Keri Phillips | ABC Radio National
It was a conflict that dominated the news in Australia during the late 1980s and ’90s. The people of Bougainville were aggrieved; their land had been taken, exploited and destroyed. The repercussions still echo as the island holds elections in the lead up to a referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea, as Keri Phillips explains.
The story of Bougainville begins in the dying days of Australia’s colonial presence in what would soon become the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. Bougainville, as well as the rest of what would become PNG, came under Australian control after World War II.
During the ‘60s, as independence approached, there was debate over whether or not Bougainville would be part of the new nation. The island is the largest in the Solomon Islands archipelago and its people have more in common in terms of ethnic, tribal and customary values with Solomon Islanders than with PNG.
‘Bougainvilleans are a united group with a sense of a separate identity, centred particularly on their very dark skin colour, much darker than the average in the rest of Papua New Guinea,’ says Anthony Regan, a constitutional lawyer at ANU and an advisor to the current Bougainville government.
‘During the post-war period, the beginnings of a linking of political and economic demands to Bougainville identity asserted against the rest of Papua New Guinea began to emerge. Even in the early ’60s when a UN mission visited Bougainville, there was a call from some Bougainvilleans for the UN to take over or for Bougainville to be part of America. I’m not saying this was every Bougainvillean but there was a significant element of dissatisfaction.’
That feeling of dissatisfaction intensified with the establishment of what would become the world’s largest open cut copper mine at Panguna. The Bougainville Copper Agreement was struck between a company then known as Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia and the Australian government in 1967 and the mine began production in 1972, three years before PNG independence.
‘Many of the local people were opposed to the mine,’ says Griffith University’s Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, who went to Bougainville as a PhD student during the ‘70s to look at the impact of the deal. ‘At different points, the colonial administration had to bring in riot police to suppress opposition to the mine. We’re talking about a situation in which many people didn’t want the mine, it was forced on them by the colonial administration through a law, the Bougainville Copper Agreement, in which they had no say.‘
Another very big problem was loss of land associated with the project. One of the major protests was at a place called Rorovana, where women were heavily involved in a protest over the building of a port and other facilities. They were removed by the riot police and some of them were jailed. Similarly, at the mine site itself people were losing their land, people were being relocated to other areas where there often wasn’t garden land available. They were being moved on to other people’s customary land. Remember, the livelihoods of all these people depended entirely on their land.’
Moreover, the mine caused tremendous environmental damage, according to O’Faircheallaigh.
‘Mining companies were allowed to simply dump the waste into the rivers, which is what happened. There was no tailings dam in the way there would be in Australia to confine these. About 50 million tonnes of waste a year was simply dumped into the rivers, which became biologically dead within a couple of years. They broke their banks and the tailings and the waste from the mine started to spread out onto other people’s land.’
The Panguna mine turned out to be incredibly profitable for CRA and its parent company Rio Tinto. So much so that CRA and Rio recovered their entire capital investment in just two and a half years. They were making huge sums of money out of the project, but the compensation that was paid to people was minimal, and often wasn’t sufficient even to allow them to buy food to replace the productive land they had lost.
The Bougainville government, set up in 1977, officially got some royalties—about 5 million kina at the time, probably worth about US$40 million today. It was significant revenue, and the government and used it to try and build infrastructure and prosperity across Bougainville as a whole. Within Bougainville, however, there was a strong sense that the mine had been imposed mainly for the benefit of the independent state of Papua New Guinea, which received a much greater share of the royalties.
During the ’80s, a new generation of landowners from the mine area were becoming adults. They had never received any of the compensation for the land taken. The size of the mine workforce had fallen from 10,000 during construction to about 3,500, and Bougainvilleans only occupied about 30 per cent of those positions. By the mid-1980s, young people from all over Bougainville were increasingly resentful about the lack of employment opportunities.
Young landowners and mine workers, discovering that they couldn’t get their concerns heard by the PNG government or the company, decided to take action. They began destroying mine property, burning buildings and blowing up power pylons. Instead of trying to address their grievances, both the Bougainville government and the national government called in police mobile squads from elsewhere in PNG. Using violence to try to suppress opposition to the mine simply drove more people to join the young rebels, however.
The mine was shut down in May 1989 and has never reopened. PNG troops left Bougainville in March 1990 in the lead up to intended peace negotiations. Police pulled out as well, and suddenly the Bougainville Revolutionary Army led by Francis Ona was in charge of Bougainville
‘Very rapidly from mid-1990 the situation descended into highly localised conflicts, some of it over theft, some of it over payback of old scores, some of it about hitting people who had been regarded as supporting the Papua New Guinea government,’ says ANU’s Anthony Regan.
‘It very rapidly then descended into an internal civil war in Bougainville, with very strongly pro-secessionist BRA people opposed by what were often former BRA who had been losing out in localised conflict who then sought the return of the Papua New Guinea forces.’
‘It was ultimately, from 1990 through to 1997 when the conflict ended, a sort of dual-headed civil war, one between secessionists and Papua New Guinea, another between secessionists in Bougainville and anti-secession Bougainvilleans, and those two civil wars were masking a myriad of the local conflicts—very, very local, probably 70, 80 localised conflicts that had nothing to do with ideology, nothing to do with secession, all to do with land and local history and identities and so on. So it was a very tragic outcome.’
During the conflict, approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Bougainvilleans died. It ended in 2000 after seven years of protracted negotiations that involved New Zealand, Australia and the United Nations. A peace agreement was signed in 2001 by PNG and Bougainville. Both sides agreed that Bougainville would for the moment remain part of PNG but be allowed much more autonomy than other provinces.
Given the island’s history, mining is a very sensitive issue and one part of the peace agreement was that the Bougainville government would ultimately take control of mining on the island. In March this year, that process was completed with the passage of the Bougainville Mining Act.
Mining in Bougainville is now completely controlled by the Autonomous Bougainville Government, whereas in every other province of PNG it’s still controlled by the national government. The legislation also states, possibly for the first time ever, that minerals are not owned by the state, but rather by the customary landowners of the land under which they sit.
The final component of the peace agreement was that between 2015 and 2020 there would be a referendum in which Bougainvilleans would decide whether to remain part of PNG or become independent. PNG is not bound to accept the results of that referendum, but the referendum must be held at some point during that period.
Both the independence referendum and the possible reopening of the Panguna mine have been potent issues during the current Bougainvillean presidential and parliamentary elections.
‘They are the two big issues,’ says Anthony Regan. ‘But there is a general view in Bougainville amongst the leadership and amongst very many Bougainvilleans [this is unproven and very much a contested view] that it’s going to be very difficult to have either real autonomy or independence without mining. The Bougainville budget at the moment is about 350 million kina, roughly $150 million, but Bougainville-derived revenue is about 30 million kina, about $12 million.
‘Bougainville, though, is still divided on the issue of mining. There are some landowners in the area very concerned about the reopening of mining, and there are others very worried about the possible environmental effects. So the issue is yet to be determined, but under legislation passed by the Bougainville government in March, Bougainville landowners have been given rights of veto over either exploration or development. So the Bougainville government’s been saying from day one there will be no reopening of the Panguna mine if the landowners don’t want it. And with the veto, the landowners will have the final say.’ [This is inaccurate as it is only a small number of handpicked landowners who will decide, not the majority].
‘The Bougainville government would prefer to have the Panguna mine move ahead quickly if possible, if the landowners want it, mainly because it could be up and running within five, six, seven years, and generating significant revenue for the government even in the two or three years of construction, whereas in general in PNG, new mines from exploration to beginning of operation can take between 15 and 30 years. With the timetable for the referendum, a referendum being required by 2020, the government feels torn and under considerable pressure.’ [Regan is an official spokesperson for the Momis government?]
The formal announcement of the results of the election is scheduled for June 8, but it is dependent on the speed of vote counting.