MAC: Mines and Communities

Bougainville: "A people impoverished and humiliated by Rio Tinto"

Published by MAC on 2013-12-19
Source: Guardian, PNG Exposed

Bougainville mine: locals who oppose its re-opening must have a voice

Deference to Bougainvilleans must be the priority - a position that remains anathema to diplomats, politicians and insider media

Antony Loewenstein

The Guardian

19 December 2013

The mine lies like a scar across a bloody face. Guava village sits in a remote area in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG), above a copper mine which closed 25 years ago. Resistance to the Rio Tinto-owned pit exploded in the late 1980s and during a recent visit, I got to stand above the massive hole that caused the crisis. Human rights abuses were rampant back then, with locals missing out on the financial spoils. Opposition to the enterprise was inevitable and necessary.

Run by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) from the 1970s, the Panguna mine spewed unprecedented amounts of pollution into the ground, water and atmosphere. It lingers to this day but nature has begun to reclaim its rightful place across kilometres of land, dipping its ferns, grass and lush green trees across oily and rusting equipment. Guava, with its 400 inhabitants, is a peaceful place up a steep rocky incline. During the rainy reason, clouds dance around unpredictably and the hot sun shines on the moist and muddy soil. From there, the view above Panguna is breath-taking, the scope of the environmental damage visible, and the lack of clean-up criminally negligent.

The Bougainville civil war, which was sparked by conflicts over the mine, lasted 10 years and cost the lives of up to 15,000 people. The PNG government blockade, comparable to that imposed on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, caused immense suffering amongst the civilian population. At the height of the conflict the government - which many say had BCL involvement - trained and led soldiers to crush the Bougainville resistance; some researchers have since claimed that Australia provided support to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force in the process.

Locals were victorious, but they paid a high price: the island has remained eerily stuck in time for a quarter of a century. In the nearest main town of Arawa, where I stayed, burned-out buildings and petrol stations still stand, and drunk youth loiter in parks. The region is nonetheless relatively safe these days, unlike many other areas of PNG, but it faces an even greater threat: the potential re-opening of the mine by the same forces who seem destined to, once again, not listen to landowners.

During my time in Bougainville, I spent the vast bulk of my days with communities near the old mine and around the waste deposits that left vast swathes of land with little more than sandy dirt. A local woman, Theonila Roka, told me as the sun set on the polluted Kavarong river that mining simply isn't necessary to bring Bougainville independence. "In many ways we're already independent", she said. "Most people are self-sufficient, growing their own food on their land." She doesn't ignore the economic realities of wanting independence through a planned referendum between 2015 and 2020, but she has no faith that BCL and the government won't collude once more to deny mineral and financial rights to her people.

Sadly, journalists rarely interview any Bougainvilleans. A recent report by the ABC run Australia Network completely ignored the locals and only featured an interview with the Australian-based writer of a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) that encourages more Australian engagement and big mining. As articulated by a notable dissenter of the ASPI study, locals are rarely given a voice.

This year has also seen the unedifying sight of AusAid funding Australian academics such as Anthony Regan to assist the Bougainville Autonomous Government to draft new mining laws, which some claim is occurring without proper public consultation (something which Regan denies). During my time on the island, I constantly heard worries about the lack of transparency over who will be allowed to mine and how - along with who owns the rights to the resources.

Nowhere in most media stories is any acknowledgement that Canberra is recruiting advisors with links to the mining giant - but Australia's record as a colonial administrator to PNG is not easily forgotten on the ground. Some land-owners in Bougainville told me they resented outsiders telling them that they should suffer the reality of polluting extraction while Australians live comfortably in clean cities.

The sheer scale of copper and gold beneath the ground explains the deals being struck. It's easy to see why so many stakeholders are so keen to keep these issues out of the public spotlight: it's a bad look to treat local concerns as illegitimate while waving around big dollars to seduce key players. Central Bougainville MP and minister for information and communication Jimmy Miringtoro told the Post Courier that the local population must become resource owners and shareholders. "These [mining] laws", he said, "must also ensure equitable distribution of wealth from the mine so that no one group in Bougainville becomes rich while the rest are poor." Indeed, deference to Bougainvilleans must be the priority - a position that remains anathema to diplomats, politicians and insider media.

In the meantime, the lack of real democracy in Bougainville continues to haunt the island as its population gears up to make crucial decisions regarding its independence and the management of its resources. Former resistance leader Sam Kauona is one of the loudest public voices opposing the re-opening of the mine. He told me in Arawa that he recently met the BCL and Rio Tinto heads in the island's capital, Buka. He said they were shocked when he said it was time for unjust mining legislation across Commonwealth nations to be changed to reflect the will of the people, and that Bougainville was going to lead the charge.

On my last day, I met AusAid's team leader in Bougainville, Deo Mwesigye. A friendly man who is curious about my reading of the political situation, Mwesigye believes the population largely supports the role of Australia in assisting the building of roads and hospitals there. But when I pointed out that these projects, while important, were referred to by many of the people I interviewed as little more than band-aid solutions, he remained silent.

Today, locals or key land-owners remain skeptical of big scale mining, scarred by the past. Even though the local government initiated formal talks around Bougainville this year to discuss the possibility of re-opening Panguna, locals told me the meetings were not inclusive, that many land-owners felt they were excluded, and that authorities arrived with a pre-ordained goal: bring BCL back to the island. Women's perspectives are almost invisible, though a Bougainville Women in Mining group submitted a paper recently which detailed their exclusion from the decision making process.

PNG remains a unfinished nation which is being stripped of its resources, from logging to natural gas. The situation in Bougainville provides a perfect opportunity for authorities and the titans of multinational extraction to atone for the mistakes and crimes of the past.

• Photographs from the author's visit to Bougainville can be found here

A people impoverished and humiliated by Rio Tinto: Bougainville's Sir Paul Lapun speaks out

17 December 2013

The Bougainville Truth Initiative*  -

On the 14th of April 1988, Sir Paul Lapun - the legendary MP for Bougainville (1964-77) who passed away in 2003 - sat down with Rio Tinto's historian to talk about the great fraud forced upon his people, and the long struggle they have waged for justice and dignity.

In this interview, tucked away in the CRA** archives, Sir Paul talks of a once proud people made dependent on a rapacious mine owned by Rio Tinto, which they were told would be nothing more than ‘a big hole in the ground' (p.23). He talks of rich soils poisoned by toxic tailings that had been pumped onto his people's sacred lands and waterways. And he talks of a people not born poor, but made poor by the mine and its effects.

As a result of the Panguna mine, Sir Paul claims, there is now, ‘no fish - nothing! The Jaba River is all eroded, and still now the sea shore is becoming silted' (p.15-6). He continues, ‘we used to get a lot of cocoa seeds ... but now they don't get those seeds' owing to acid rain (p.17).

Sir Paul recalls having his grave concerns dismissed by national government representatives, get a scientist he was told. In a moment of defiance, Lapun testifies to local knowledge, ‘I'm myself a scientist ... I said I know! I was born here!' (p.19).

And what of the great riches the people were promised? ‘We're really poor - nothing no toea in our hands', Sir Paul opines (p,19).

Casting his mind back to the colonial days, Sir Paul recounts the shameful swindle hoisted upon Bougainville. He recalls legislation written in Canberra and then rubber stamped by PNG politicians to give this law of conquest a respectable veneer of local consent (p.3-4); and he recalls a consultation process where the people were told of all the benefits they would enjoy, without a hint of the irreversible damage which would be done to land, environment and custom.

‘Nobody knew anything' Sir Paul claims (p.22). He continues, we only were told ‘one side of the picture ... the bad side ... was hidden from us'.

But matters did not rest there, woven into the bones of his people was a sense of independence and self-determination which they would not relinquish easily. Sir Paul talks of the important struggle launched by the women of Rorovana who heroically threw their bodies in front of CRA bulldozers - in the people's tradition of direct action - and whose defiance was beamed around the world, much to the chagrin of CRA's Chairman, whose neat little narrative of a great mine and a welcoming people had been corrupted (pp.8-10).

Echoing the past, Sir Paul warns Rio Tinto the women are organising again (p.28)!

Though this was April 1988, Sir Paul only had an inkling of the enormous sacrifice his people would need to make in order to restore their dignity and win self-determination, and the great imperial coalition that would form in opposition to this simple act, meeting it with grenades, helicopter gunships and white phosphorous mortar rounds.

What would he make of all the rumblings today? Of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), with its sleek consultation forums, where hand-picked speakers are invited to talk of the riches they will one day enjoy as a result of the Rio run mine. What would he make of the legislation, drafted to secure the interests of Rio Tinto, overseen by Australian advisors? What would he make of ordinary villagers, and their simple demand to live in peace with a quite dignity, being ignored? What would he make of ABG Ministers claiming the people of Panguna must make a great sacrifice to support independence, as if they hadn't already sacrificed enough?

We can perhaps guess from this transcript; a transcript that is not held in Arawa or Buka, but Melbourne, where the secret history of this island is kept safe from the people.

Knowledge is power, so it must be denied. It must be denied because of the great disparity lying behind the mine; while it lined streets, homes and workplaces abroad in gold, on Bougainville, at the epicentre of this tragedy, the people were left with a land gutted of its richness, and graves full of young bodies taken from the world too soon. This truth must be denied, and the annals of history that testify to this truth forgotten, so that history can be repeated, first time as tragedy second time as farce.

*The Bougainville Truth Initiative: Challenging the Democratic Deficit
**Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia

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