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.



  1. Your review brought a flood of memories again, Brian. The Australian Government is largely to blame for the bloody outcome of its political arrogance and insensitivity, and disregard for human rights on Bougainville.

    I'm anxiously awaiting my copy of Bougainville Blue, which I understand is in the mail. Thanks.

  2. Australian Government...yes. Not the kiaps on the ground, who tried and failed to get Canberra to modify its hands-off policy on decisions made in Moresby, where most of the bloody-minded refusal to listen to what Bougainvilleans were saying was coming from...still does !