Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama has released a statement firmly rejecting a claim that Australian company Caballus Mining will operate the Panguna copper mine.   

President Toroama’s statement was in response to landowner group Panguna Tangkuúrang Chiefs’ claims that they’d approved Caballus Mining to operate the mine.

“Today we are very happy and honoured to announce that we have chosen Jeff McGlinn and Caballus Mining, based in Perth, Western Australia to be our partner in reopening Panguna Mine and as a direct result, rebuild Bougainville for all Bougainvilleans,” Panguna Tangkuúrang Chiefs wrote in a statement last week.

The Panguna Tangkuúrang Chiefs group said that Caballus Mining was picked following a process of due diligence, in which the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) had met with large corporations in Australia.

President Toroama dismissed this claim.   

“Let me make it clear that the current ABG under my presidency is not in colluding with Caballus, RTZ, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) or any landowner group to redevelop the Panguna Mine at this time,” he said in a statement.  

“Statements by companies or landowner groups with a vested interest in Panguna who claim to be working with the current ABG are false; we are not backing any company or any landowner group to reopen the mine.”   

The President added that his government was committed to protecting landowners’ rights from undue influence by people or corporations wishing to reopen the mine.

Caballus Mining had been in talks with the ABG under former President John Momis regarding reopening the former Bougainville Copper Limited.

However, President Toroama made it clear that his administration has no links with the company.   

Previously run by Rio Tinto, the controversial mine was forced to close in 1989 as it sparked a decade-long civil war between the Papua New Guinean Buka Liberation Front and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

The war began as Indigenous landowners were enraged by the environmental devastation and overall inequity associated with the copper mine. In the campaign to close the mine, an estimated 10 per cent of the population lost their lives.  

In 2019, the mine was valued at an estimated US$58 billion in mineral reserves yet to be tapped into.

The reopening of the mine is seen as a natural step towards economic independence, following a majority of Bougainvilleans voting for independence from Papua New Guinea in a non-binding referendum less than two years ago.   

President Toroama cautioned that a moratorium remained in place over Panguna as well as the mine’s surrounding areas.

The President said any corporations wishing to develop Bougainville’s mineral resources must come through the proper channels.

“The Panguna Mine remains a very sensitive issue [in] Bougainville and parties wishing to reopen it must maintain a sense of decorum,” he said. 

By Darby Ingram