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
NameRio Tinto's lawsuit, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea
CountryPapua New Guinea
ProvinceBougainville Island
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 CommoditiesCopper
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsWork at the mine was suspended in 1989 and has not been restarted.

Estimated $8 billion cost to return Panguna to its former glory.
Project Area (in hectares)73400
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected PopulationThe entire population of Bougainville, 170 000 in the yer 2000
Start Date1970
Company Names or State EnterprisesBougainville 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 actorsPNG National Government, PNG National Army
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersHagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, lawyers firm,

Bougainville independence movement and revolutionary army (BRA)
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingLocal ejos
Social movements
Landless peasants
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
International ejos
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local government/political parties
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Forms of MobilizationMedia based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Shareholder/financial activism.
Development of a network/collective action
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Street protest/marches
Development of alternative proposals
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Secessionist movement
Referendum other local consultations
Threats to use arms
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Property damage/arson
Boycotts of official procedures/non-participation in official processes
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
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-economic 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
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseDeaths
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 as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.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 and Materials

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


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

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


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

BHR webpage
[click to view]

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

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

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

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

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

Other Documents

[click to view]

Panguna mine
[click to view]

Meta Information
ContributorMalena Bengtsson
Last update22/10/2016