Bougainville’s $58B gold-copper mine rights safe for now as Mining Act changes rejected

The idled Panguna copper-gold mine was once a major producer and one of the largest open pit mines in the world. ( Image from archives via Bougainville Copper Limited)

The autonomous Papua New Guinea region of Bougainville has rejected controversial changes to its Mining Act, which were said to be aimed at letting a new company extract the island’s riches.

The modifications would have jeopardized land rights currently held by Australia’s Bougainville Copper Ltd. (BCL), which used to run Panguna, one of the world’s biggest open-pit copper operations, shut down by a civil war in 1989.

Speculation about the future of the Panguna mine peaked in late 2017, when an application to restart it was put to a vote, and later placed on the back burner.

“There were no reasons that could explain or rationalize the attempt to steal our minerals and deny us all our rights under the Bougainville Mining Act,” said Martin Miriori, chairman of the Special Mine Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), a group of 2,000-odd landowners who hold rights to the region’s topsoil and the minerals underground.

The proposed legislation included an amendment that would have given all available mining rights to a new company, Bougainville Advance Mining, according to documents provided by BCL to Bloomberg News.

Speculation about the future of the idled operation peaked in late 2017, when an application to restart it was put to a vote, and later placed on the back burner as the results were almost evenly split.

Authorities feared the reopening of Panguna, donated by Rio Tinto in 2016, could open old wounds. When in operation, the mine was one of the world’s largest, accounting for 44% of Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product.

Arguments over mine pollution and compensation to locals were central to the conflict that turned violent in 1989, revitalizing an independence movement that killed 20,000 people.

BCL finally shut the mine. A peace agreement in 2001 set up the region’s autonomy and paved the way for an independence vote.

It’s believed the mine still holds about 5.3 million tonnes of copper and 19.3 million ounces of gold. The Bougainville Government estimates it would cost up to A$10 billion to restart production.