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Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) said in early May the people of Bougainville’s future depended on the reopening of the Panguna mine. At BCL’s annual general meeting in Port Moresby last month, chairman Peter Taylor said:
“There is widespread agreement today that Bougainville’s economic future needs mining if it is to be able to fund services for the people from its own resources, as well as address future opportunities for economic and social development.”
But Bougainvilleans do have a choice for their economic future not solely based on mining. We know this because, during the war, Bougainvilleans found they were very capable of supporting themselves outside of mining: outside the cash economy altogether.
The wonderful book, As Mothers of the Land  – detailing the incredible and decisive role played by women throughout the war and subsequent peace process – provides an overview of this successful adaptation to self-sufficiency during the blockade.
Josephine Tankunani Sirivi, for example, describes how people returned to traditional gardening knowledge and the barter system.
“Now we no longer had cash, paid work or any access to processed food, yet we were able to produce enough to feed our people and to share with others,” she says.
Rather than society succumbing to anarchy and starvation, “it was a time of sharing and caring wholeheartedly for one another.”
It was also a time of innovation: learning how to use coconut oil for cars and power; designing hydro-electric power from mountain streams; setting up a short-wave radio station (Radio Free Bougainville); producing rice, oil and soap; using cocoa to produce bleach; and re-learning the use of various herbs and vines, tree bark, roots and leaves for medicine.
Perhaps most impressively, these (primarily women-led) initiatives created an outstanding health and education infrastructure entirely through community organisation and without wages, let alone millions of dollars of foreign aid. Marilyn Taleo Havini describes this revolution:
“Women’s groups began by forming family, church and non-denominational fellowships to feed orphans and widows, to teach, nurse, pass on recipes, seeds and agrarian skills such as permaculture, and to conduct technical and secretarial training.
“By 1996, several of these community initiatives had come together under (the) name Bougainville Community Based Integrated Humanitarian Program (BOCBIHP). Behind the blockade, by the time the peace process began in 1997, they had established 12 health centre bases that supplied 23 aid posts and 47 village health clinics. The nursing school in the jungle graduated trainees and health workers including 36 village midwives, 36 village aides and 23 aid post orderlies.
“BOCBIHP fielded 80 qualified schoolteachers and 113 volunteer grade-10 graduates as their assistants. They opened 71 community schools with an overall enrollment of 4,726 pupils. They also opened a secretarial school and a bible college.”
Sirivi sees the self-sufficiency movement as having enabled many people to survive the war. In addition, “new communal respect for traditional knowledge and jungle skills added to the pride of being Bougainvillean.”
If these outcomes were possible under the extreme conditions of the war, what amazing efforts could be achieved today, in a time of peace?
Mining has left a deep stain on Bougainville, and mining alone won’t remove it. Regardless of whether Panguna is reopened or not, Bougainvilleans can benefit – like all Papua New Guineans, and all Pacific Islanders – by organising themselves to control their own communities, as described above.
Not being reliant on mining, these communities can survive and thrive when they control their own development.
 Tankunani Sirivi, J. and Taleo Havini, M. (eds.)2004, …As Mothers of the Land: The Birth of the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom. Canberra: Pandanus Books
Watch a movie about the Bougainville ‘eco-revolution’ during the crisis, ‘The Coconut Revolution’: