Griffith University researcher Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh will lead an investigation into illegal mining on mineral-rich Bougainville Island, starting in June.

AusAID has awarded the Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the School of Government and International Relations $613,267 to carry out the three-year project with his colleague Anthony Regan from the Australian National University.

The project, which is funded as part of the AusAID Development Research Awards Scheme, will document the economic, social and environmental impacts of illegal mining.

It aims to identify policy issues that arise and suggest legal regimes and policies that can generate local benefits from mining.

The research materialised as a spin-off from Professor O’Faircheallaigh’s involvement with the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) in preparing for negotiations to re-open a once profitable Rio Tinto copper mine closed after an armed rebellion by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in 1989.

“There is a significant problem with illegal mining in the region. We were aware it existed, but initially had no idea of the scale of the problem,” Professor O’Faircheallaigh said.

He explained that illegal mining at Bougainville ranges from the activities of international, publicly-listed companies to alluvial mining of the region’s river beds by several thousand locals.

“There are also many who engage in mechanical, hard-rock mining without approval. We discussed this with a legal refinery in the region who told us they know the gold going through the refinery is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Today it remains a region laden with minerals but bereft of the government regulations more familiar to the developed world.

“Safety is a major issue. Without regulation and permits, it means no safety training, no site inspections. People get hurt. We know at least one person has died as a result of illegal mining.

“The economic impacts on the government of a developing country are considerable. We will run a series of workshops in Bougainville to identify the problems and highlight the benefits of taxing mining activities.”

Recognising the potential benefits, the ABG and Papua New Guinea government have indicated their support for the project.

“Engagement with government and with local miners is very important. Miners have to be persuaded it’s in their interest to be regulated.

“Good relationships are critical to a project like this. That’s where we have an edge. We know the place, we know the people. We have established relationships with local stakeholders. We have already laid a good deal of the groundwork. A PhD scholarship for a Bougainville student will help us build on that groundwork and develop local research capacity.”

Professor O’Faircheallaigh is optimistic that the strategies developed from the research can be applied to areas in South America, South East Asia, Africa and the South Pacific where illegal mining is also a significant problem.