The cost of Bougainville’s freedom

The cost of Bougainville’s freedom

A family is photographed at their home in Panguna Town, Bougainville, on February 07, 2020. ©Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Misereor

« Daughter Bougainville they diagnosed, 

Copper and gold she full.

Skillful as gynecologist, 

Operating pregnant woman,

They extracted her baby :

The birth of world class mine. »

Bougainvillean song1


Ever since Louis de Bougainville, a French explorer, gave his name to what used to be Ophir Island, the island has been passed from a colonial hand to another. In 1947, Bougainville Island was placed by the United Nations under the tutelage of Papua New Guinea, which was itself under Australia’s tutelage. Once Papua New Guinea gained independence, the island was only endowed with an autonomous government. In 2019, a referendum took place and 98 per cent of voters favoured its independence. The price of Bougainville’s freedom is quite expensive for 45 years old State of Papua-New Guinea. Indeed, if Bougainville is only 9,318 km2, its 300,000 inhabitants thrive on a billions worth treasure of copper and gold. A treasure that, to this day, has led to more pain than benefit for the island’s inhabitants, who have successively seen a big mining company destroy their lands and villages, and have endured a 10 years long war against Papua New Guinea and Australia. The recent talks of independence on the island aroused a growing interest in Bougainville’s future among great powers such as China in attempts to take over the prolific mine. However, while Bougainvilleans are determined not to repeat the past, the island is divided between those who consider the war as the first eco-revolution and who are sure that reopening the mine would lead to the island’s further destruction, and those who think that, in order to become independent, the island needs substantial revenues, which could only come from the mine. In order to explain the current political conflict over the island one needs to analyse years of colonial presence and imperialism, and measure the environmental impact of Panguna mine on the island and on its residents. By explaining the history of an island that stood up to a large multinational company and two powerful countries to defend its soil, one can understand the dilemma Bougainvilleans are confronted to: a dilemma between burying the mine and its past demons for good, or accessing to the freedom it has aspired to for 60 years. 

Papua New Guinea’s colonisation 

Map of the vicinity of Bougainville Island. © Wikipedia

Papua New Guinea (PNG) was under Australian domination from 1905 to 1975. After the Second World War, Papua New Guineans reclaimed their freedom and the United Nations encouraged Australia to move towards secession. Australians were reluctant to release Papua New Guinea from their tutelage, arguing that PNG was not ready for independence. In 1969, Michael Somare (who just died on February 26th, 2021), a new influential politician who had been elected to PNG Parliament (House of Assembly) in 1968, and had become the leader of the Opposition in the same year, successfully renegotiated a contract with Rio Tinto, which operated the copper mines in Bougainville. Indeed, when Somare threatened to amend this rather unfavourable contract to PNG, the company agreed to pay an additional sum of 93 million dollars to the country. This tour de force helped Somare to demonstrate to the public that he was more effective than the Australian government in looking after the country’s economic interests. In 1972, he formed a coalition government. Then, Papua New Guinea gained autonomy in 1973, and Somare became Prime Minister (Chief Minister). Finally, on May 19th 1975, in Port Moresby (PNG biggest city and administrative capital), the House of Assembly turned itself into a National Constituent Assembly, to finally approve the constitution, agree on an independence date, and nominate a Governor-General2.

Throughout all of PNG’s fight for independence, Bougainville was looking at its tutor’s future with great worry, as its inhabitants feared an association with a people they believed they were not related to3

On September 8th, 1968, two members of the Bougainville Open Electorate, Paul Lapun and Donatus Mola, held a reunion during which a group of twenty-five Bougainvilleans talked about Bougainville independence and wrote several referendum proposals on the subject. In November 1968, these referendum proposals had been put into discussion in PNG House of Assembly. But opposition came from PNG’s government, which knew that it had on the contrary to reinforce unity to gain independence itself 4

Nevertheless, on September 11th 1975, following the Papua New Guinea Act 1975 that the Australian Parliament passed on 9 September 1975 and that enacted PNG’s independence, Bougainville Island passed a bid for self-determination, declaring itself the Republic of the North Solomons. In August 1976, as tensions started to escalate, PNG sent riot police squads to Bougainville to restore order. John Momis, President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville from 2010 to 2020, but who was at that time chairman of the republic’s ruling council, denounced this action as an invasion5. But, as no other states recognised the new country, and as both Bougainville leaders and PNG Prime minister feared for growing insecurity on the island, they decided to sign the « Bougainville agreement » in August 1976. This agreement gave the island an autonomous status and more power on its own internal affairs in return of the recognition of PNG government central authority and of Bougainville status as a province of PNG6

Panguna mine : the return of Europeans on the island 

« Man of problem, the foreigner. The problem was created in his own land, and when he came into Bougainville, his problems became the problems of Bougainville men. », Bougainvillean, interviewed by Alexandre Bermin and Olivier Pollet, 20151 

PNG’s motives to confirm its grip on Bougainville came from the importance of Panguna mine in PNG economy. Indeed, in the early 1960s Australian geologists found evidence of deposit of copper and gold in Bougainville’s Crown Prince Range. The Australian colonial regime had been encouraged by the World Bank to focus its capacity on large-scale extractive projects. A mining company named Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Limited (now known as Rio Tinto) started to develop the ore deposit and created a branch : Bougainville Copper Limited. At the time, the mine represented a great part of PNG income as can be seen by the loan PNG had obtained from the World Bank to fund Panguna mine construction, implementation and exploitation. (« The World Bank has given Papua New Guinea a high international credit rating – provided the copper island of Bougainville doesn’t secede. If Bougainville breaks away, as it has threatened several times, the whole picture could change because of PNG’s heavy dependance on the mining revenue. This, in turn, could lead to the running down of the entire PNG economy as it is at present constituted. »7) When the locals protested against the construction of the mine, their lands were taken by force, the Australian administration seeing resistance as the « emotional response of a primitive people to the unknown. »8

In order for the mine to be operational and the mined minerals to be marketed, the company had to build many facilities such as a port at Loloho; a power station near the port; a major road from the port to the mine (port mine access road); a minor road to the tailings dump on the west coast; a concentrator plant; a dam on the Jaba River to supply water to the mine and concentrator; a water supply for Arawa town; and a limestone quarry. To get an experienced workforce, the company advertised in European countries so that white workers would come to work in their gigantic project. In order to accommodate them, towns were created all over the island. In the process, the company had to bury many villages under rocks, such as Francis Ona’s, future leader of the revolution. They destroyed a jungle which was the hunting area of many Bougainvilleans of the sector, and used locals as a very cheap workforce, paying them a ridiculous portion of the European workers’ wages. Of the 3 billion US dollars the mine made in profit, only a thousand was given back to the people who owned the land. In the meantime, the inhabitants were resettled in new spartiate villages built by the company. They were forced to rebuild all of their public buildings, such as schools, without support from the company or the government. Violent riots occurred in Panguna mine to protest against inequality of payment between local workers and foreigner workers. The mine had to close for two days and local officials reacted strongly by sending law enforcement forces, tear gas, and making numerous arrests and hasty trials.  « Disgraceful, shameful » conduct by a « mob of undisciplined hooligans », were the words of PNG Minister for Police Mr Peter Lus. « I’m shocked by the magnitude of violence and damage », said Chief Minister Michael Somare9.

Moreover, pollution was not being sufficiently avoided and Bougainville rivers that flooded into the valleys were full of copper, mercury, and arsenic that killed the wild life of the rivers and turned forests into moon-scapes. Moreover, the company extracted one billion rocks, and as only 0.6% were useful, the rest was dumped into rivers, which overflowed their banks, flooding forests, fields and villages, and creating vast wastelands. 

Aerial view of the Em’eto river (R) and the Jaba river (L) in the Middle Tailings of the Panguna Mine, Bougainville, on February 07, 2020. ©Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Misereor 

In order to slow Bougainvilleans’ resistance, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) hired experts in charge of analysing the population’s situation. One of them, professor Douglas Oliver of Harvard and the East-West Centre of Hawaii, has written a confidential report that is now in the public area. His published advice to the company is a valuable testimony of the techniques that have been used during colonisation by settlers in order to coerce a population to obey without the use of force. In an uninhibited style, this 100 pages report presents a precise analysis of the means that the anthropologist proposes to ensure the domination of the foreign company on the inhabitants. For example, with the arrival of the Europeans, Bougainvilleans started to use money, and Douglas Oliver explains in his report, that he « can think of no single measure that CRA [the company] would undertake that would produce such a quick (and perhaps such costly) good will profits as a large, well stocked, and easily accessible trade store. […] It will attract more and more local natives to Panguna, and thus possibly help to break down barriers of hostility »10.

The one small store within Panguna. Madlemurs, 2011, Flickr

But resistance continued and came to its peak when Francis Ona started to form a group of reluctant landowners. One day, Francis Ona and his group of landowners went to see a BCL manager. They asked for the closure of Panguna mine and for ten billion dollars in damages. The manager laughed at them, ten billion being far more than the mine’s worth. Francis Ona left the meeting in a hurry and took with him 15 kilos of explosives. The landowners, led by Francis Ona, started to do well-targeted sabotage that ended in the sending, by a worried PNG government, of PNG riot police who burned down villages, killing people on their routes. This violence from PNG  police forces created a true guerrilla army for Francis Ona who destroyed Panguna mine to ensure it would never be reopened. 

The first eco-revolution, 1989-200011

« We have seen our valleys, we have seen our rivers, we have seen our forests — beautiful rivers, beautiful trees, beautiful forests — torn into dust. And we will not allow that. », Joseph Kabui, 199911

Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed headed by Francis Ona. In an interview made by documentarists ten years later, in 1999, Francis Ona explained that he started this war for three main reasons : « first to fight for Bougainville man and his culture, second to protect Bougainville’s land and environment, and third for independence ». Rio Tinto left the Island in 1989 and PNG sent its army (PNG Defense force) to fight the revolutionaries together with material help from Australia. In the beginning, Bougainville Revolutionary Army had to answer Australians and PNG helicopters shoots with bows and arrows. The unarmed population made their own guns using all the material left in Panguna, and Francis Ona trained a peaceful population to fight against professional soldiers. 

In 1990, as PNG failed to win the war, it started, along Australian forces, a sea-blockage that lasted 10 years, hoping to turn Bougainvilleans against the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. In a confidential report from the PNG’s Department of defence, PNG officials wrote : « The people are facing hardships as a result of the absence of medical and basic goods and services. […] The government should continually push for peace talks outside of NSP [North Solomon Province], at the same time cut off further shipping, deliberately to worsen the hardships the people are already facing. Simultaneously a psychological warfare effort must go into action to exploit the situation. »12 Lissa Evans, who assessed the blockade’s impact in 1991 wrote: « After two years experience working for Community Aid Abroad’s Disaster Response Desk, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region, it is my firm opinion that the total lack of medical supplies to Bougainville between May 1990 and February 1991 has created an emergency situation. Bougainvillean doctors who have remained on Bougainville throughout the conflict estimate that over 3,000 people have died as a direct consequence of the blockade and that many thousands more are suffering unnecessarily because of a lack of medicines, soaps, detergents and dressings ».

Bougainville nature. Madlemurs, 2011, Flickr.  

But, while bodies piled up on the island due to the lack of essential goods, Bougainvilleans resisted. Some of them would go on Solomon Islands to get fuel and medicine, risking their lives each time because of shoot-to-kill orders from PNG government to its army. Some others organised a shifting cultivation agriculture ; and the soil they fought to protect finally returned the favour by providing food for all the families, but also everyday material. They crafted their soap with coconut milk, or used herbs such as pawpaw oil to heal the wounds of sick people. They also made booby traps with venomous herbs and plants. Moreover they created, using Panguna mine debris such as a water-pump or barbed wire, and the force of their rivers, a complex hydro-electric setup. After building a watermill that was powerful enough, they extended its wire to light all Bougainville Island, taking a strong advantage on PNG’s army, which had no electricity at all on the island. Finally, having no petrol, they discovered how to make fuel for their cars using coconuts : scratching it, squeezing it, boiling it and making the very first durable fuel. From 15 dry coconuts they could make a litre : the importance coconuts had during this revolution explains why it has been called the « coconut revolution » by British reporter Dom Rotheroe in 1999.

A coconut farmer works in his farm in the south of Tuviana, Bougainville, on February 08, 2020. ©Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Misereor

In 1996, BRA was on its way to success. But in 1997, PNG hired mercenaries and spent 36 millions dollars on a London based company : Sandline International. Humiliated by this decision, PNG army forced the PNG government to send its mercenaries away. After this scandal and eight years of almost complete silence, the international community started to reclaim peace talks. BRA president Francis Ona was reluctant to accept peace discussion, fearing that it wouldn’t end with Bougainville’s independence, and that Bougainvilleans would forget, in the middle of the international politics jungle, the danger which represents the reopening of Panguna mine. Nevertheless, its vice president, Joseph Kabui, and its defence chief, Ishmael Toroama, secretly accepted to hold peace discussion with PNG. A ceasefire was arranged in 1997 between the new PNG Prime Minister and Joseph Kabui, with a multi-national Peace Monitoring Group commencing operations on the island. A real peace agreement occurred in 2000, leading to a true ceasefire and new promesses from PNG ; among them, the holding of a referendum on independence before 2020. 

Following the end of the war, which had left Bougainville Island with a tenth of its population missing, the Autonomous Bougainville Government was created. And while Francis Ona decided not to stand for president and retrieved in Panguna to create his own kingdom, his former vice-president Joseph Kabui was elected president.  

Peace and its dangers  

« Tears, broken hearts, we are still waiting for them. In darkness we are still waiting for them. We have waited for so long for our government to pay attention to our tears, us mothers of Bougainville. » Miriam,  2015,  Arawa, Commemoration day13.

In March 2020 The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) published a damning report on Rio Tinto’s responsibility for « multiple human rights violations » in Bougainville Island. The HRLC explains that the mining giant has an obligation to return to the island for reparations. After more than 300 interviews held with locals, the HRLC underlines that « many villages among the island have trouble getting clean water, sometimes being forced to use polluted rivers for bathing and washing ». The inhabitants of the valleys above the mine have reported « serious, long-running health impacts, such as pregnancy complications, sores and skin lesions, and diarrhea ». Finally the lack of remediation since the hasty closure of the mine implies that seasonal rains continue to drag polluted sand into the rivers, destroying crop fields and forests, and making the rivers terribly dangerous14.  

View of the pit of the Panguna Mine, Bougainville, on February 07, 2020. ©Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Misereor

“Polluted water from the mine pit flows unabated into local rivers, turning the riverbed and surrounding rocks an unnatural blue. The Jaba-Kawerong river valley downstream of the mine resembles a moonscape, with vast mounds of grey tailings waste and rock stretching almost 40km downstream to the coast.”, HRLC report, 2020 14

In 2016, Rio Tinto gave its interests in Bougainville Copper Limited company to Papua New Guinea government and the autonomous Bougainville government. To do so, it created a trust to split the shares between the governing authority on Bougainville and the PNG national government in Port Moresby, justifying its decision by explaining that « by distributing our shares in this way, we aimed to provide landowners, those closest to the mine, and all the people of Bougainville a greater say in the future of Panguna, » and that « it also provides a platform for the [autonomous government] and PNG government to work together on future options for the resource. » The HRLC report says the company « walked away without having contributed to the clean-up or rehabilitation », a move that « appears to have been part of a deliberate corporate strategy by Rio Tinto to divest itself of high-risk, high-liability projects ». Nevertheless Rio Tinto denied any responsibility for the environmental damage, stating that « BCL was compliant with applicable regulatory requirements up until the mine’s operations were suspended in 1989. » The company added that they « believe the best means of addressing any current issues is through the owners of the mine working directly with the people of Bougainville. » John Momis, Bougainville’s president until 2020, qualified Rio Tinto’s retreat as « unprincipled, shameful and evil », explaining to Fairfax Media that « It would be a big amount of money that would be required to restore as much as possible the damaged environment and relocated villages, probably a billion dollars. »15

Meanwhile, after Momis’ government said that Port Moresby should give its shares of BCL to Bougainville government, PNG Prime minister declared that all the shares offered to Port Moresby would instead be handed over directly to the landowners, rather than to the autonomous government. In reaction, president Momis accused the PNG prime minister of deliberate interference in Bougainville’s affairs and warned that « the future of peace is now truly under threat ».

Bougainville’s future 

« I used bows and arrows to win your gun. And when I won it, you changed strategy and used money as the next bullet. », Chief Taruito, 201516.

Former president of Bougainville John Momis published in 2013 a 500 pages Mining Act that prepares legislation for Panguna mine’s reopening. So far, this decision has encountered strong opposition from inhabitants and political opposants : some of them arguing that this Mining Act has been written in London by a law firm, and that obeying to it would be a regression to the historical status of colonial dependance to England. Moreover, some opposants criticise some of this act’s dispositions, such as the second clause of Part 14, section 332 which criminalise independent mining. Yet many Bougainvilleans depend on gold mining to live. Nevertheless president Momis has pleaded multiple times that the majority of Bougainvilleans wants the mine to be reopened. An allegation many opposants consider untrue. Several interviews and prospects on the island have shown that the population is in reality uninformed about the former president’s plans of reopening Panguna mine1.

A man looks for gold at the Em’eto river in the Middle Tailings of the Panguna Mine, Bougainville, on February 07, 2020. ©Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Misereor

President Momis responded to oppositions by explaining that « Bougainville needs to catch up with the world » and that without the economical independence that the mine would provide to Bougainville, the island would never be truly independent. But as Bougainville doesn’t have the technological means to mine Panguna, it would need foreigner investments. Discussions about the return of Rio Tinto on the island have even been held ; Australian High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea explaining in 2015 that the majority of Bougainvilleans wanted « the devil they knew rather than a new one that won’t take any responsibility ». Rio Tinto, after years of claiming it could never return to Panguna, has recently indicated it could be possible, saying it was “ready to enter into discussions with communities17.

In 2019, Raymond Masono, former Vice-President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, said that he would plan to reopen the Panguna mine if the referendum resulted in a vote for independence. Panguna is now estimated to hold copper worth up to 60 billion dollars. With independence, all of PNG’s interests in the mine would be transferred to Bougainville, giving it a 60% share in all projects and retaining all mining licences. The remaining 40% would be left for investors to bid on.

The referendum took place in December 2019 with a result of 98% in favour of total independence. A result closely watched by surrounding powers such as China. Indeed, after Solomon Islands recognition of Taipei over Beijing, a resource-rich ally in the middle of the Melanesia would be of strategic value for China. China wants to add Bougainville to its Belt and Road Initiative, proposing in a 2018 meeting with Bougainville president to build roads and infrastructures on the island and to invest in mining, tourism and agriculture. In parallel, General Sam Kaouna, interviewed by Channel Nine, said that he would engage a relationship with China if Australia didn’t have a better offer. « Bougainville is going to be open to both Australia and China. We are ready to start a new nation and we need their money… We have the resources, but we need their money. ». Kaouna criticised Australia for showing « no respect to the people, » comparing it to China which has already made multiple offers: « This is the first holistic offer, which has come from China, where are Australia and the U.S. and Japan? »18

The fact is that nowadays, Bougainville’s future is closely linked to Panguna as it is the only potential source of true economic independence. Moreover, a complete absence of foreigners investments isn’t an option as Bougainville doesn’t have the financial means to reopen the mine by itself. On the other hand, it is also true that independence has been gained through a war motivated by the closure of Panguna mine and the refusal of foreign activities in Panguna. Bougainville’s government, in order to allow Bougainville to access full international recognition of its identity, will have to tackle the paradox of reopening a mine which closure has been a uniting motive for its population, as well as a founding principle of this very identity.

Moreover, this decision doesn’t only impact Bougainville’s future, but also its recent history: we have stated earlier that the conflict may be seen as the first eco-revolution as it has been founded, according to Francis Ona, on Bougainvilleans’ will of defending Bougainville’s soil and of preserving its biodiversity. Therefore reopening the mine would mean changing the nature of this revolution and that is why Bougainvilleans are nowadays challenged with the difficult task of finding a coherent definition for themselves and for their founding history.

People cross the Em’eto river in the Middle Tailings of the Panguna Mine, Bougainville, on February 07, 2020. ©Eduardo Soteras Jalil/Misereor

Anna Mabille

I would like to thank Eduardo Soteras Jalil, documentary photographer, who graciously let me use his photos of the island of Bougainville.

References :

[1] Ophir, Alexandre Bermin and Olivier Pollet, 2020.

[2] « Bougainville Govt, sets up shop », Pacific islands monthly : PIM [Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1931. <> ]

[3] Douglas Oliver, Black Islanders, a personal perspective of Bougainville 1937-1991, Hyland Press : Melbourne, 1991, p. 3.

[4] « THERE’S A ‘RIGHT OF SELFDETERMINATION' », Pacific islands monthly : PIM [Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1931. November 1968 <> ]

[5] The Bougainville independence referendum: Assessing the risks and challenges before, during and after the referendum, Jo Woodbury, 2015. Commonwealth of Australia

[6] « BOUGAINVILLE AGREEMENT IN ‘TRUE MELANESIAN STYLE’ », Pacific islands monthly : PIM. September 1976. 

[Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1931 <> ]

[7] « BOUGAINVILLE’S COPPER BOLSTERS PNG’S CREDIT », Pacific islands monthly : PIM 

[Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1931. August 1976 <> ]

[8] « Mining and resistance », The colonial syndrome, Alexandre Bermin and Olivier Pollet, 2020.

[9] « Bougainville’s « shame » », Pacific islands monthly : PIM, June 1975 [Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1931. <> ]

[10] Douglas Oliver, Some social-relational aspects of CRA Copper Mining on Bougainville, a confidential report to management, 1968.

[11] The coconut revolution, Dom Rotheroe, 2001

[12] An intelligence resume for contingency planning for North Solomons Province, PNG Department of Defence, 1990, p.14.

[13] « Tears and roses », The colonial syndrome, Alexandre Bermin and Olivier Pollet, 2020.

[14] After the mine, living with Rio Tinto deadly legacy, Human Rights Law center, 1 March 2020 

[15] « Rio Tinto’s billion-dollar mess : unprincipled, shameful and evil », The Sydney Morning Herald, August 19, 2016.

[16] Chief Taruito interview, The colonial syndrome, Alexandre Bermin and Olivier Pollet, 2020.

[17] « Deal with the disaster’: the girl from Bougainville who grew up to take on a mining giant », Leanne Jorari and Ben Doherty, 2020.

[18] « Australia, China, and Bougainville’s Choices », The Diplomat, 2019. 


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