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Rio Tinto's lawsuit, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea

The reopening the controversial Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, is in doubt. The anti-mining movement led to a ten-year war in 1989. A court case against Rio Tinto failed.


The mine at Panguna was opened in 1972 and majority-owned by Rio Tinto. It was important to the economy of Papua New Guinea, but the people of Bougainville were seeing little benefit from it. The first Bougainville independence movement arose in the late 1960s, as people aired their grievances against the Australian colonial government over the handling of the Panguna mine. Later, after Papua New Guinea became independent of Australia, Francis Ona from Bougainville warned in August 1988 that patience was running out.  He established the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA): that "the only way is for us to shut the mine". Powerlines, transportation, the telecommunications station and the international air terminal were blown up. By the end of 1988, the mining operation had been forcibly halted.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Rio Tinto's lawsuit, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea
Country:Papua New Guinea
State or province:Bougainville Island
Location of conflict:Panguna
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Specific commodities:Copper
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Work at the mine was suspended in 1989 and has not been restarted.

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Project area:73400
Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:The entire population of Bougainville, 170 000 in the yer 2000
Start of the conflict:1970
Company names or state enterprises:Bougainville Copper (BCL) from Australia
Rio Tinto Zinc RTZ Mining and Exploration Ltd. (RTZ) from Australia - Owner of over fifty per cent of the Panguna mine. Sued for human rights abuses. Sold out in 2016.
Relevant government actors:PNG National Government, PNG National Army
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, lawyers firm,
Bougainville independence movement and revolutionary army (BRA)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Landless peasants
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Boycotts of official procedures/non-participation in official processes
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Shareholder/financial activism.
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Threats to use arms
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Secessionist movement
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Waste overflow, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills
Potential: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Air pollution
Health ImpactsVisible: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Infectious diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
The mine was closed for many years, the independence movement was defeated, Rio Tinto has escaped paying for environmental liability.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Friday 28th June 2013 ruling by a majority of an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ended litigation begun in 2000. Rio Tinto wins against claims for human rights abuse.
The opening of the mine at Panguna is still under discussion. The war against Papua New Guinea was lost.
Sources & Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Alien Tort Claims Act 1789 (it allows foreign nationals to sue American companies for alleged human rights violations committed abroad)

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Based on 'Bougainville: a Sad and Silent Tragedy in the South Pacific', Martin Miriori in Do or Die No. 5 (1996)
[click to view]

Rio Tinto Walks Away From Closed Bougainville Copper Mine, Wall Street Journal, Rhiannon Hoyle, June 29, 2016
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

'Islanders sue in US over impact of Rio Tinto mine', the Guardian
[click to view]

BHR webpage
[click to view]

'Rio Tinto wins end to human rights abuse lawsuit in U.S', Reuters
[click to view]

Bougainville Voices Say ‘No’ to Mining, by Catherine Wilson
[click to view]

'Bougainville MP blames Rio Tinto ‘looters’ for loss of life, destruction in mine war'
[click to view]

Post-war truth and justice still elusive in Bougainville
[click to view]

EJOLT blog: 'Bougainville: no justice for those who resisted environmental crimes'
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Malena Bengtsson
Last update22/10/2016
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