The Bougainville Government is holding a crucial mining warden's hearing at the abandoned copper mine which sparked a decade-long armed insurgency against the Papua New Guinea Government.
- RTG Mining chairman Michael Carrick says a proposal by the Central Me'ekamui Exploration Limited consortium is more realistic and "for the benefit of the people of Bougainville"
- But BCL company secretary Mark Hitchcock says the consortium's conduct is "less than honourable"
- Bougainville's Mining Secretary Shadrach Himata says all landowners will be asked for their views
The hearing will help determine if the company Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), which was forced to abandon the Panguna mine in 1989, should retain an exploration licence for the site.
The Bougainville Government now owns part of Bougainville Copper Limited and wants it to redevelop the mine, but a rival consortium is challenging their bid, and said it has the support of key landowners from Panguna.
That consortium, Central Me'ekamui Exploration Limited, includes ASX-listed RTG Mining.
RTG's chairman Michael Carrick said the group's proposal was more realistic and better-supported by the people of Panguna.
"[It's] a sensible and well-supported and economically deliverable proposal to develop the mine for the benefit of all the people of Bougainville," he said.
RTG Mining has told the Bougainville Government that BCL's exploration licence for Panguna has expired and legally cannot be renewed.
It wants the Bougainville Government to consider its application instead, saying the landowner association for the mine pit, the Special Mining Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), backs its bid and would present a 2,000-signature petition in opposition to BCL.
"For the first time in 30 years a mining company has been endorsed and supported by the SMLOLA," Mr Carrick said.
RTG Mining said longstanding resentment against BCL over the conflict and the ongoing environmental problems caused by their sudden withdrawal would prevent the company from being able to operate the mine again.
"The legacy issues for BCL are insurmountable," Mr Carrick said.
He said the landowners would present a 2000-signature petition in opposition to BCL.
There is a legal dispute over who rightfully chairs the landowner association.
RTG Mining said the dispute had been settled with their preferred candidate, Philip Miriori, in charge; the Bougainville Government said the mediation had failed and that the matter is still before the courts.
The Bougainville Government has also criticised the consortium for paying landowners who support them and implied it is not respecting the approval process.
"The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) will not entertain companies who use the back door or break and enter through the window using self-centred individuals who think they have a monopoly over the people's resources or represent their interests," Mining Minister Raymond Masono said in a statement.
"… The ABG rejects companies that think they can bribe their way into people's resources by giving certain individuals money to gain landowner consent."
The ABG has had the PNG Government ban the key executive from Central Exploration, Sydney lawyer Renzie Duncan, from coming to Papua New Guinea.
Michael Carrick from RTG Mining says the consortium has been dealing openly with the Bougainville Government and that landowner payments are wages for its employees.
"The wages paid are in respect of services rendered to the joint venture," he said.
"The joint venture is a commercial operation and landowners, like anyone else, are able to work and to get paid for their services.
"Our dealings with landowners have been completely transparent and professional."
Mr Carrick said the intent of the travel ban against Mr Duncan appeared to be to help Bougainville Copper Limited.
"It is clear the ABG, on the appointment of the new mining minister, supported BCL and the temporary banning of Renzie, I assume, is designed to limit the support that could be afforded to the landowners of Panguna," he said.
Bougainville Copper Limited is deeply unhappy with RTG Mining and its partners.
"We think they're less than honourable in how they're carrying on their conduct and their activities in the area," BCL company secretary Mark Hitchcock said.
He said BCL's licence application was legal, and wasn't processed on time because the Bougainville Government wasn't ready to implement the processes of its new Mining Act.
"The department didn't have the resources to manage the application at the time it was taking place," he said.
"It now has all those facilities in place."
Landowners set to weigh in on hearing
Mr Hitchcock said many landowners do support BCL, but are not being properly represented.
"From what we've seen, there is widespread support for mining in Panguna and mining with Bougainville Copper," he said.
Bougainville's Mining Secretary Shadrach Himata said all landowners will be asked for their views as part of the approval process, not just the leaders of the association.
"The warden's hearing is a process that will engage the views of all the landowners in the resource areas," he said.
"It won't be affected by the leadership tussle of the SMLOLA landowners."
Crucially, Mr Himata, said BCL is the only company currently being considered by the Bougainville Government.
"Right now, the only legal applicant on the exploration tenement is BCL," he said.
"Until that process is completed, there are no other applicants or applications over the same tenement. That's the position of Government."
The eventual decision on the exploration licence will be made by the Bougainville Executive Council, the regional government's Cabinet, probably sometime in 2018.