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Attempted Reopening of Copper Mine in Papua New Guinea

December 6, 2017

They say that history is a dead man’s subject. Well, if Panguna is considered a part of that dead history, then Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a copper mining company in Papua New Guinea (PNG), is trying the impossible. The mining company is now attempting to reopen
the massive Panguna mine in Bougainville, an autonomous region/island in PNG. Panguna was once the largest open-cut copper mine in world before shutting down almost two decades ago. It
initially opened in 1972 under the ownership of BCL, which was then owned by the British multinational mining company Rio-Tinto. While thirty percent of the profits from the mine did go to PNG’s government (guess where the other seventy percent went... British CEOs, of
course), civil strife caused the mine to shut down in 1989.


To be more exact though, Panguna was the powder keg for the the civil strife known as the Bougainville Civil War. Perhaps BCL thought closing down the mine would persuade the Bougainvilleans to lay down their weapons; it didn’t. Instead, the war lasted from December 1, 1988 – April 20, 1998. Today, it is considered one of the largest and bloodiest wars waged in Oceania since World War II. Casualties among the Bougainvilleans range from 15,000 to 20,000 lives. 

Many wonder how such a war could come about, yet they need look no further than the ruins of Panguna. As one of the largest copper-producing mines of its time, Panguna contributed at more than 45% of PNG’s national revenue, but at the cost of its people and the environment. Because many of the natives of Bougainville considered themselves black and most likely worked at Panguna, there was most definitely worker mistreatment. At the same time, BCL was also dumping chemical toxins into the rivers nearby, and destroying the properties and sacred land of the natives. At least 50 million tons of toxic waste was tossed into these rivers, which eventually lead to these sources of water drying up. As time passed, these toxins and their effects
spread to areas outside of Bougainville. Along with violation of land rights, lack of shareholding, and inadequate levels of wealth, the existence of Panguna lead us to the Bougainville Civil War between Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, who desired independence. The war would end ten years later when a ceasefire was proposed. This ceasefire was put into effect by the Rotokas Record, which also slowly moved Bougainville towards  autonomy and promised a referendum to decide whether Bougainville would remain part of PNG
or not.

And now, thirty years later, the newly formed Bougainville government is attempting to recommission Panguna, despite the bloodshed and environment harms it generated. And even if Panguna does improve the region’s economy, as the Bougainville government claims it will, it does not mean everyone’s situation will improve. In particular, should Panguna open, it could spell danger for the natives living in the area. The mothers, in particular, have emphatically voiced protest against the mines reopening. Already, many of these protesters have probably seen at least 15,000 lives taken because of the profit Panguna made. However, along with the mine, these protesters explain that because “ ‘foreign concepts’ and exploiters supplanted traditional ways of life, [we have the result of] the environmental catastrophe of the island.” Even if the government does plan on operating the mine while mindful of its predecessors’’ mistakes, some parts of history are better off remaining in the grave. For one thing, reopening the mine would be disrespectful to those who perished in the civil war. Panguna’s closure was the reason Bougainvilleans waged war. To reopen the mine would undo the progress only possible through great sacrifice and resolve. Furthermore, while it’s understandable that Bougainville, a nation in the making, will need a reliable source of income, should it come at the cost of the livelihood of its citizens? There may not be a repeat of chemical toxins getting tossed into the nearby rivers, but surface water sources aren’t the only pieces of nature affected by mining.


Even if done in an environmentally sensitive manner, mining projects can also cause loss of biodiversity, sinkholes, erosion, and contamination of other water sources; the area surrounding Panguna is still recovering from the mine’s previous operations. Why risk that, as well as the health and safety of the people in the area, for a supposedly reliable source of income? And besides, the world has operated well enough with the copper gained from other areas. What would companies use the excess copper for, aside from raking in extra profits (that probably go into the CEO’s pocket instead of a worker’s paycheck) from the new electronics they’d create, that probably aren’t that much different from their older counterparts?

Yes, that’s right. Technically, the exportation of Panguna’s copper does not just improve profits of BCL. Today, copper is a necessary material to the development of our electronics and cars. As a metal, copper is known for conducting both heat and electricity very well, making it essential in making electrical equipment pieces like wires and motors. If we want to maintain our our lifestyle, then excess copper is more than essential.

But is it worth it at the expense of other people’s livelihood? Is a new iPhone worth the potential water and soil contamination? Is a new car worth a potential rise in mortality rates in Bougainville?

The answer, I believe, should be clear.

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