Thursday, 19 June 2008

'What's in it for us' ?

A personal perspective.

Arawa Town, Bougainville Island. Looking south towards Kieta
Taken from my aircraft. P2-BFD

Single-liners which altered the course of history are legion. 'Peace in our time' : 'Let them eat cake' : 'The winds of change' etc. One from an Australian politician, delivered on the lawn of the District Commissioner's house at Kieta on Bougainville Island is another.
The speaker was C.E.B. Barnes, a not particularly distinguished member of the Australian Government of the time. The leader of a delegation of tribal elders had asked him, in Pidgin ,"What's in it for us?"... 'it' was a mine in the mountains of central Bougainville which was on land tilled and cultivated by its native owners.

The Minister for Territories got off to an inauspicious start with the word 'Nothing' followed by quotes from the Minerals and Mining Acts and the dictum that mining royalties paid to the government could be distributed at its absolute discretion, and might, or might not, find their way to the landholders on whose property they happened to be. He went on to describe the compensation which could be claimed by dispossessed landowners. This tactless reply was the trigger for everything that followed; culminating in the violent events which terminated the short, unhappy life of what could have been a successful joint mining venture with the people of Bougainville.

My just-published novel BOUGAINVILLE BLUE has a description of this encounter. I was there, when Minister C.E.B. Barnes answered a polite query from a dignified village elder with a technically accurate but insensitive reply; to the consternation of senior field officers present when he used the loaded word "Nothing"
The mine, focal point in the conflict between Bougainvillians and the governments of both Australia and Papua New Guinea, was the trigger which crystalised and gave form to an endemic resentment of outsiders, which had existed on this mountainous island since its first contact with the outside world. Germans, Japanese and Australians had been left in no doubt as to the wish of the people for them to simply go away, leaving the owners of the land to continue their lives unhindered. Control by these various colonial administrations had been tolerated, but never accepted.

The Bougainville Provincial Government relied for its authority and finance on the national government in Port Moresby, but became increasingly vocal in its demands for autonomy. It was even more insistent in its demand that the income from the Panguna Mine be considered as its, by right. Since the mine was now providing PNG with half its entire revenue, this met with a blanket refusal from everyone from the Chief Minister down, but talk of secession just grew louder and more hostile. "The land and all that is on or under it is ours. Close the mine and leave, or we will destroy it and you," was the message.

The Panguna. mine

Isolated acts of defiance escalated into open rebellion which included attacks on plantations, sabotage and armed assault on machinery and workers at the mine, and widespread violence along the length of the island. Explosives, stolen from poorly guarded magazines were used to destroy power lines and pumping stations along the ore pipeline to the port. Specific demands from what had now become a disorganised rebel movement in virtual control of most of the island were made. The succession of events and the personalities involved are fully documented elsewhere. I need not repeat the story of the years of conflict, the thousands of lives lost or the numerous failed attempts to defeat the rag-tag Bougainville Revolutionary Army, which culminated in virtual victory for the rebels over the well armed forces sent to subdue them...suffice it to say that the rebels won !

Bagana Volcano near Panguna

In May 1989, the mine was permanently closed. All but a handful of its thousands of workers, white and black, left the island. Plantations, once the main source of prosperity and employment for the entire island, lay derelict and untended. The port with its massive powerhouse, wharves and ore processing plant, was totally destroyed by fire and explosives. The town of Arawa was systematically looted and demolished by armed gangs who roamed its deserted streets, secure in the knowledge that police, army and all forms of government control were no longer there. The hospital, the schools, the supermarket, the rows of suburban houses, and every other sign of the former foreign presence on Bougainville lay in smoke-blackened ruins. The rebels controlled the entire island. They occupied the remains of what had once been the head office of the mine overlooking the rain-fed lake which part-filled the abandoned open pit and its millions of dollars worth of machinery, and equipment.

Panguna. 2008.

The town of Kieta, once the island's administrative hub, was destroyed in the fighting along with its outlying suburb of Toniva, and Aropa airstrip is still unusable and derelict. An uneasy calm has descended, with ill-equiped and under-funded government offices now operating from makeshift premises in the ruins of Arawa. A small airstrip has been built along the beach near the town. Random shots at incoming light aircraft still occur. Movement outside the town is still controlled by the rebels, whose approval, seldom granted, is needed before venturing further. The Panguna valley is still very much a 'no go' area..
Years have now passed since the closure of the mine. The bitter civil war which took thousands of lives has not yet ended, despite official pronouncements to the contrary. Peace talks, interspersed with vicious firefights are still the way things are on far-from-peaceful Bougainville. Rumours regularly surface about a possible revival of the mine, fueled more often than not by opportunistic promoters from the less respectable fringes of the mining and exploration industry, while Port Moresby, with troubles of its own, seems content to let Bougainville make its way as best it can along the separate path the victorious rebels chose for it.


Wednesday, 11 June 2008


One's first solo flight...first storm at sea... first love affair... first ?. are all destined to lie deep in one's memory, never to be forgotten, but a first book is up there with all of the above. So it was with me today after hearing "Congratulations. You are now a published author" from my patient and ever helpful publisher, Diane Andrews who can be contacted at

Readers seeking a historically accurate and detailed account of what has become known as The Bougainville Conflict won't find it in Bougainville Blue. It's an allegory, a story based on what happened on Bougainville, when an avalanche of men and machinery descended on an island still recovering from being fought over by the armies of East and West in World War Two.

I was there as the clash between Bougainville and the Western World and its material values grew ever more violent. Others who were also there for the short, unhappy life of one of the biggest copper and gold mines ever built, may draw comparisons with the actual conflict which engulfed the island and its people during this time; but it was not my intention to depict actual individuals or historic events in the novel, and I have not done so.

Bougainville still lies in ruins with the hard-pressed and dysfunctional government of Papua New Guinea still unable to bring itself to accept the unwavering wish of the people of Bougainville to govern and control their island. Until this is accepted, and real control over the land and its mineral wealth is given to the people; to coin a phrase; the blue on Bougainville will continue.



A novel based on some of the events which occurred on this isolated tropical island after the arrival of thousands of strangers and an avalanche of heavy machinery.

Australian expatriate planter Richard Robinson and his wife Ruth lose their plantation after its forced resumption to build a new mining town.

Josip Nugui, the first of his people to go to Australia for an education; law student turned insurgent who tries to stop the mine and succeeds, at the cost of his own life.

Rod Burgoyne; American geologist and mine manager faces opposition led by Nugui which grows into armed rebellion.

Governments in New Guinea and Australia fail to cope with the industrial onslaught on one of the last almost untouched islands in the South Pacific.

Not a detailed historical account of what happened, and to whom, this is a work of fiction based on some of the actual events seen at first hand by the author when the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the government of newly independent Papua New Guinea fought each other to a standstill; one of the biggest mines of its kind in the world was closed forever, and black and white alike were caught up in a whirlwind of anger and bloodshed which very nearly resulted in the permanent disintegration of the newborn nation of Papua New Guinea.