independence referendum in Teau, Bougainville.
Upe males line as much as vote within the 2019 independence referendum in Teau, Bougainville. : Jeremy Miller/AP

However the argument allied to political independence in Bougainville is that it might probably most effective be accomplished along financial autonomy.

To that finish, the argument runs, re-opening Panguna is the surest, in all probability the one, manner a small province of simply 300,000 other folks can live to tell the tale as an unbiased country. On Bougainville, the problem of independence has transform inextricably related to that of sources, for which Panguna has transform a grim synecdoche.

“Huge-scale mining supplies a path to fiscal self-reliance, however this technique has dangers,” a document by means of Dr Satish Chand for the Nationwide Analysis Institute of PNG discovered, arguing of Panguna, “the viability of this undertaking, the… profitability of the mine, and the revenues generated for… govt are all speculative”.

Deeply embedded in Bougainville’s political psyche is a trust within the transformative energy of political and financial independence – perhaps accomplished via mining – to convey prosperity, building and balance after a long time of turmoil and privation.

However the ones expectancies might end up tricky to marry with fact: an unbiased Bougainville would most likely face a earnings shortfall of tens of tens of millions of bucks a yr.

“The Self reliant Bougainville Govt had, by means of 2016, reached simply 6% of the gap to fiscal self-reliance,” Chand discovered.

No doubt there’s cash to be made on Bougainville: the possible income to be pulled from Panguna on my own were valued at with regards to $60bn. However income for whom?

New president Toroama, as soon as a pacesetter of the militancy that pressured the mine to near, says any resolution on its long run lies with native landowners.

“Panguna mine can be a key goal however we can now not put all our eggs in a single basket,” Toroama informed Bougainville’s parliament final month in his maiden speech.

“We welcome international funding, as a result of with out out of doors investment and applied sciences, we won’t be capable of exploit our herbal sources. However we think a fair proportion of go back and participation.”

Former rebel military commander Ishmael Toroama, the new president of Bougainville.
Former insurrection army commander Ishmael Toroama, the brand new president of Bougainville. : Chris Noble/Reuters

As their elected consultant, Matbob is extra definitive. Her other folks will have to come first.

“Even though there’s a long run for Panguna,” she tells the Dad or mum from her voters, “… it’s going to should be shelved till the desires of my persons are smartly addressed.”

Crowded with outsiders

Bougainville’s acute political uncertainty – poised, doubtlessly, at the threshold of nationhood, with all of its attendant vulnerabilities – has introduced ferocious renewed consideration on Panguna.

An alphabet soup of international mining firms – no less than 4 registered in Perth on my own – have sought to carve up the province for long run exploitation.

The jostling for place and favour with each the Bougainville and PNG governments has been sharp-elbowed, with accusatory press statements and missives to the inventory change, even spilling into Australian courts.

Firms have variously accused others of corruption and bribing govt officers, of being accountable for environmental vandalism or complicit in army atrocities.

Panguna mine on Bougainville island.
Panguna mine on Bougainville island. : Reuters Workforce/Reuters

And a Chinese language delegation reported to have travelled to the province in 2018 was once rumoured to have pledged $1bn to fund its transition to independence, accompanied by means of gives to spend money on mining, tourism, and agriculture.

An allied, unbiased, and resource-rich Bougainville – in the midst of Melanesia and so quickly after neighbouring Solomon Islands flipped to recognise Beijing over Taipei – could be of important strategic worth to China.

Even Rio, after years of saying it will by no means go back to Panguna, has not too long ago indicated it isn’t completely out of the image, pronouncing it was once “in a position to go into into discussions with communities”.

“We’re conscious about the deteriorating mining infrastructure on the web site and surrounding spaces, and recognize that there are environmental and human rights issues.”

For a small island, Bougainville is, all at once, very crowded.

Matbob understands the keenness of outsiders to go back to Bougainville. However for too lengthy, she says, her other folks’s priorities had been subsumed to these of international pursuits, and to learn.

“The Bougainville revolution… was once based at the coverage of other folks, land, setting and tradition,” she tells the Dad or mum.

“Even though there’s a long run for Panguna… there are a large number of legacy problems hooked up to it. As the brand new member representing the Ioro other folks, I say it’s going to should be shelved till the desires of my persons are smartly addressed.”

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