Ben Bohane | Fairfax Media | November 16, 2019
To view the Panguna pit is to witness an industrial apocalypse and one of the largest man-made holes in the world; a vast open-cut copper and gold mine in the highlands of Bougainville island, slowly being reclaimed by jungle.
Bits of twisted metal and rusting debris lie scattered everywhere, buildings and heavy machinery smothered under moss and creeping vine. Here lie buried the broken corporate dreams of a colonial age but also the promise of a future with local landowners in control.
Before guerrillas from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army forced its closure in May 1989, Panguna was one of the most advanced – and profitable – mining operations in the world. It was operated by a company called Bougainville Copper Limited. Its parent company Rio Tinto, one of the biggest in the world, called Panguna “the jewel in our crown”.
Yet locals saw little of the wealth. Australian officials administering Papua New Guinea in the late 1960s made it clear to local landowners that Panguna’s riches were to underwrite the economy of the whole country as it headed to independence in 1975 and beyond. And that, inevitably, led to war.
Although anthropologists had told the company that Bougainville was matrilineal – that it was women who owned the land, not men – the mine proceeded to do all its dealings with men. Women opposed it from the start.
In 1988 the New Panguna Landowners Association usurped the previous one and the senior woman in the area, Perpetua Serero, issued a demand to the mining company: pay 10 billion kina ($4.2 billion) in compensation for use of the land and renegotiate the mine lease. Their demands were ignored.
When Serero died soon after, her brother, Francis Ona, a former surveyor at the mine, took on the “kastom” – responsibility – on behalf of the women owners to reclaim the land, even if it meant war. Ona went bush with a stack of stolen dynamite from the mine and formed the first cell of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), soon launching attacks on the mine. Several mine workers, including an Australian, were shot, prompting closure of the mine and declaration of a State of Emergency by PNG.
Within months Bougainville descended into a war as the PNG Defence Force tried, unsuccessfully, to regain control of the island. In the next 10 years, an estimated 10 to 15,000 people died, mostly from preventable disease because PNG imposed a naval blockade of the island which stopped vital medicines getting in.
The mine – or more accurately, the total mineral wealth of this island in the south Pacific – remained at the centre of the dispute. When I interviewed Ona in his Guava village above the mine in 1994, at the height of the war, he showed me plans by BCL to establish several other mines on the island.
“When we broke into the company safe and I saw the plans, I knew our fears were true,” he said. “BCL wanted to mine the whole island and our people were worried they would all be moved off the island so the company could mine everywhere.”
Although it’s unlikely the mine could have done so, or the PNG government would have allowed it, such concerns in a community with little access to information or understanding of the space-age project planted on top of a tribal culture added to resentment and suspicion. People were already angry at pollution from the mine, the lack of royalties accruing to them and the growing number of PNG mainlanders arriving to take jobs that locals believe should have been reserved for them.
Ceasefire and reconciliation
By 1997, the women had had enough of the war and convinced their men among the rank and file of the BRA to seek a peaceful, diplomatic route to achieve their common goal: independence.
A ceasefire was brokered in 1997 by New Zealand and in 2001 the comprehensive Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed by PNG and all the warring factions, except a BRA breakaway group called the Me’ekamui Defence Force (MDF). The MDF still controls the Panguna site today. Nevertheless they have recently contained their weapons under UN supervision and will join the rest of Bougainville in voting.
Any grievances about the mine and colonial administration need to be weighed against the fact that Bougainville was the most prosperous province of PNG during the 1970s and ’80s. It had good infrastructure, including roads, hospitals and schools. BCL paid substantial tax but was caught in tensions between provincial and national governments. Many Bougainvilleans were trained by the mine and local businesses, with some going on to careers elsewhere in PNG and overseas.
Today, Bougainvilleans have reconciled after a 20-year peace process and are poised to vote in a referendum they have long awaited. Although it is expected a large majority will vote for independence, the final outcome must be ratified by the PNG parliament – which is not certain. If successful, Bougainville will become the newest nation in our region since East Timor.
More than 206,000 voters are registered and 246 polling teams have spread across the Bougainville islands, Australia, PNG and the Solomons. The two-week voting period begins on November 23 and ends on December 7, with results expected soon after. Overseeing the vote is the chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC), former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, who has said the referendum “should be celebrated”.
Despite being scarred by the history of mining there, Bougainvilleans are pragmatic and many believe they need mining to underwrite a newly emerging nation. Although its infrastructure has been destroyed, Bloomberg recently estimated that the Panguna mine alone still contains up to $US58 billion ($84 billion) worth of copper, gold and silver.
In fact, the whole island is known to be rich in minerals and mining has never stopped. Villagers continue to pan for alluvial gold in rivers and streams across Bougainville, as well as the tailings area of the Panguna mine. Recently I watched young and old villagers close to Panguna clawing away at the hillside, using high-powered hoses and pickaxes to create a slurry they could then pan through to find precious little nuggets.
During the war I saw Nescafe jars filled with gold being smuggled out of the island to buy essential goods in the neighbouring Solomon Islands. Estimates vary, but since the war ended somewhere around $50 million per year is being earned by locals through alluvial panning.
But big external players are circling too, hoping to get exploration licences to mine Bougainville’s riches. Apart from the contested Panguna licence, four exploration licences have been issued by the Autonomous Bougainville Government since they were able to draw down mining powers from PNG.
Former BRA commander “General” Sam Kauona has one licence, Filipino company SRMI has another while Perth-based Kalia has two licences. Other Australian companies such as Fortescue are in talks, while China is also pitching infrastructure deals based on the “collateral” of Bougainville’s mineral wealth.
Last December a delegation of 10 Chinese businessmen approached the “Core” group of Bougainville veterans and leaders offering up to $1 billion to invest in mining, agriculture, tourism and the “transition” from autonomy to independence.
Even today, some Panguna landowners are in favour of BCL or its former parent company, Rio Tinto, returning “after they have properly reconciled with us and cleaned up their mess”. Amidst the uncertainty of new players circling, as well as growing geopolitical tensions, there is an oft-heard refrain: better the devil you know.
‘Australia’s secret war’
While some worry about growing Chinese influence, others are equally critical of Australia’s failure to present a viable alternative and the lack of personal engagement by Australian officials on the ground. Although Australia’s leaders are mindful of PNG sensitivities ahead of the referendum and want to avoid being seen to favour either side, Bougainvilleans wonder if Australia is indeed “neutral” now or will continue to work with PNG to deny Bougainville’s independence.
This has geopolitical consequences as China woos key players on Bougainville who remain suspicious of Australia’s position.
Australia has a long and sometimes troubled history with Bougainville. Today it is a valuable aid partner, providing around 12 per cent ($50 million per year) of Bougainville’s bilateral aid program, the highest of any donor. It has positioned itself as the partner of choice for Pacific nations, particularly after the “step up” began in 2017.
Between 1915 and 1975 Australia directly administered the territory. The very first action of the national Australian military at the outbreak of World War I – well before the Gallipoli landing – was to take control of German New Guinea, including Bougainville.
In World War II, 516 Australian soldiers and up to 40,000 Japanese died fighting on Bougainville. Australian Coastwatchers, hiding in the hills and protected by loyal locals, provided such valuable intelligence to the Americans taking Guadalcanal to the east that after the war US admiral “Bull” Halsey personally thanked them, saying they had “saved the Pacific”.
After the war, large cocoa plantations were established along with the Panguna mine. Australian riot police were used several times to quash the budding local independence movement. Two universal declarations of independence, first in 1975 and then in 1991, went unrecognised.
And during the Bougainville war between 1988 and 1998, Australia continued to train and equip PNG forces. Some called it “Australia’s secret war” since Canberra tried to maintain an appearance of neutrality while supplying PNG with four helicopters that were soon turned into gunships.
Since the war Australia has funded a 20-year peace process and has won local and regional admiration for the way it allowed traditional reconciliation processes to unfold.
While Bougainvilleans remain suspicious of Australia’s real position on independence, they are thankful for the role it has played in the peace process and its ongoing development assistance.
Rough seas ahead?
In the wake of the referendum, if PNG, Indonesia or Australia were to attempt to deny or campaign against Bougainville independence, there is a strong possibility that hardliners on the island would issue another unilateral declaration of independence that some countries in the Pacific – and Beijing – might recognise. In that scenario, the potential for another security crisis in the region is real.
If the outcome of the referendum is an overwhelming vote for independence, Canberra must be prepared for two possibilities: either the creation of a newly independent nation in the region, or a crisis unfolding if the PNG government refuses to ratify the result.
On top of all this there are Australian miners courting various groups within Bougainville to get access to the hidden riches of the Panguna mine and other mineral resources across the islands.
It has prompted some observers to wonder if these new mining players in Australia and China are fully aware of the history of mining and conflict here, as they try to cash in at this sensitive moment when Bougainville is on the cusp of nationhood and trying to forge unity among its people.
Recent reconciliation ceremonies between the PNG military and Bougainville militants declared there will be “no more war”. Now, as polling day nears, Bougainvilleans look set to accomplish something Francis Ona told me during the war he wanted.
“We have been ruled by four colonial masters over the past 100 years: first the Germans, then the Australians, then the Japanese, the Australians again, then PNG.
“We believe it is time we ruled ourselves now.”