Bougainville and the Mining Question

Bougainville is grappling with a series of challenges that will set the course for the island’s long-term future. What economic model of development will they adopt? How will this model gel with aspirations for independence? And perhaps most controversially how does the mining question fit into this equation?

Given the haste with which mining was initially imposed on Bougainville during the 1960s, and the bloody conflict the mine subsequently provoked, now is not the time to indecently rush the latter question, much less is it time for those in positions of power to confront communities with threatening ultimatums.

Yet that is exactly what is happening. The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), Rio Tinto (via its PNG subsidiary, BCL), the Australian government, in addition to an assortment of individuals, all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet. The hymn goes something like this:

‘If you want independence/autonomy and development, then the mine must be reopened, and Bougainville Copper Limited should operate it’.

Indeed, as much was said by BCL’s Managing Director, Peter Taylor, at the company’s Annual General Meeting:

“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”.

These comments were repeated by ABG President, John Momis, at a recent South Bougainville mining forum. They must have got the same circular!

Worse still is the brazen fear mongering at a recent community consultation forum in Bana. New Dawn reports that the ABG Minister for Veteran Affairs terrified his audience with a range of farcical claims:

Mr. Sisito said that for Bougainville to move into economic recovery and economic self reliance, the ABG must raise a total of seventy-two million Kina which can only happen when Panguna mine is re-opened. 
He said that if the Bougainville Peace Agreement lapses in 2020 all their talk of Independence and landownership would be forfeited to the State of Papua New Guinea. 
Mr. Sisito said when this happens all Bougainville leaders and Ex combatants will be held for treason as all agreements with PNG will become null and void … On calls by women leaders to be given the chance to negotiate, Mr. Sisito said that one hidden plan was that all Bougainville single women will be married by outsiders to own the land. 
Mr. Sisito said one plan was that if Bougainville fails to get independence a military base will be based on Bougainville to stop any future uprisings on Bougainville.

In short, unless Bougainvilleans allow Rio Tinto back in – a company wanted for war crimes – then Bougainville will be subjected to military occupation, its single women married off to retskins, and its leaders and independence fighters thrown into gulags for treason. Were there a serious case for the mine’s reopening such nonsense would never be sprouted.

Powerful actors have in effect attempted to define the social equation confronting Bougainville in the most narrow, ludicrous terms possible – those for development and self-determination must support the reopening of the Panguna mine. Accordingly, in a neat rhetorical twist those against large-scale mining must become unwitting champions of political dependency and impoverishment.

Clearly a choice is being offered here, but it is logic-defying leap to call this crude alternative a great example of democracy in action. With the gun of independence and development at people’s head, they are in effect being told to reopen the mine and forget Rio Tinto’s past sins.

A case in point – speaking on the mine in February, the then Australian High Commissioner Ian Kemish told a courteous Bougainvillean audience:

“If it is your wish that development come back here … if that is your wish … you have to give the people [Rio Tinto/BCL] that can make that happen, confidence”.

Besides being a typically neo-colonial view of development, one which discounts achievements that fall outside western definitions of ‘wealth’, Kemish is in effect telling Bougainville if they want a shot at ‘economic development’ they must keep quiet when it comes to that ‘small issue’ of Rio Tinto war crimes.

Despite the Kemish, Taylor and Momis’ pro-mining cat-calls there is no reason to think development and mining are bound at the hip, much less that the people of Bougainville must sacrifice their rights to justice in order to achieve it. In fact, the opposite may be true.

While it is perhaps simplistic to characterise large-scale resource projects as a universally detrimental, it is a much more defensible argument within the specific context of PNG. The employment it has provided, and the knowledge transfer it has facilitated, grate against the other realities of mining. For instance, significant chunks of the wealth generated flow abroad, while that which remains in PNG is frequently pocketed by local intermediaries and a ‘mobocracy’ that wields control over state finances, leaving those in the mine area to deal with environmental damage, growing inequality, the fracture of custom, police violence, military repression, crime, mass migration, rapid urbanisation, settlements, gambling, alcohol, and the gamut of spivs and rent-seekers who invariably follow in the wake of mineral developments. And we can be sure from recent events on Bougainville, that there are more than a few local politicians prepared to emulate PNG’s mobocracy.

Of course we are told that an extensive consultation process is underway, the ABG has even flown in, with AusAID’s assistance, advisors to help the island make an informed choice about its future. We have now learnt that one of these experts is in receipt of research funding from Rio Tinto, while Coffey International, a company who handles much of the AusAID funded mining advisory services to the ABG, has Rio Tinto as one of its major clients. So much for independent advice.

It must be asked, what alternative perspectives are being offered communities on Bougainville? Are there experts with field experience in analogous economies from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa being flown in to share their experiences of mining, agriculture, tourism and other rural industries? Are a range of development models being discussed? Are a variety of economic perspectives being introduced for community discussion? Or are the people of Bougainville being dished up large plates of pro-mining propaganda like in the 1960s? If recent reports from Bougainville mining forums are anything to go by, the signs are not good.

Democracy occurs on a continuum, its richness depends on the diversity of information being given to communities through the consultation process. Bougainville deserves more than crude ultimatums and fear mongering.

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1 Comment

Filed under Financial returns, Human rights, Papua New Guinea

One response to “Bougainville and the Mining Question

  1. Pingback: Social Concerns Notes – September | Social Concerns

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