Fighting Corporate Copper in Bougainville

Multinational polluter Rio Tinto sued under Alien Tort Claims Act for causing deaths of 10,000 Papua New Guineans

Kari Lydersen

Bougainville, a small Pacific island belonging to Papua New Guinea in the volcanic Ring of Fire,” has had a rough go of it. It endured a series of colonialist regimes (including Germany, Japan and Australia), was blitzed by U.S. forces during World War II, and has been assaulted by tsunamis, most recently on April 1. It also suffered one of history’s most brutal rapes of natural resources – the massive Panguna copper mine run by a subsidiary of the multinational mining giant Rio Tinto from 1972 until 1988.

Now, it appears Bougainville residents may finally get a measure of justice against the forces that caused extensive deforestation, pollution and military repression that allegedly led to the deaths of more than 10,000 islanders.

A lawsuit filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which allows foreign nationals to sue corporations in U.S. courts, demands Rio Tinto remedy environmental devastation from the mine and pay restitution to tens of thousands of residents who were displaced, sickened or lost family members from either the mine’s operations or the decade of war that raged after an uprising forced its closure. 

The lawsuit was filed in 2000 in San Francisco, since Rio Tinto has a subsidiary called Rio Tinto Borax located in the Mojave Desert in California. In 2002, the suit was dismissed at the behest of the State Department, which argued it would interfere with the country’s peace process that in 2005 resulted in the election of Bougainville’s first autonomous government. 

In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals, against the wishes of the Bush administration, affirmed its 2006 decision that the lawsuit could proceed.

If the case does go forward, the company intends to establish that the plaintiffs’ allegations against Rio Tinto are false and that Rio Tinto is not liable for the injuries that the plaintiffs claim,” says company spokesperson Christina Mills, who declined to comment further.

Berman says Rio Tinto will likely try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. This certainly is a lead case now in the issue of deference to the State Department,” says Berman. Usually if the government says we don’t want this case to go forward, it won’t go forward. But this court said it won’t defer to the Executive Branch.” Since 1993, approximately 36 human rights abuse suits have been filed against corporations under the Act. More than half have been dismissed, but others have resulted in large financial settlements.

Bougainville is located at the far western tip of the Solomon Islands archipelago about 500 miles from mainland Papua New Guinea, and its residents are ethnically and culturally distinct from those of the mainland.

The copper lode has been central to Bougainville’s struggle for independence from Papua New Guinea, which itself won independence from Australia in 1975 but refused to grant Bougainville independence for fear of losing the mineral resources.

In November 1988, militants forced the mine to close through blowing up power pylons and other acts of sabotage. For a decade following the mine’s closure, a war raged between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and Papua New Guinean and Australian military forces trying to quell the independence movement and reopen the mine. By the time a ceasefire was signed in 1998, more than 10,000 Bougainville residents – about one-tenth of the island’s population – had been killed.

The lawsuit alleges that, in addition to the 10,000 dead, the mine also caused the destruction of a way of life – the matrilineal tribal and subsistence fishing and farming culture that earned it the name Sacred Island.” A deep sense of social malaise set in, which expressed itself in clan tensions, depression, alcohol abuse, rage, traffic accidents and incidents of violence – all distress signals of a people severed from their roots,” the suit claims.

The suit quotes tribal leader Perpetua Serero, who says, We don’t grow healthy crops anymore, our traditional customs and values have been disrupted and we have become mere spectators as our earth is being dug up, taken away and sold for millions.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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