In a paper for the Australian Defence College, seasoned Australian civil servant Jo Woodbury has issued a stark warning – current attempts to reopen the Panguna mine represent the greatest threat to peace on Bougainville.
This embarrassing critique comes as a fleet of advisers bankrolled by the Australian government continue to push for the reopening, working closely with Bougainville’s President, John Momis, and executives at Bougainville Copper Limited.
Download the full paper – 1.2MB
Woodbury writes, ‘the mine is seen by some as a shortcut to prosperity … [it] would help provide income, taxes, employment and social services, as well as revive infrastructure redevelopment’. Nonetheless, based off political and economic realities both on Bougainville and internationally, Woodbury concludes, ‘this would seem to be overly optimistic, particularly in the short term’.
Woodbury raises particular concerns about the security risks associated with current attempts to reopen the mine, in the face of popular opposition on the ground. She explains, ‘the problem, of course, is that rushed negotiations on such a contentious and emotive issue, which was at the core of the crisis and still attracts deeply-held and divided opinions across Bougainville, could spark a renewed armed conflict in itself even before the referendum begins. The US Agency for International Development identifies the mine as “high risk” and probably “the most conflict-prone problem in Bougainville today”’.
To lower tensions, Woodbury recommends that ‘resumption of mining needs to be de-linked from the referendum to minimise risk’. She also suggests, ‘there needs to be a greater focus on developing capacity in less contentious industries in Bougainville. Agriculture, fishing, and tourism are potential options’.
Woodbury accepts this will require investment in infrastructure and savvy economic alternatives: ‘There are, of course, challenges in boosting the Bougainville economy without a reliance on mining investment. These include the workforce required, law and order, transport and infrastructure. Major trunk roads, airports and jetties need to be upgraded to transport goods and services, and the power supply network needs to expand. But, most importantly, the political will must be there’.
However, she concludes ‘at this stage, the ABG seems focused on mining’. A position that is also being strongly pushed by Australian government advisors.
The singular focus on this powder keg issue, Woodbury believes, is the most significant threat to the Bougainville Peace Agreement. She explains, ‘the risk involved in pushing Panguna to reopen quickly is high. As some Bougainvilleans have recognised themselves, Panguna should never be used as a condition for Bougainville’s political future’.
She concludes, ‘it would seem preferable—arguably for both foreign donors and the Bougainvillean people—to slowly improve the economic status quo than to have Bougainville descend into bloody conflict again as a result of hurried agreements and aggravation’.