MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Bougainville mine to re-open?

Published by MAC on 2005-10-21


Bougainville mine to re-open?

The newly-autonomous government of Bougainville has voted to re-open the very mine which was at the centre of the horrendous conflict, between 1988 and 1995, that cost the lives of up to 20,000 people.

This extraordinary and hasty decision clearly dervies from the government's belief that a largescale mine will generate significant revenues. It closely followed publication of Rio Tinto/Bougainville Copper Ltd's annual repor, and the death of Francis Ona, original leader of the Bougainville "revolt".

The government has said it will "seek the views" of the Panguna landowners, around the minesite, but is already rewriting history: claiming that opposition to Rio Tinto originated in local peoples' dissatisfaction with the lack of benefits from the mine. While this was undoubtedly a factor, the largest bone of contention by far was the mine itself - and the devastation it had caused over two decades. This is reflected in two statements, published below, from a former fighter with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and a Papua New Guinean from Western Province.

Just after the Bougainville administration made its vote, "mining industry insiders" in Papua New Guinea issued a statement deploring the fact that foreign mining companies were trying to increase their influence within the country - including denying landowners the right to object to specific mining proposals.

"We cannot eat copper or gold!"

Chris Baria, Bougainville

21 October 2005

I am an ordinary Bougainvillean and an ex-combatant. I lost two first cousins, a brother in law and scores of other relatives in the conflict. I have played active role in the weapons collection program and other peace related activites here. I am forty-five years old this year and the crisis has taken away the prime years of my life. I have never been bitter about it. I always believed that the sacrifices we made were for a better tomorrow, but now I am beginning to wonder whether it was worth it. Our politicians have lost their mind and are now talking about re-opening the mine all because some mining company has shown them how they could be rich overnight.

They have swallowed the bait and have gone to the media without even taking the time to consult with us the people who they represent and are accountable to. Mining companies are large and powerful entities and I doubt that our little government will be able to control it once it starts digging up this place. These monsters also enjoy a lot of privileg es with the host governments that local businesses don't have.

Once more the Government is likely to reap the benefits while the social and environmental cost is most likely to be born by us the ordinary people of Bougainville. These costs are the reason why we went to war with the Government in 1989, because the expected benefits failed to materialize or were not distributed in an equitable manner to those who were affected by the mine. This is despite the laws in this country requiring that percentage of revenues from natural-resource-based projects be allocated to regional and local development initiatives. The Colonial Administration and the mining company took advantage of the people's ignorance and made little or no effort to carry out research on the negative impact of the mine so that the people could be educated on these issues. It failed to maximize the benefits to provide adequate funding for social programs.

I grew up near the mine and around the time when Bougainville was going through a period of rapid change. Little did I know then that I was watching a tragedy unfold right before my eyes. I would hate to see my children go through the same thing that I have been through all because the government wants to make a quick buck. I don't want change to ever be forced upon my people who cannot eat copper or gold. The government and company may talk about development but development is, as I understand, growth from within. They cannot take it from elsewhere and plant it here no more than they can sew wings on a caterpillar. Development without a vision is not development at all. Not for us here anyway.

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