Local residents hold banners and placards during a protest at the former Bougainville Copper Limited’s Panguna mine. | Photo: Reuters
teleSUR | 27 November 2017
The women noted that “foreign concepts” and exploiters supplanted traditional ways of life, resulting in the environmental catastrophe of the island.
Mothers Against Re-Opening the Panguna mine have released a statement championing traditional land rights of the Indigenous Black people of the South Pacific island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, expressing their emphatic opposition to re-opening the Panguna Mine located in the Guava Mountains.
Describing access to land as their “traditional birthright,” the women explained that their matrilineal lineage is a social reality which places them as custodians of the land, thus the need for them to make their voices heard in the vanguard, rejecting all attempts to re-open the mine.
The statement read, in part, that it was “women who led the protests against” Bougainville Copper Limiter, BCL, and Rio-Tinto, a British-owned mining giant, that operated the Panguna mine. Two decades later, which marked the beginning of the armed conflict in Bougainville, women continued to trigger the “anger of menfolk to take action,” they wrote.
The statement cited “violations of land rights, destruction of properties and traditional sacred lands, serious damage to the environment, deposits of toxic chemicals into the rivers, lack of shareholding and inadequate levels of royalties,” which gave way to the war which lasted from 1989 to 1998.
The women went on to note that “foreign concepts” and exploiters supplanted traditional ways of life and “Black concepts.” However, they added that they’re “no longer a race of people who are blind to be led by puppets who cannot wholly choose their destiny.”
A consortium of Australian investors, having coddled support from the Autonomous Bougainville Government and head of the landowners who own mineral rights, are now making their move to re-open and operate Panguna, once known as one of the world’s largest copper mines.
“If the independence of the people is to be sustained then we need Panguna to run,” said Raymond Masono, Bougainville’s Vice President, according to Reuters.
In 1988, Perpetua Serero, chairlady, of the Panguna Landowner Association, and her cousin, Francis Ona, led the newly formed group which championed indigenous landowner demands over BCL and the Papua New Guinea Government and that something be done about widespread pollution. Roughly a billion tons of waste had been deposited in the Jaba River, contaminating it with copper, mercury, lead, and arsenic.
However, when Applied Geology Associates, a New Zealand consultancy firm, attended a public meeting in the capital Arawa and released a report stating that BCL operations had caused no environmental damage, Ona stood up and slammed it as a whitewash.
“We were forced to become passive observers of our own exploitation, first by the racist colonial administration and after independence by the Black political leaders in white men’s coats,” Ona said. His cousin, Serero would also refer to the Black mismanagement class on the island as “self-centered traditional landlords, brainwashed by foreigners and minority elite nationals.”
Though Perpetua passed away shortly after the outset of the war, Ona would go on to lead the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, BRA, alongside his chief commander, Sam Kauona, which shut down the Panguna mine amid fighting with Papua New Guinea’s armed forces. As a result of their ex-colonial and mining interests in Bougainville, Australia supported Papua New Guinea’s war efforts by providing them with military advisors, trainers, helicopters, and helicopter pilots.
The armed conflict, which lasted from 1989 to 1998, claimed 15,000 lives on the island, roughly 10 percent of the population. Most of the deaths were attributed to the most insidious aspect of the war – the Australian and Papua New Guinea-backed naval blockade of Bougainville.
In a class action lawsuit against BCL and Rio-Tinto alleging war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, Michael Somare, signed an affidavit stating, “Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the government.” Former Papua New Guinea military general, Jerry Singirok also signed an affidavit which stating, “The PNG military functioned as the corporation’s personal security force and were ordered by BCL to take action to reopen the mine by any means necessary.”
With necessity being the mother of all inventions, the war forced villagers to learn how to maximize locally grown crops, developed mini hydro-plants from spare car parts to supply energy throughout the island, established local medical centers of treatment and learning, and produced all that was needed to function as an independent nation. Far from achieving its goal of depriving islanders into submission, the blockade, in effect, rejuvenated the call for independence.
Bougainville, popularly known by its traditional name Me’ekamui (meaning “Sacred Land”), is scheduled to hold an independence vote on June 2019, according to Reuters. A quarter of a million people will decide whether to officially become the world’s newest nation or remain part of Papua New Guinea.
Australia has agreed to the independence vote on one condition, that the Me’ekamui Defence Force— a remnant armed force sprung from the war which, until this day, controls the no-go zone encompassing the Guava mountains overlooking the gaping hole where BCL once mined — lay down their weapons. Autonomous Bougainville Government officials have also been urged to resign mining contracts with BCL.
Ever the defender of his people’s land, a revolutionary precursor to the modern day environmental movement, Ona contended that people on planet earth “depend on land, depend on environment, and I wish to ask everyone, every leader of any nation to take care of the land so that people on this planet can be saved.”