By Evan Schuurman
Bougainville community leader and MP Theonila Roka Matbob has received the Gwynne Skinner Human Rights Award in recognition of her outstanding work to hold mining giant Rio Tinto to account for the legacy of environmental devastation caused by its former Panguna mine.
Matbob, 31, is a traditional landowner from Makosi, just downstream from the mine.
She was one of 156 Bougainville residents, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre, who last year filed a human rights complaint against the company with the Australian government.
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The complaint received global media attention and led to Rio Tinto publicly committing in July to fund an independent human rights and environmental impact assessment of the mine.
“I’m deeply honoured to receive this award on behalf of myself and my people,” Matbob said.
“We have been living with the disastrous impacts of Panguna for many years and the situation is getting worse. Our communities live surrounded by the vast mounds of waste left over from the mine, which continue to poison our rivers with copper.
“Kids get sick from the pollution. The farms and villages of communities downstream are being flooded with mine waste.
“Many people lack basic access to clean water.
Years of struggle
“Now, after many years of struggle, at last we have an agreement with Rio Tinto to fund a proper investigation of these urgent problems to develop solutions.
“I would like to express my thanks to all those who have supported us to reach this point. But now is not the time to rest. Our work will continue until Rio Tinto has fully dealt with the disaster it left behind.”
Human Rights Law Centre legal director Keren Adams said that Matbob had worked tirelessly over the past few years to brings these issues to world attention and compel Rio Tinto to take responsibility for the devastating consequences.
“It is in large part thanks to her leadership and advocacy that the company has now taken the first important step towards addressing this legacy,” she said.
“At the same time as doing all this, Theonila ran for Parliament and was elected one of Bougainville’s youngest and only female MPs and subsequently made the Minister for Education. She is an inspirational human rights defender and a thoroughly deserving winner of the award.”
Matbob previously worked with the Human Rights Law Centre to document the stories of the communities affected by the mine, including from many inaccessible villages whose stories had rarely been heard.
This work led to the publication of the report After The Mine.
Featured in PJR
She also featured in the documentary Ophir about Bougainville and also in the Pacific Journalism Review Frontline investigation by Wendy Bacon and Nicole Gooch published in the research journal last week.
Matbob will be presented with the award at a virtual ceremony on October 22.
Professor Gwynne Skinner was a professor of law at Willamette University in the United States who spent her career working at the forefront of efforts to develop greater accountability by companies for their human rights impacts.
The award was created by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable to honour her legacy and recognise the work of individuals and organisations that have made significant contribution to corporate accountability.