Bougainvillians deserve the chance to say “it’s mine”
By the time Francis Ona and the various factions of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army permanently laid down their arms on 30 April 1998, it is estimated that more than 15,000 Bougainvillians had lost their lives.
The decade long conflict – part war of independence, part civil war - had been the most bloody and costly war in the Pacific since WWII. At the turn of the millennium, Bougainville was a place of devastation.
Bougainville has long loomed large in the consciousness of many Australians.
Growing up in Toowoomba in the 1940’s my father remembers the young men of the town being recruited into the 25th Battalion, which fought the Japanese in Bougainville. Their exploits in the jungles of Bougainville were the war stories which reverberated around much of country Queensland in the 40’s and 50’s.
When CRA (now Rio Tinto) opened up the Panguna copper mine in 1964, a new generation of Australians had the opportunity to experience, in peace, the wonders of Bougainville – the towering mountains and their gorgeous lakes, the thick green vegetation with its density of life, and the black and white sand beaches which speak of a volcanic soil that can grow anything. It’s all still there waiting to be discovered by the eco-tourist market.
At its height, the mine was one of the biggest copper mines and the largest open cut mine in the world. It dominated the economy of PNG and made Bougainville one the richest provinces in the country. The mine closed in 1989.
About a half hour’s drive from the mine, on the coast, was Arawa: the main town on Bougainville. It boasted a golf course and fishing clubs with annual game fishing tournaments. It was a well equipped mining town set in the beauty of the tropics.
Today much of Arawa has been destroyed. The old power station which serviced both Arawa and Panguna is a giant metal structure being slowly and silently consumed by the jungle. The 18-hole golf course is unrecognisable from the surrounding vegetation. The marlin and the wahu swim without fear of being caught by mine executives enjoying a little R&R.
The booming scrap metal business is reminiscent of the Jawa traders at the opening of Star Wars. And services for the local population have largely gone. Arawa has the feel of a half inhabited ghost town.
The Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in 2001. Australia is a witness to its terms. The Peace Agreement establishes the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) within the nation of PNG. It provides that between 2015 and 2020 a referendum must be held to choose between full independence or an autonomy within PNG.
The Peace Agreement represents the rebirth of Bougainville. As the document which brings to a conclusion such a tragic event in the history of the Pacific, it is in turn one of the most significant documents of the Pacific.
To honour its terms is to honour the dead.
A precondition to the referendum is that the thousands of weapons which are still in Bougainville are destroyed. This process is frustratingly slow. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project, in which Australia has participated, has not yet finished the job.
There are many good efforts afoot to negotiate the handover of these weapons. Australia stands ready to assist PNG in this vital task.
Yet to convince people to handover their sense of security - which these weapons represent - requires an alternative future. The key to this is a sustainable economy, jobs and services being delivered to the people.
One issue that is frequently raised by Bougainvillians is reopening the Panguna mine. Go to Arawa and within an hour someone will be talking to you about re-opening the mine. This would require the active support of the Bougainvillian people, in particular the landowners of the site. No-one knows this better than the leaders of the ABG, Rio Tinto and the National Government.
However as PNG’s leaders will tell you, the lessons from the past need to be learned. The mine is only sustainable if it delivers real benefits to the people of Bougainville.
Environmental standards need to meet PNG laws and revenue flows need to be well managed. One priority will be a revenue sharing arrangement between the landowners, ABG and the National Government that works for all parties.
In the last month the National Government committed $200 million toward the reconstruction of Bougainville. This welcome injection of funds will kick along the momentum needed for the Peace Agreement and shows the National Government is keeping an eye on the Bougainville ball.
For Australia’s part the position is unchanged and simple: we support the implementation of the Peace Agreement and the conduct of the referendum.
We are a long standing partner with the National Government and the ABG to assist them make this happen. Meanwhile the practical context for Bougainvillians remains the services being provided to the community and getting the economy being back on its feet.
Now more than ever is the time for the ABG, the PNG National Government and, for that matter Australia, to be doing everything we can to improve the situation of all Bougainvillians.
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