MAC: Mines and Communities

Environmental Costs in Bougainville

Published by MAC on 2008-01-24

Environmental Costs in Bougainville

24th January 2008

by UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation)

When the Panguna copper mine opened in 1966 it had cleared 220 hectares of the Bougainville rainforest, led to the displacement of local people, and introduced over four thousand foreign workers onto a small island. Thirty years later, the effects of the mine are still being felt.

Since the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001, Bougainville has been able to take stock and concentrate on the pressing development needs of the island. The key concern has been to find ways in which the local economy can recover and diversify following the sweeping environmental degradation caused by the large-scale mining that began in the 1960s.

The dependence that grew upon the mine as a single source of revenue led to the neglect of other areas of economic activity which are only now being redeveloped. Key to the rebuilding of the rural economy is the land. Mine developments across the island led to massive quantities of spoil being deposited, effectively rendering approximately three thousand hectares of land unusable.

This destruction was doubly pointed, for the land of Bougainville plays an important part in local culture, values, and beliefs. The native name for the island, 'Me'ekamui' or 'Sacred Island' gives the earth particular significance. Under this precept, land was viewed as something greater than a simple resource. However the Papua New Guinea government of the time, like most other states, followed the law whereby all resources lying beyond the topsoil are the preserve of the state. As a consequence, the Panguna mine came to symbolize the appropriation of resources by the federal government in Papua New Guinea and the destruction of an important local landscape. The new Constitution for Bougainville gives the island's people ownership of its land and resources.

Bougainvilleans have been taking charge of their land once more and with outside help the cocoa industry has recovered enough to take advantage of increasing cocoa commodity prices. Moreover, local education initiatives via radio and community meetings have helped to encourage fixed site farming, thus reducing the amount of harmful forest clearances.

Just as Bougainville's land was facing pollution, so was its water. Many of the principal channels were contaminated from the Panguna mine and the Kawerong-Jaba river system now flows blue because of toxic mixtures of heavy metals and other chemicals. Other rivers including the Angabanga and Fly have also been affected by mining activity. Without dams being built other mines could soon replicate the damage done to nearby rivers. In the offshore waters fishing has been threatened by the outflow of water from the rivers and many fisherman have had to abandon their former fishing areas. Despite all these impediments, and in a combination of resourcefulness and desperation, attention has focused on harvesting carp within inland fishers. Women have also been singled out as key potential contributors to the industry and projects formed to support them accordingly. Efforts to expand the industry have been frustrated by a lack of fish processing and storage infrastructure, but the initiative has been made.

Beyond Bougainville's shores, the destabilizing effects of a single resource dependency have also been felt. In fact, Bougainville is providing shelter for some of the world's first environmental refugees. Demand for foodstuffs in the wake of an over dependence on incomes from mining activities led to increasingly unsustainable fishing methods. In the nearby Carteret Islands this has created such damage that the islands are now at the risk of almost total submersion. As a result, Bougainville is becoming the resettlement hub for such displaced communities, which in turn will place new societal strains on the island.

Against this backdrop the Panguna mine remains closed and still a sensitive issue for Bougainvilleans. Whether the mine has the ability to redress some of the damage it has created remains doubtful. It is still to be seen whether its resources can be harnessed productively for the benefit of all Papuans. But there can be no doubt as to the clear resolve with which Bougainvilleans are attempting to rebuild their environment and livelihoods.

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