A brutal war and rivers poisoned with every rainfall: how one mine destroyed an island



Locals living downstream of the abandoned mine pan for gold in mine waste.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Matthew G. Allen, The University of the South Pacific

This week, 156 people from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea, petitioned the Australian government to investigate Rio Tinto over a copper mine that devastated their homeland.

In 1988, disputes around the notorious Panguna mine sparked a lengthy civil war in Bougainville, leading to the deaths of up to 20,000 people. The war is long over and the mine has been closed for 30 years, but its brutal legacy continues.




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When I conducted research in Bougainville in 2015, I estimated the deposit of the mine’s waste rock (tailings) downstream from the mine to be at least a kilometre wide at its greatest point. Local residents informed me it was tens of metres deep in places.

I spent several nights in a large two-story house built entirely from a single tree dragged out of the tailings — dragged upright, with a tractor. Every new rainfall brought more tailings downstream and changed the course of the waterways, making life especially challenging for the hundreds of people who eke out a precarious existence panning the tailings for remnants of gold.

The petition has brought the plight of these communities back into the media, but calls for Rio Tinto to clean up its mess have been made for decades. Let’s examine what led to the ongoing crisis.

Triggering a civil war

The Panguna mine was developed in the 1960s, when PNG was still an Australian colony, and operated between 1972 and 1989. It was, at the time, one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines.

It was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited, a subsidiary of what is now Rio Tinto, until 2016 when Rio handed its shares to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.

When a large-scale mining project reaches the end of its commercial life, a comprehensive mine closure and rehabilitation plan is usually put in place.




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But Bougainville Copper simply abandoned the site in the face of a landowner rebellion. This was largely triggered by the mine’s environmental and social impacts, including disputes over the sharing of its economic benefits and the impacts of those benefits on predominantly cashless societies.

Following PNG security forces’ heavy-handed intervention — allegedly under strong political pressure from Bougainville Copper — the rebellion quickly escalated into a full-blown separatist conflict that eventually engulfed all parts of the province.

By the time the hostilities ended in 1997, thousands of Bougainvilleans had lost their lives, including from an air and sea blockade the PNG military had imposed, which prevented essential medical supplies reaching the island.

The mine’s gigantic footprint

The Panguna mine’s footprint was gigantic, stretching across the full breadth of the central part of the island.

The disposal of hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings into the Kawerong-Jaba river system created enormous problems.

Rivers and streams became filled with silt and significantly widened. Water flows were blocked in many places, creating large areas of swampland and disrupting the livelihoods of hundreds of people in communities downstream of the mine. These communities used the rivers for drinking water and the adjacent lands for subsistence food gardening.

Several villages had to be relocated to make way for the mining operations, with around 200 households resettled between 1969 and 1989.

In the absence of any sort of mine closure or “mothballing” arrangements, the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the Panguna mine have only been compounded.

Since the end of mining activities 30 years ago, tailings have continued to move down the rivers and the waterways have never been treated for suspected chemical contamination.




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Long-suffering communities

The 156 complainants live in communities around and downstream of the mine. Many are from the long-suffering village of Dapera.

In 1975, the people of Dapera were relocated to make way for mining activities. Today, it’s in the immediate vicinity of the abandoned mine pit. As one woman from Dapera told me in 2015:

I have travelled all over Bougainville, and I can say that they [in Dapera] are the poorest of the poor.

They, and others, sent the complaint to the Australian OECD National Contact Point after lodging it with Melbourne’s Human Rights Law Centre.

The complainants say by not ensuring its operations didn’t infringe on the local people’s human rights, Rio Tinto breached OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises.

The Conversation contacted Rio Tinto for comment. A spokesperson said:

We believe the 2016 arrangement provided a platform for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and PNG to work together on future options for the resource with all stakeholders.

While it is our belief that from 1990 to 2016 no Rio Tinto personnel had access to the mine site due to on-going security concerns, we are aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.

We are ready to enter into discussions with the communities that have filed the complaint, along with other relevant parties such as BCL and the governments of ABG and PNG.

A long time coming

This week’s petition comes after a long succession of calls for Rio Tinto to be held to account for the Panguna mine’s legacies and the resulting conflict.

A recent example is when, after Rio Tinto divested from Bougainville Copper in 2016, former Bougainville President John Momis said Rio must take full responsibility for an environmental clean-up.

And in an unsuccessful class action, launched by Bougainvilleans in the United States in 2000, Rio was accused of collaborating with the PNG state to commit human rights abuses during the conflict and was also sued for environmental damages. The case ultimately foundered on jurisdictional grounds.

Two people, one waist-deep in tailings.
Hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings were deposited in the rivers.
Matthew Allen, Author provided

Taking social responsibility

This highlights the enormous challenges in seeking redress from mining companies for their operations in foreign jurisdictions, and, in this case, for “historical” impacts.

The colonial-era approach to mining when Panguna was developed in the 1960s stands in stark contrast to the corporate social responsibility paradigm supposedly governing the global mining industry today.




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Indeed, Panguna — along with the socially and environmentally disastrous Ok Tedi mine in the western highlands of PNG — are widely credited with forcing the industry to reassess its “social license to operate”.

It’s clear the time has come for Rio to finally take responsibility for cleaning up the mess on Bougainville.The Conversation

Matthew G. Allen, Professor of Development Studies, The University of the South Pacific

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Air-dropping poisoned meat to kill bush predators hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s unlikely to help now



Shutterstock

Justine M. Philip, Museums Victoria

After the summer’s devastating bushfires, the New South Wales government announced a plan to airdrop one million poisoned baits in the state’s most vulnerable regions over the next year. The plan is aimed at protecting surviving native animals from foxes, feral cats and wild dogs.

This isn’t the first time aerial baiting has been used in NSW recently. As the fire season got underway in September last year, the government’s biannual aerial baiting program scattered baits over nearly 8 million hectares in the Western Division alone – dispensing 43,442 aerial baits and 115,162 ground-laid baits over the drought-stricken region.

Biosecurity officers drying meat baits for the Autumn baiting program in Broken Hill last year.
NSW Government, Local Land Services, Western Region

In a study published this week, I explore Australia’s history as pioneers of this technology. The review raises serious concerns about the ethics and poor results of baiting programs, and the high uptake of baits by non-target species such as marsupials.

D-day for dingoes

Aerial baiting has been Australia’s foremost weapon against pest species for the past 74 years. The initial target was the dingo, to protect unguarded livestock from being killed.




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It started on Remembrance Day in 1946. Around 367,000 dry meat baits were airdropped across Queensland, each containing enough strychnine to kill an adult dingo. The campaign was considered a victory, despite only recovering one dingo carcass during the initial operation. Livestock predation apparently decreased; tracks in the sand vanished.

The following year, 1.5 million baits were distributed. Then in 1948 the quantity increased to 2.5 million baits across remote regions of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Livestock predation decreased after airdropping baits, but at what cost?
CSIRO Science Image, CC BY

Thousands of baits to kill one dingo

The strychnine tablets took up to 12 tortuous hours for the poison to deliver its lethal kill. The baits used in research trials were still toxic after 14 weeks.

There was huge public criticism of the project at the time – much of it from graziers. They claimed ants and valuable pest-eating birds – magpies, small hawks, butcher birds, crows, ibis and curlew – were eating the baits.

In response, the Queensland government set up the first monitored trials. The 1954 report from the Chief Vermin Control Officer recorded:

In the dry season campaigns, the baits are dropped on water-holes, soaks, junctions of dried water courses, gorges in hills and all places where dogs must travel or gather in their search for water and game and in their movements with pups from the breeding areas.

The data recorded an average 14,941 baits dispensed for every dingo carcass recovered. Anecdotal evidence suggests the program was considered a success.

CSIRO research worker with young dingo, 1970.
National Archives of Australia

Then in 1968 – 21 years after aerial campaigns began – a four-year CSIRO study tested the effectiveness of aerial baiting. It found the 1954 report was far from conclusive – the dingoes may just have moved elsewhere. And it concluded: “clearly aerial baiting was not effective”.

But there was an important caveat:

It is important to emphasise that, though this aerial baiting campaign was a failure, such a conclusion does not necessarily apply to any other campaign.

On the strength of that, aerial baiting programs continued.

Not much has changed

Despite millions of baits applied annually to the environment since the 1940s, Australia’s biodiversity has plummeted.

What’s more, developments in the technology haven’t come far. Raw meat baits eventually replaced dry baits in some areas. Strychnine was superseded by 1080, a less harmful poison to non-target native species, and less persistent in the environment.

Trials in the 1980s brought the bait-to-kill rate down to 750 to 1 (baits per dingo carcass recovered). This was considered a cost-effective and successful outcome.

Soon after, aerial baiting found a new market, becoming the frontline defence against Australia’s plummeting biodiversity from invasive predators.

Baits are not benign to marsupials

In 2008, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority imposed a limit of ten baits per kilometre to reduce risk to non-target species.

Pest control agencies need four times that amount of poison to achieve a successful kill rate. Yet planes have been dispensing baits at this lower and ineffective rate since 2008.

Why? It seems a balance between wildlife safety and effective canine or predator eradication isn’t possible with this technology.




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In fact, it has been impossible to accurately trace the fate of baits thrown from aeroplanes into remote terrain. Even ground baiting trials have proved difficult to monitor. A 2018 trial found non-target species consumed more than 71% of ground-laid meat baits, including ravens, crows, goannas, monitor lizards, marsupials and ants.

Four young dingoes died during this trial, representing only a 1.25% uptake by target. Despite monitoring with cameras and sand traps, 599 baits out of 961 in the trial disappeared without a trace.

These baits are not benign. Repeat doses can kill marsupials; non-lethal doses can kill pouch young. Secondary poisoning can also be lethal. Applying this outdated technology to vulnerable bushfire regions is from a historical viewpoint, potentially hazardous.

Surely there’s another way

There are new technologies available to help protect and repair Australia’s fragile and broken ecosystems. Remote surveillance, drones, AI, heat sensing equipment, and more could locate populations and dispatch dangerous animals.




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If aerial baiting continues, aerial surveillance could at least follow the fate of the one million baits and tell us what and who is eating them – who lives and who dies in the stripped-bare landscape.

One thing is for certain: halting the program would prevent hundreds of thousands of these poisoned meat baits ending up in the stomachs of our treasured native animals.The Conversation

Justine M. Philip, Doctor of Philosophy, Ecosystem Management, Museums Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.