After Bougainville black eye, Rio Tinto wading back into PNG

Rio Tinto may attempt to re-enter the mining industry in Papua New Guinea after a distastrous experience in the 1980s, according to a report this week in PNGIndustryNews.net.

The website reports that Bougainville Copper, which is about 54% owned by Rio Tinto, said at its AGM that Rio has been granted exploration licences in PNG for the first time since the mid-90s: “This is a good indicator that Rio Tinto is looking to be an active participant in PNG’s future mineral development,” said Bougainville Copper chairman Peter Taylor.

PNGIndustryNews.net wasn't able to get confirmation from Rio Tinto about the licences but said one of them is in the Eastern Highlands of the country and the other two tenements have already been granted as exploration licences. The licences are expected to be for copper-gold prospects.

In the 1980s, Rio Tinto was accused of human rights violations and thousands of deaths on the PNG island of Bougainville related to a copper-gold operation it ran there. Residents of the island accused Rio of polluting the island and forcing native workers to live in "slave-like" conditions according to a 2011 story from ABC News.

What's more, says ABC, "they also contended that after workers began to sabotage the mine in 1988, Rio Tinto goaded the government of Papua New Guinea into exacting retribution and conspired to impose a blockade that resulted in the deaths of 10,000 civilians by 1997."

Rio Tinto then was targetted in a class-action lawsuit from about 10,000 current and former residents of Bougainville, alleging that the company assisted in the commission of violence in order to keep its mines open.