For all of Theonila Roka Matbob’s three decades, the scar on her land that was once the world’s largest copper mine has cast a pall.
The Panguna mine in Bougainville, eastern Papua New Guinea, has not yielded a single ounce in her lifetime – forced shut the year before Matbob was born – but she grew up in the shadow of the violent civil war it provoked.
When she was just three years old, her father, John Roka, was murdered by the secessionist soldiers who had forced the mine to close. Spending years in a “care centre” run by the PNG defence force, she remembers a childhood dominated by an all-pervasive fear, where the sound of gunshots regularly rang out across the valley, where neighbours disappeared from their homes, their bodies later found slaughtered.
There is peace now, but memories remain, and “we live with the impacts of Panguna every day,” Matbob says. “Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution.
“Every time it rains more waste washes into the rivers, causing flooding for villages further downstream. Some communities now have to spend two hours a day walking just to get clean drinking water because their nearby creeks are clogged up with mine waste.”