MAC: Mines and Communities

Diverse causes responsible for Bougainville conflict

Published by MAC on 2002-10-09

Diverse causes responsible for conflict

The National (Papua New Guinea) - 9 October 02

In the second article in this series, Brian Gomez reports that Bougainville leaders blame the colonial era and the National Government rather than the Panguna copper mine for the debilitating nine-year civil war

Most of Bougainville's top politicians are not blaming the Bougainville copper mine for the nine-year conflict in which up to 15,000 people may have lost their lives.

A key adviser to Bougainville revolution leader Francis Ona, lawyer Reuben Siara, told The National he did not want to talk about reopening the mine because "people are opposed to it. There has been so much suffering and people blame the mine."

Mr Siara, however, says there was "too much blame" put on Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) which has since merged with its UK parent, Rio Tinto plc. "They were operating under an agreement," he said, adding that he still blamed the National Government and Bougainville Governor John Momis for not taking the initiative to review this agreement.

"They (the company) may have taken a big slice but they were dealing under an agreement," he said, adding that the civil war was due to "foreign domination, exploitation and ethno-nationalism".

Bougainville Peoples Congress president Joseph Kabui also agreed he would not "blame the mine" for the conflict, adding that there were Bougainville experts in Canberra in the 1960s who warned the Australian Government that if it did not listen to the people there could be a guerrilla war.

"If the colonial government had listened to the people CRA would not have got into this mess." Mr Kabui said that when BCL was refusing to deal with a new generation of landowners led by Francis Ona, he had warned the company "they were playing around with fire".

Mr Kabui is also adamant that he does not want to see the mine reopen, mainly because of the environmental impact on the land.

James Tanis, one of the leaders of the BRA ex-combatants and deputy president of BPC, says, "there is no single cause" for the conflict.

The causes he cites are lack of good leadership, inability to review the mining company's agreement with the National Government and the prevailing illiteracy in villages at the time and political rivalry between Mr Momis and Mr Kabui.

"The Provincial Government in 1975 did not control the growth of big non-Bougainvillean squatter settlements."

"People also had no understanding of a lease agreement and how it works. Lease payments for tailings disposal was slowly going down but these people looked at it as rent," he said.

Mr Tanis said Panguna was just a big hole but that 80 per cent of the damage was caused by the disposal of tailings.

These days the pit remains somewhat barren, although some trees and shrubs are growing while the river is "bluish" because of its copper content, he said.

Sam Kauona, who masterminded the collapse of the mine and the battles against the PNG Defence Force, says the copper mine was a major contributing factor to the conflict.

"They were ignorant of our customs when they started the mine and people got exploited," he said. "Mining resulted in some good things but the disadvantages were more."

Says Mr Siara: "How deep is that hole going to be. It scares me. I don't mind mining. It brings in much money but that hole is so gigantic it is scary.

"It's beyond my imagination that we can double the size of that hole."

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