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Bougainville voted yes to becoming the world’s newest nation. Now begins the gold rush

PHOTO: The people of Bougainville voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. (ABC)

Natalie Whiting | ABC News | December 14 2019

A ceremony to announce the results of Bougainville’s historic referendum opened with a chorus of the Bougainville anthem. When the overwhelming result for independence was handed down, people spontaneously started singing it again.

It was a clear sign of the separate identity that Bougainvilleans have long maintained. The thumping result for splitting from PNG was an even clearer sign.

But the path to potential nationhood remains complex and far from guaranteed, despite the mandate from an almost 98 per cent vote of support offers.

The end of the referendum not only starts another political process, but it will also turn eyes back to a massive open-cut mine that has been sitting, waiting in the mountains since the 1980s.

PHOTO: The Panguna mine hasn’t produced a pound of metal in 30 years.

As Bougainville looks for a way forward politically, it also needs to look at economic options.

That’s something Papua New Guinea is keen for it to focus on as it grapples with how to respond to the vote.

PNG is known as the land of a thousand tribes and many in the Government are worried about keeping the rest of the country united if Bougainville leaves.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape has offered economic control but stopped well short of committing to independence for Bougainville.

Economically, the most obvious income stream for the resource-rich area is mining, but that would involve revisiting the issues that started the bloody conflict in the region.

Landowners at the site of the Panguna gold and copper mine, where the violence first broke out, say they are ready to see it reopen in the wake of the referendum.

Up to 20,000 people died in the secessionist conflict that followed, before the peace agreement which guaranteed the vote brought it to an end.

PHOTO: A small settlement has been built at the bottom of the Panguna mine. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Several companies are already circling, keen to make a move now that the vote is over.

Whether they have the capital and the ability to reopen it peacefully remains to be seen.

PNG Prime Minister offers Bougainville economic control

PHOTO: PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape was welcomed at the airport with a guard of honour from police and a traditional sing sing group. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

As the referendum ballots were being counted in Bougainville’s capital Buka, speculation about the movements of Mr Marape were swirling.

Initial indications that Mr Marape would be coming to Buka for the announcement were replaced by rumours of him instead going to Panguna in the days after the result.

In the end his visit was moved to the town of Arawa, near the mine. But Panguna and building Bougainville’s economy featured throughout his speech.

Thousands of people gathered in the middle of town to hear him speak. The people even wanted to carry him to the stage on a specially built chair, an offer he graciously refused.

PHOTO: Thousands turned out to hear Mr Marape speak in Arawa during his first visit after the referendum. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Mr Marape has been seen as being more supportive of the referendum than previous leaders, but PNG has nevertheless made no secret of the fact it wants Bougainville to remain a part of the country.

The independence vote is non-binding, and amid the celebrations of the result, PNG has been quick to remind people that years of discussions between the two parties will follow and a negotiated outcome will then be presented to PNG’s parliament.

In the lead-up to the referendum, Mr Marape had been discussing a “third option” beyond independence and greater autonomy which the people were asked to choose between — what he called “economic independence”.

His speech was in a similar vein, focussing on economic development and self-determination, but avoiding mention of independence.

He presented a cheque worth 50 million kina ($21 million), promised another 100 million kina ($42 million) next year and control over income generated in Bougainville, including tax powers.

“The only thing I will ask you, is that I will look after the border and both of our flags must fly until we reach the conclusion of this process,” he told the crowd.

Certainly, Bougainville is currently in no position to support itself and the call to focus on building the economy is warranted. But Mr Marape wouldn’t be drawn on whether he could envisage independence for Bougainville.

“That’s something for the future. I can’t pre-empt the outcome of the consultations that will take place,” he told the ABC.

PHOTO: Bougainville President John Momis heads to the polls on referendum day. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

After such a comprehensive vote, there may be little appetite in Bougainville to accept something less than full independence.

But for the moment his speech was well received by the crowd, and Bougainville’s President is confident of productive discussions going forward.

The greatest expectation from Bougainvilleans after the referendum is for change — people want improved services and infrastructure. Both governments will need to make that a priority and it will require funding.

Landowners split over who should reopen mine

PHOTO: The disused mine has divided locals, some of whom have blocked access to the site over the years. (ABC News: Eric Tlozek)

In the base of the massive open pit of the Panguna gold and copper mine, a small settlement has been built and people work digging up gold that remains buried there.

It’s thought there is still $84 billion worth of copper and gold in the site, but re-establishing operations would likely take a decade and billions of dollars.

Keeping the mine closed has been seen as part of maintaining peace ahead of the referendum.

PHOTO: People dig for gold at the base of the Panguna gold and copper mine. (ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

The local landowners now largely want to see it open, however, a split is already forming over which company should be brought in.

The most prominent landowner group is backing Australian company RTG, but there is another group of landowners who want to see the original company, Bougainville Copper Limited, brought back. The Bougainville Government has supported a third company, Caballus, which is also Australian.

That, combined with the ongoing political discussions, could create an uncertain investment landscape.

Mr Marape has said the PNG Government’s 39 per cent stake in Bougainville Copper Limited will be given to Bougainville, but he urged people to look at other industries as well, like agriculture.

It’s not just Panguna that has been attracting attention — landowners say they’ve received visits from other companies, some from Australia and some from China, interested in looking at other greenfield sites in the region.

Australia could face difficult diplomatic waters

The current geopolitical climate in the pacific — where China and the west are seen to be in a battle for influence — has thrown another filter on the vote.

Much has been made of possible offers from China to help Bougainville develop if it is a fledgling country.

However, Bougainville President John Momis has said there have been no offers from the Chinese Government and it was unclear if money being offered by companies, including some said to be interested in Panguna, would actually materialise.

PHOTO: The Panguna gold and copper mine sparked a war that killed 20,000 people. (Reuters: Trevor Hammond)

He said: “These are complex issues, which we’re not going to deal with right away.”

The geopolitical and diplomatic complexities of either a new nation in the region, or of a disagreement between PNG and Bougainville during the upcoming negotiations, is undeniable.

Nowhere will that be felt more keenly than in Australia, which is a key financial and development supporter of both.

Already a key former combatant from the crisis is calling for the international community to “ask PNG to accept the reality and let Bougainville go”.

PNG’s Bougainville Affairs Minister Sir Puka Temu has urged the international community “not to interfere in the consultation phase”.

“What we want is to achieve an outcome like what we did 18 years ago, that is a joint creation — the Bougainville Peace Agreement was a joint creation,” he said.

In a statement, Australia’s Foreign Minister has passed on congratulations for the vote and says Australia “looks forward to continued productive engagement” between the two governments.

PHOTO: Flags were proudly flown around the region when the people of Bougainville overwhelmingly voted yes to independence. (Reuters: Melvin Levongo)

But as the cobalt blue of Bougainville’s flags flickers from buildings and cars across the region in the wake of the vote, credit must be given to both it and PNG for almost 20 years of peace and an incredibly well-run referendum.

Hopefully, the next phase will be as successful.

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Filed under Bougainville, Financial returns, Papua New Guinea

Saving the Sepik from Frieda mine

Rosa Koian | PNG Attitude | 10 December 2019

A photo posted on Facebook showing dried freshwater fish at Wewak market has sparked a discussion on the future of the Sepik River.

In the river’s headwaters, the Frieda copper and gold mine is pushing ahead with its development plans.

The Sepik is 1,100km long and empties into the Bismarck Sea. The river system’s 430,000 people use the river for food, education, transport, health and culture.

What they want is a truly holistic economic approach to development.

They believe that development must add value, not subtract from the people’s lives. Their river must be protected at all costs.

There was a strong response on Facebook from people wanting to ban the mine, the main argument being that mining will take away the people’s livelihoods.

“Sepik has always been sustaining us,” said Brian Singut. While another comment from Howard Sindana said, “It is our food source and supermarket. Sepik just gives.”

The East and West Sepik provincial governments are preparing to launch their biggest copper and gold mine but the people’s concerns are yet to be heard.

The people have many reasons to save this river, one of the richest, largest and last remaining unspoiled rivers in the Pacific.

In the Sepik river system, humans and nature have happily co-existed to this day.

As one commentator said: “It is a rich cultural and ecological storehouse; rich in stories of how a myriad of species and beings can exist in the same space without competition and hurting each other.”

The art and stories from the Sepik are unique. At the centre of them are the pukpuk and the hausman, depicting so much of the region’s culture and history.

Its strength, its sources of knowledge and wisdom, the artistic expression of the human and spiritual worlds, and always the promise of sustenance long into the future.

Until the present day western influences have intruded but slowly but now fears of fast moving change are real.

In the Sepik wetlands, crocodile farmers have reported earnings of more than K300,000 to their families in 2018.

The Sepik River provides food, game, material for handicrafts – all securing income for these people who know what it is to live at ease with nature.

Environmental groups have documented various flora and fauna and say the Sepik River and its basin is the second richest biodiversity region in Papua New Guinea.

The Upper Sepik is currently on the list to be recognised as a world heritage site.

Other people are concerned about the environment impact statement for the Frieda project.

In this very long document, they say, there is no clear mention of the direct impacts of mining and the appropriate mitigation measures in place if something goes wrong.

And three other large projects have been lumped into the same environment impact statement. The document is currently being reviewed.

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Solomon Islands: Minister should meet directly with local communities over mining concerns

Amnesty International | 9 December 2019

The Solomon Islands Minister of the Environment should conduct face-to-face consultations with local communities on Wagina Island to hear their concerns before deciding the fate of a proposed open-cast bauxite mine there, Amnesty International said today.

The Minister is expected to decide soon whether to uphold a March 2019 Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC) decision that overturned the mining licence, after residents raised fears it could impact livelihoods on the island.

“The Solomon Islands government must ensure that all affected communities are genuinely and meaningfully consulted about this proposal,” said Richard Pearshouse, Head of Crisis and Environment at Amnesty International.

“The Minister should sit down with local communities on Wagina Island and hear their concerns.”

Wagina Island is a remote island of approximately 80 km2 in north-west Choiseul Province. Its residents are originally from Kiribati, having been relocated in the early 1960s by the British colonial administration. Estimated at around 2,000 people, they live by subsistence farming, fishing and seaweed farming.

In 2013, the Ministry of the Environment granted a Solomon Islands-registered company, Solomon Bauxite Limited (SBL), a permit to mine bauxite on Wagina Island. The following year, Wagina residents opposed the mine in the country’s High Court, which issued a stay of proceedings so that the case could be heard by the EAC.

In March 2019, the EAC overturned the Ministry of Environment’s consent for the mine. The EAC found that the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed mine – which is required under national law – had insufficient information to assess the impacts of the proposed mine, and that the legislative procedures for public consultation and publication of the EIS were not followed.

SBL has appealed the EAC’s decision to the Minister of the Environment. In meetings and correspondence with Amnesty International, the company has stressed that it has always complied with the laws applicable to its operations and has acknowledged the importance of upholding human rights.

Amnesty International visited Wagina Island in July 2019 and interviewed a dozen islanders about their concerns, as well as 10 others familiar with the issue, including representatives of national and provincial governments, civil society organizations, journalists and lawyers. The organization also reviewed background documents, including meeting minutes and a copy of the 2012 EIS and its 2013 supplement.

“There is much apprehension about the potential environmental and social impacts of this mine and many community members told Amnesty International they did not feel sufficiently informed or consulted about it,” said Richard Pearshouse.

Some residents of Kukson and Nikamuroo villages and Benyamina islet told Amnesty International that they are concerned about the possible impacts from mining on fishing and sea-weed farming from mine run-off or disturbances to fresh groundwater discharges into the sea.

The EIS states that: “The [residents of Wagina] do not currently use either the mine or the processing facility sites for any productive purpose.” However, some residents told Amnesty International they use some of the land covered by the proposed mine for purposes including gardening and harvesting timber for housing.

“The government of the Solomon Islands needs to resolve the issues of land ownership and use on this part of Wagina. Taking away land that people occupy and use without following due legal process runs the risk of forced evictions,” said Richard Pearshouse.

According to the EIS, the development will include an open pit mine, a bulk carrier wharf and small boat wharf, airstrip, administration offices, a power station, fuel farm, and accommodation for about 150 employees (who with family members may reach 1,000 people). The proposed mining involves trucking approximately 150 truckloads of bauxite, each with a 35 to 50 tonne payload, for 16 hours each day. The proposed life of the mine is between 16 and 20 years.

A consultation meeting on the proposed mine was held in Kukson village in February 2013. Official government minutes from that meeting show only 23 villagers attended and that no-one attended from Nikamuroo (the village closest to the proposed mine). The EAC found deficiencies in the process of raising public awareness about this consultation meeting and the application for a licence.
Wagina residents told Amnesty International that four copies of the 2012 EIS were sent to the Island after the February 2013 consultation meeting. The 2012 EIS was supplemented by another EIS in June 2013, approximately four months after the meeting in Kukson. According to Amnesty International’s interviews with residents of Wagina, no consultation meetings took place to discuss this new information.

“The absence of full, accurate and timely information and the lack of any follow-up on questions raised by those who were able to attend the one consultation meeting, raises concerns about whether the engagement with affected communities can be considered genuine or meaningful,” said Richard Pearshouse.

The Minister’s review should include checking the date of any meetings with affected communities, where the meetings took place, whether all sections of the community – including women and those who cannot read – could participate effectively, what language meetings were held in, what advance notice and information was given, and what specific issues were discussed.

Governments have a duty to respect and protect human rights in the context of business activities. All companies have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations, independently of a state’s own human rights obligations. To meet this responsibility, companies should have in place an ongoing and proactive human rights due diligence process to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address their impacts on human rights. This may require going beyond the legal requirements in the country where they are operating.

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Shining a light on corporate human rights abuses in the Pacific

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s Amy Sinclair introduces a new portal that focuses attention on a resource-rich area remote from the rest of the world

Amy Sinclair | Ethical Corp | December 9, 2019

In recent months, damaging spills caused by foreign miners operating in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea have wreaked havoc with the safety and livelihoods of coastal communities.

At the same time, with the independence referendum under way in the Bougainville region of Papua New Guinea, mining companies are jostling for new licenses. This is in a region where tensions over the infamous Panguna mine sparked a bloody decade-long civil war in the 1990s. Memories fade fast, particularly when there are profits to be made.

The Pacific region is intensely resource-rich, but with great distances separating Pacific nations – not only from one another, but also from much of the rest of the world – human rights abuses by companies have too often occurred in the shadows.

Mining companies are seeking licences amid Bougainville’s referendum for independence. (Credit: Melvin Levongo/Reuters)

With inward-investment growing, Pacific communities face increasing challenges to fair and informed engagement and run the risk of exposure to higher levels of abuse and environmental harm by global companies. This is particularly true for those on the frontline of deforestation, irresponsible mining, fishing, tourism and seabed exploitation.

Local activists and communities fighting these abuses are hindered by being far away from foreign company headquarters located in Canada, Australia or China. Distances may be great, but Pacific voices deserve to be heard. With greater visibility on global platforms, communities and advocates can be supported in their efforts to achieve stable, sustainable growth that will protect future generations.

The need for this increased visibility is great. Business-related human rights harms in the Pacific are, increasingly, being documented. Yet severe human rights abuses, including forced labour, slavery, human trafficking and child labour, persist.

In June, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) published a report on modern slavery in the Pacific tuna sector, which provides almost 60% of the world’s tuna catch in a growing industry currently worth $22 billion. The report surveyed 35 canned tuna companies and supermarkets, representing 80 of the world’s largest retail canned tuna brands, and found that, outside a small cluster of leading companies, the sector is not translating human rights policies into practice. Without urgent and decisive action in the Pacific fishing sector, and by those sourcing from it, there is a danger that company policy will provide a fig-leaf for abuse, while slavery continues unabated.

Deep-dives such as this yield invaluable insights into sector-specific questions, but more is required. There is a pressing need to raise awareness of the human rights responsibilities of companies operating in all sectors in the Pacific, and to bring to light the true nature and scale of human rights abuses being committed across the region.

The Solomon Islands, and Fiji in particular, are experiencing high levels of mining activity, and there is a danger that the mistakes of the past – seen in Papua New Guinea with the abuses and environmental degradation at Panguna, Ok Tedi and Porgera – will be replicated there and beyond. Community consultation must form the cornerstone of human rights due diligence by companies seeking to invest in the region, and profits should be fairly shared.

The Pacific tuna sector provides almost 60% of the world’s tuna catch and is worth $22bn. (Credit: Erik de Castro/Reuters)

 Fortunately, a nascent business and human rights movement is emerging in the Pacific. The first-ever dedicated Pacific session, Advancing the Business and Human Rights Agenda in the Pacific, was held during the annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva last month, a testament to the progress that has been made in the region recently.

To support and chart the growth of this emerging movement, BHRRC has launched a new web portal dedicated to the region. The Pacific portal brings the broad range of local business and human rights issues into sharper focus and amplifies local and community voices.

It’s hoped the portal will be a crucial tool for human rights and environmental rights advocates, both in civil society and in businesses themselves, seeking to prevent abuse and improve company human rights practices in the region. It will do this by highlighting research on key issues, identifying allegations of business-related abuse and calling attention to emerging cases.

Stability in the Pacific region requires urgent action to ensure human rights are embedded in investments from inception. Without regard for international rules requiring respect for human rights in business, the sustainability of life in the Pacific for future generations is under threat.

Efforts like this web portal are needed to shine a light into the shadows and improve awareness of Pacific business and human rights issues on the global stage.

To visit BHRRC’s Pacific portal click here: Pacific Business & Human Rights

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PNG PM urges patience over Porgera mine talks

“Government was well aware that a majority of landowners want Barrick’s lease not to be renewed” – PM.

Radio New Zealand | 5 December 2019

Papua New Guinea’s prime minister has urged patience while negotiations over the contract for the Porgera gold mine continue.

James Marape was responding to questions in parliament from Laigap-Porgera MP, Tomait Kapili.

Barrick Gold Ltd, the co-operator of the mine in Enga province with China’s Zijin Mining Group, is pushing to renew its contract.

Mr Kapili requested that Mr Marape move all negotiations to Porgera itself, to adequately gauge landowners’ views and the extent of problems around the mine.

The MP spoke of ongoing “serious” law and order problems which he linked to a surge of outsiders to Porgera since the expiry of the Special Mining Lease in August.

“Since the expiry of the SML there’s hundreds and thousands of people coming from afar, outside the valley, claiming that the extension of the license – while we are negotiating – is not in order, ‘they are illegally mining, so we also want to illegally mine’.”

The prime minister answered that the government was well aware that a majority of landowners want Barrick’s lease not to be renewed.

He said the government had received many written and oral representations from landowners indicating that over 90 percent of them were against Barrick staying on.

“But we are mindful that our partners are operating the mine and they have the asset up there in the mine itself, so those discussions will bring to full conclusion when we consult everyone.

“I intend in the new year (for) an announcement to be made to the status of what will happen in Porgera,” said Mr Marape, adding that he would consider the Laigap-Porgera MP’s request.

“Let me assure the member that I look forward to considering his recommendations in the positive, that all discussions, if not all major discussions, will take place in Porgera, be held in the Porgera valley up in Enga province. So those recommendations are taken on board.”

Since last year, Porgera landowners have conducted a number of public protests to demonstrate their opposition to Barrick’s continued involvement in the mine.

They have complained about lack of compensation for environmental damage caused by the mine over almost thirty years of operation.

Mr Marape urged landowners to maintain composure while the government concludes its discussions with the mine operators.

His government is seeking a greater share in the mine.

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Governor says people still waiting on LNG promises

The National | December 2, 2019

THE PNG LNG project is yet to deliver the billions of kina promised to the people of Southern Highlands but the operator is already accelerate production of gas from the fields in the province, says Governor William Powi.

Powi said as part of developing the P’nyang project, the proponents were trying to use the PNG LNG gas fields in the province to produce gas between 2024 and 2028 under the Associated Gas Development.

He claimed it would deplete the gas quickly while they are waiting for the P’nyang gas to come into the PNG LNG third train.

He said the plan would have a negative impact.

Powi said the landowners and provincial government had been promised billions in development levies and royalties.

They had allowed for capital expenditure deductions by way of depreciation allowance in calculation of royalty and development levy, allowing capital uplift premium and allowing for operating expenditure recovery in the calculations.

In fact, the 2 percent royalty and development levy becomes less than 1 per cent, an acceleration of the cheating by the developer.

“This should not be allowed at the expense of the people of Southern Highland and its landowners,” Powi said.

He said the development levy and royalty should be calculated at 2 per cent gross value of well head and not 1 percent “as we are currently receiving”.

He told Petroleum and Energy Minister Kerenga Kua in Parliament that the people would continue to be marginalised with the use the PNG LNG gas fields in Kutubu, Moran, Agogo, South East Mananda and Gobe oil under the Associated Gas Development.

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Bougainville’s Faustian Bargain

Over 2,000 residents, including chiefs, elders, and politicians attended the historic ceasefire signing ceremony on the island of Bougainville, April 30, 1998. Credit: AP Photo/Australian Defence PR

An ongoing independence referendum does not address the key question at the root of the conflict: the future of the Panguna mine.

Paul R. Williams* and Carly Fabian* | The Diplomat | November 27, 2019

On the small island of Bougainville, a region of Papua New Guinea, voters are currently taking part in a long-awaited referendum on independence that started this Saturday. Twenty years after the end of the deadly Bougainville conflict, this referendum gives voters the chance to decide between substantial political autonomy or complete independence. While the voting period lasts until December 7, early estimates predict that Bougainvilleans will vote overwhelmingly for independence.  

The peace agreement that ended the conflict in 2001 has so far allowed the region to take incremental steps toward enhanced self-government while maintaining a delicate peace. Whether this peace process will result in a durable peace depends entirely on the outcome of the referendum, the final and most important step of the process.

The structure of the referendum, however, renders it an imperfect and perhaps even fatally flawed vehicle for resolving the conflict. Notably, the referendum is not binding on Papua New Guinea, meaning that the outcome will depend on whether Papua New Guinea accepts the outcome of the referendum, or whether it imposes conditions on Bougainville’s independence. Most importantly, the referendum does not address the key question at the root of the conflict: the future of the open-pit Panguna mine on the island.

The Bougainville conflict centered around the Panguna mine, a large-scale copper and gold mine that was built in 1972 amid significant local opposition. During its operation, the mine was responsible for over 40 percent of Papua New Guinea’s national export revenue. The mine dramatically reshaped local society as the mining company clear-cut forests, forcibly relocated villages, and introduced thousands of higher-paid foreign workers to operate the mine. The millions of tons of pollution created by the mine’s operations also quickly contaminated the surrounding bodies of water and agricultural lands.  Collectively, these changes presented what the indigenous Bougainville people viewed as an existential threat to their way of life.

In 1989, Bougainvilleans forcibly shut down the mine. This provoked a harsh armed response from Papua New Guinea.  In response, the rebels declared independence from Papua New Guinea.  Over the next decade, the two sides fought over the future of the mine and, by extension, Bougainville’s political, environmental, and economic independence.  The conflict, marked by atrocities, forced relocation, and a debilitating blockade by Papua New Guinea, resulted in 20,000 deaths, 10 percent of Bougainville’s population, as well as the displacement over another 30 percent of the population.

Somewhat surprisingly, the comprehensive and detailed peace agreement that ended the conflict did not address the future of the mine – the primary conflict driver.  The agreement instead focused on increased self-government and a path to potential independence. This framing has so far allowed Bougainville and Papua New Guinea to maintain a delicate peace as the Bougainville government assumed greater governing responsibility yet kept the mine closed.

At the same time, this framework also presented Papua New Guinea with an opportunity to separate the promise of political independence from Bougainville’s broader goal of protecting the environment and its indigenous way of life. With growing external pressure to reopen the mine, these issues have increasingly been framed as mutually exclusive options that Bougainville must inevitably choose between.

Since the creation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government in 2005, Papua New Guinea and other external funders have provided the Bougainville government with the majority of its funding.  Bougainvilleans have so far envisioned a future economy centered on sustainable agriculture and fishing industries.  It will take significant time, patience, and investment, however, for these industries to produce revenue that could replace the external aid Bougainville currently receives.

To prepare for independence, Papua New Guinea has pressured the Bougainville government to instead achieve fiscal self-reliance by reopening the Panguna mine.  A number of mining companies have expressed an interest in contracting and operating a reopened mine.  Notably, both the government of Papua New Guinea and the government of Bougainville each hold a substantial (36.4 percent) ownership interest in the mine, which was transferred to them in 2016 by the mine’s previous majority shareholder Rio Tinto.

The environmental scars from the mine continue to haunt the island. Cleaning up the pollution that remains would potentially cost billions of dollars, a price far out of reach of Bougainville’s current economy. After the transfer of shares, Rio Tinto rejected responsibility for the mine’s environmental damage.  Today, some parties argue that reopening the mine with greater environmental protections is the only feasible option for generating sufficient revenue to remediate the prior environmental damage.

Strong public resistance in Bougainville has so far kept attempts to reopen the mine at bay.  With the arrival of the referendum date, however, the forces coalescing around the reopening of the mine have redoubled their efforts to overcome this public resistance.  Amid this pressure, rather than resolving the conflict, the referendum’s narrow focus on political independence may instead reignite it.

If voters choose independence, Papua New Guinea may present Bougainville with a Faustian bargain: in exchange for independence, Bougainville will first have to achieve fiscal self-reliance by reopening the mine. If that happens, Bougainvilleans will have to choose between abandoning the promise of political independence, which has underpinned the last two decades of peace, and reopening the Panguna mine, which drove a decade conflict.

Dr. Paul R. Williams is the Founder of the Public International Law & Policy Group, and the Rebecca I. Grazier Professor of Law and International Relations at American University.

Carly Fabian is a Research Fellow on Justice, Peace, and Security at the Public International Law & Policy Group.

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