The gaping hole carved into mountains was at one point the world’s largest open-cut copper mine. Right on Australia’s doorstep, it delivered riches beyond imagining and a mess big enough to tear a country apart.
This controversial pit became the flashpoint for a bitter civil war in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s that cost as many as 20,000 lives. Now, 27 years after the war forced the closure of the Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville, resources giant Rio Tinto has finally made the decision to cut its losses and walk away.
In a decision slammed as “remarkably unprincipled, shameful and evil”, the mining giant has also side-stepped demands for a billion-dollar clean up. Furious local leaders on Bougainville – struggling for cash and contemplating forming an independent nation – are threatening an international campaign to shame the company into making a contribution.
But they also want Australia – as the former colonial power responsible for authorising the mine – to contribute to a special fund to repair rivers poisoned by toxic sludge and compensate the people who lost their homes.
“It would be a big amount of money that would be required to restore as much as possible the damaged environment and relocated villages,” John Momis, president of Bougainville’s autonomous government, told Fairfax Media.
“Probably a billion dollars. Nobody really knows, but that would be about the amount of money required.”
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