MAC: Mines and Communities

Women - catalysts for peace in mining conflict

Published by MAC on 2008-09-29

The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) based in Toronto, with offices in Mexico and South Africa, has published a thoughtful, well-researched summary of the roles of Bougainville women during the worst mining-related conflict to have occurred in in the South Pacific.

The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) based in Toronto, with offices in Mexico and South Africa, has published a thoughtful, well-researched summary of the roles of Bougainville women during the worst mining-related conflict to have occurred in in the South Pacific.

Women and peace in Bougainville

Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) Toronto

26th September 2008

Bougainville - situated at the far western tip of the Solomon Islands archipelago in the Pacific - is a powerful example of how women can knit communities together and facilitate peace in the midst of armed conflict. In this article, AWID looks back at Bougainville's conflict and the role of women as catalysts for peace.

By Rochelle Jones

Bougainville is a tropical, mountainous island that is geographically and ethnically part of the Solomon Islands, being only kilometres away from its nearest Solomon Islands neighbour. However, at the turn of the century, European colonial powers made Bougainville part of Australian administered Papua New Guinea (PNG), despite the fact that Bougainville is over 500 kilometres away from the PNG mainland.[i]

The Bougainville conflict

In 1969, an Australian Subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc - Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA), seized land on Bougainville and established an open cut copper mine at Panguna - a mine whose revenue was considered "pivotal to Australian decolonisation" of PNG[ii], which took place in 1975. Local residents were "vigorously opposed"[iii] to the mining from the start. The "land owners, primarily women, resisted police and lay down with their babies in front of the bulldozers in an attempt to stop the mining of their land."[iv] Their connection to the land and their refusal to sell it to CRA evoked a violent confrontation between villagers and the Australian riot police in 1969, with pictures of police forcibly removing women from the prospecting area with tear gas and batons. Bougainville attempted succession in 1975-76, and the PNG government reacted by setting up autonomous provincial government on the island.

After 20 years of protests, petitions, lobbying and attempts to negotiate an equitable agreement with CRA and the PNG government, land owners had had enough. On the fifteenth of March 1989, the Panguna copper mine[v], was forcibly shut down after six months of violent resistance by local men who called themselves the Bougainville Revolutionary Army or BRA. At the time, Panguna was the world's most profitable copper mine.

1600 PNG troops were initially deployed to the island, where houses were burnt to the ground and rape, torture and murder of civilians became rife[vi]. Unable to secure a military victory over the BRA, however, the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) withdrew in 1990, and the provincial government was suspended, leaving the BRA in nominal control of the island[vii]. Wracked with internal differences, the interim government's ideology was a return to 'traditional' society. They subsequently harassed, imprisoned and murdered those with wealth, education and status, which promoted backlash from within Bougainville. The PNGDF controlled some parts of the island and provided material support to the factions opposing the BRA, and the Australian government provided military aid to the PNGDF.

With the establishment of the mine, secessionist sentiment lying somewhat dormant since their last appeal to the UN in 1975, was reignited by fury over the development and construction of the mine. Bougainville's second declaration of independence in 1990 was met with a new strategy by the PNG government - a blockade. Described as "discreet economic sanctions"[viii], the blockade effectively cut off Bougainville from the world in the vain hope that secessionist sentiment could be dissolved by force. An estimated 10,000 people lost their lives during the blockade, which had a huge impact on women and children who were denied important medicines and medical services. The conflict in Bougainville lasted for a decade where more than 5%, or around 20,000 people, of the province's population died between 1988 and 1997[ix].

The mobilisation of women

Bougainville is a Melanesian village-based society. Much of the land is owned by women, with kinship, inheritance and use of land determined by the female line. Talking about the impact of the conflict on women, Sister Lorraine Garasu, Coordinator of the Bougainville Inter-Church Women's Forum, explains "for those of us in government-controlled areas, it was 'life between two guns'. Women experienced harassment by both the BRA and the PNGDF forces. Our lives were constrained by rules and regulations such as the curfew from dawn to dusk. Restrictions on movement meant that women often had to wait a few days before they could go to their gardens to collect food. Women in the BRA-controlled areas bore the brunt of the war as they suffered sustained attacks by PNGDF and Resistance forces. Eight years of blockade deprived them of access to shelter, food, clothing, health and educational services. Women behind the blockade struggled to care for their children without medicines, immunisations and adequate food supplies. Many babies died from preventable childhood diseases. Those in the mountains suffered from lack of warm clothing. Women and girls in both areas were at risk of rape by soldiers from all factions."[x]

Women have not traditionally been active the formal political sphere; however, their activism was pivotal in ending Bougainville's conflict. It was women's influence in the private sphere that was able to impact the BRA and resistance factions in the early part of the war. Various women's groups from different parts of the island led peace marches and protests and signed petitions. These efforts led to the establishment of a 'peace area' in the north of Bougainville where the community disarmed the BRA. Their networking with women in Australia and New Zealand was also "influential in bringing in support and assistance from abroad"[xi] and women's groups were the backbone of humanitarian efforts that provided food, clothing and medicines.

In 1994 women's mobilisation gathered momentum when the PNG government called a peace conference in Arawa, Bougainville's capital. Although the BRA and the Interim Government boycotted the event, women took advantage of the space to meet and share their opinions and stories. This led to a later meeting in which more than 2,000 women attended - which was the beginning of an "important era of confidence" for the women of Bougainville who wanted peace[xii].

Fighting intensified in mid 1996 when negotiations collapsed between the PNG government and the BRA - this was a crisis period for Bougainville as the PNGDF launched countless attacks and the BRA retaliated with massacres and hostage taking. January 1997 was a turning point for the conflict: "In its last effort to contain and defeat BRA, in January 1997, the PNG government hired London-based mercenary company, Sandline International at a cost of $40 million. this initiative was opposed by the PNGDF Commander, General Singirok and by Australia, which regarded it as 'dangerous development in the region'. The initiative was also rejected by regional governments and most importantly it was unpopular in PNG. The mercenaries withdrew and the 'Sandline Affair' forced Prime Minister Chan and two key ministers to step down. A fresh election was called in mid-1997 which saw the defeat of the incumbent government"[xiii]. These events had a considerable impact on moves toward peace as perceptions on all sides changed and parties engaged with the Australian and New Zealand governments on peacebuilding.

Behind the public face of the 'Sandline Affair' however, women were making waves in their own peace efforts. A Women's Peace Forum took place in August 1996 where 700 women met to discuss possible solutions to the crisis, and then in October 1996 women from both Government controlled areas and the BRA put aside their differences and came together in Sydney to strategise for peace. Sister Lorraine Garasu, who attended the forum in Sydney, recounts her meeting with two other peace activists: "It was the first time that the three of us had met during the eight years of war, and for the first two days there was much uncertainty between us. We soon realised, however, that we were all working for the one cause - peace. The Forum provided us with an opportunity to discuss strategies for working together even though once back in Bougainville we would be living far apart. We produced a position paper that became our stepping-stone for further peace talks. While in Australia we also met with senators and had a session at the PNG High Commission in Canberra."[xiv]

A petition was presented to the Prime Minister's First Secretary in Port Moresby during the Sandline affair, "urging the government not to involve Sandline and to instead seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict". In addition, an official women's delegation "played an important role at the Burnham talks in New Zealand in July 1997. About 50 Bougainvillean women also attended meetings in Lincoln, New Zealand that led to the signing of the Lincoln Agreement in January 1998. Women drew up an adjoining statement on peace, which was presented at the signing ceremony and which called for greater inclusion in the peace process."[xv]

Bougainville today

Although still under the sovereignty of PNG, the island has enjoyed autonomous self-rule since the Peace Agreement was signed in 2001. The agreement gives the island a high level of autonomy, with the promise of a referendum on independence in 10 to 15 years. In the Pacific, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) is one of the only places which has seen the successful introduction of quotas for women in politics. At the end of the civil conflict, quotas were included in the new Constitution which established the new ARB legislature.

In 2004, 11 women who survived the conflict and played key roles in conflict resolution and rebuilding society, published "As Mothers of the Land". Edited by Josephine Tankunani Sirivi and Marilyn Taleo Havini, contributors include one of the founding members of the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom (BWPF). The book tells the story of the extraordinary resourcefulness of the women - how they adapted to cope with the impact of the military blockade imposed by the Port Moresby politicians. It also depicts the lives of those women who had to flee to the jungle to escape violence and rely on their traditional knowledge to support their families.

The president of the ARB, Joseph Kabui, died unexpectedly on 7 June 2008.[xvi] Just a few days prior, he sacked his Minister for Women, Region and NGOs, Magdalene Toroansi. Helen Hakena, Executive Director of Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency in Bougainville, along with the national media in PNG have asserted that she was sacked because she opposed "President Kabui's signature to a mining contract with Canadian mining company, Invincible, which would reopen the Panguna Mine in Central Bougainville, taking 70 per cent of the profits offshore.[xvii]

The future of Bougainville seems to be again in the balance, and it is uncertain whether Panguna will be reopened - however, the future will certainly see women continuing to influence political decision- making and opposing any new threats to their hard won peace.

[i] Bougainville Freedom Movement. 16 May 1996. Bougainville Fights for Freedom
[ii] Denoon, D. 2000, Getting Under the Skin: The Bougainville Copper Agreement and the Creation of the Panguna Mine. Melbourne University Press, Australia.
[iii] Dorney, S. 1998, The Sandline Affair. ABC Books, Sydney Australia.
[iv] Ibid Note 1.
[v] Ibid Note 2.
[vi] Beatson, J. 1997, "Revolution: Hard times for rebels on blockaded island", New Internationalist, issue 224.
[vii] Pacific-Peace.Net. Bougainville.
[viii] Ibid. Note 3.
[ix] Ride, A. 1999b, "The rebel peace: Ownership of peace". New Internationalist, issue 311, April 1999.
[x] Sister Lorraine Garasu. 2002. The role of women in promoting peace and reconciliation. Concilation Resources:
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid Note 7
[xiv] Ibid Note 10
[xv] Ibid Note 10
[xvi] Tereni Kens. 2008. Bougainville President Joseph Kabui Dies. Pacific Magazine:
[xvii] Defending Women Defending Rights. Urgent Action Alert and Press Release.
copyright © 2008 AWID. All rights reserved.

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