Cut from the pages of a glossy travel brochure and just smaller than Hawaii’s Big Island, Bougainville is blessed with incredible natural resources: sugar-white beaches, fisheries, hyper-fertile soil and one of the largest untapped mineral deposits on the planet – copper, silver, gold and uranium estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The largest known concentration of minerals lies in Panguna Mine, a vast hole in the ground in the Guava Mountains of central Bougainville. Between 1972 and 1989 it provided nearly half of PNG’s GDP and made billions in profit for its operator, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a former subsidiary of Rio Tinto.
But while less than one per cent of those profits were reinvested in Bougainville, hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings – the toxic by-product of industrial mining – were dumped straight into rivers, turning vast tracts of once-fertile farming and hunting grounds into barren, moonlike wastelands.
In the late 1970s, a landowner group led by Francis Ona presented BCL with a multi-billion dollar cleaning bill. BCL, however, claimed it was in compliance with the law while concurrently insisting it had not damaged the environment. It continued to dump tailings into the rivers like a careless tourist might drop a cigarette butt on the beach.
In 1988, push finally came to shove. Ona and his mob broke into BCL’s storerooms, stole a bunch of explosives and blew up Panguna’s power lines. The event marked the start of the longest conflict in the South Pacific since WWII and the world’s first successful eco-revolution – an episode of military history that has drawn parallels with the 2009 James Cameron film Avatar.
PNG sent in its army to crush the rebels, pitting Australian-supplied helicopter gunships and gunboats against a ragtag militia armed with slingshots and homemade rifles. When that failed, soldiers trained their sights on the general population, burning down villages, using rape as a weapon and executing alleged collaborators en masse. And when that failed PNG applied a cruel Australian-backed naval blockade, depriving the entire island of fuel, medicine and all contact with the outside world.
By the time a lasting peace agreement was signed in 2001, 15,000 to 20,000 Bougainvilleans – 10 per cent of the population – had been killed or succumbed to illnesses. For its woes, Bougainville was granted autonomy and tacit control of its fantastic mineral wealth, including the US$50 billion worth of copper and gold left at Panguna.
Now, a new-look independently listed BCL is plotting its return to Panguna, promising jobs and prosperity for all – despite not lifting a finger to clean the mess it left behind. Astonishingly, the Autonomous Government of Bougainville is courting the proposal because it desperately needs cash for an independence referendum scheduled for June 2019 and the prospect of running the world’s newest country the following year. But many Bougainvilleans hold serious grudges against BCL and warn if the company returns, war will follow.
During the ’good times’ of the 1970s and 1980s, Arawa and its port Kieta, an hour’s drive from Panguna, was the second richest town in PNG. Hotels, restaurants and banks lined Happy Valley, Kieta’s dreamy beachfront strip, while cruise boats and sail craft crowded around the old yacht club.
All that remains of Kieta today are ruins overgrown with jungle and the wrecks of two small steamships at the end of a pier where Queen Elizabeth II and her royal entourage disembarked during a state visit in 1974. Arawa hasn’t fared much better; its wide boulevards lined with overgrown fields, stain-coloured apartment blocks and abandoned gas stations.
In Arawa I meet Philip Miriori, former private cabinet secretary of rebel leader Francis Ona, who died in 2005. Today Miriori is chairman of the Special Mine Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), a group of 2,000-odd landowners who under the new Bougainville Mining Act hold rights not only to the topsoil but also the minerals underground. That makes Miriori one of the most powerful men in Bougainville and his opinion of BCL a matter of concern.
“BCL does not have any compassionate feelings. I have seen what they are capable of,” he says. “One night during the war, the PNGDF (PNG Defence Force) woke up everyone in my village and made us stand in a line while they burnt all our houses. I hold BCL directly accountable for what happened that night because BCL provided the soldiers with funding, logistics and shelter. Not as long as I am alive will I ever accept BCL coming back.”
Allegations of BCL’s complicity in Bougainville’s war stem back decades and have been corroborated by the highest level of government. In 2011, SBS’s Dateline unearthed an affidavit signed by former PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare that reads: “Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in PNG, the company controlled the government.” In a separate affidavit, former PNGDF general Jerry Singirok said the army “functioned as the corporation’s personal security force and were ordered by BCL to take action to reopen the mine – by any means necessary”.
BCL refused to comment for this story. But in a shareholder update released in October, the company claims it “has always maintained positive relationships in Bougainville” and “continues to respectfully build relationships with a range of stakeholders, including project area landowners”.
Yet in the very same document, the company scolds Miriori for “attack[ing] BCL through the media by using the title of SMLOLA chairman to convey the misleading impression that there is a united view of opposition to BCL”.
The notice also refers to a SMLOLA leadership dispute between Miriori and his cousin Lawrence Daveona, whose relationship with BCL stems back decades. Daveona was once president of the Bougainville Development Corporation, a purported BCL development fund that was run like a Fortune 500 company with interests in engineering, logistics and even mining. He was also a former director and secretary of BCL’s Roads Mine Tailings Lease Trust Fund – a body set up to administer compensation payments to Panguna landowners.
Daveona refused comment, citing ongoing court proceedings with Miriori. But he pointed out Miriori has a corporate sponsor of his own: RTG Mining, a Perth-based consortium that operates seven mines in five countries and is challenging BCL’s bid to reboot Panguna.
Miriori acknowledges he’s on RTG’s payroll but says his support for the company is based the award-winning environmental and social policies it has demonstrated at Masbate, the largest operating gold mine in the Philippines. “RTG will work well with the community,” he opines, adding: “If this story doesn’t go well, you will not be welcome back in Bougainville.”
In BCL’s October shareholder notice the company claims it is “increasing its presence in central Bougainville through the engagement activities of our local team”.
Yet BCL has no official presence in Arawa. And it’s hard to imagine how a car with BCL logos could get past Alex Dakamari, a crusty old rebel with hangdog features who controls Morgan’s Crossing Checkpoint – a roadblock set up by Ona in the early 1990s on the only carriageway leading up to the mine.
“BCL are wasting their time. If they come back, we will fight,” Dakamari scowls. “We don’t want the mine reopened – full stop! Otherwise, all our money will go to white people like in the past. We were the owners and they turned us into beggars. They can’t get away with it again!”
Before it closed, Panguna was the largest open-cut mine in the world – 2.5 kilometres wide and half a kilometre deep. On one side of this titanic-size eyesore, a wall of untreated tailings hundreds of metres high marches slowly down a ravine. Millions of litres of opal-blue water rush from pit water drains on either side of this wall, forming waterfalls of the damned that lay waste to all life in the valley far below.
Dapera is a village that once sat right on top of the mine. In the early 1970s, BCL moved Dapera’s residents to a squatter settlement built on a plateau of crushed rock not far from the ore-sorting plant. A desolate collection of hardscrabble shacks, Dapera II is now home to a few hundred impoverished landowner descendants like Jayden Frankie.
“You can see the destruction BCL did to this community,” he says. “Before my father had good land. This is not good land. We can’t grow crops and when heavy rain falls, rocks in the ground turn blue and green.”
His friend, Richard Onio, voices similar sentiments. “To find good land for farming we have to walk up to those hills,” he says, pointing to a steep ridge. “But it’s dangerous in heavy rains because of landslides.”
What do they think about the idea of a BCL comeback?
“They would not be welcome,” says villager Freddy Bernora. “We would send them off. They stole billions of dollars from us and I do not see how this company has changed.”
Frankie says he wants RTG to reopen the mine: “We have seen some pictures of how RTG works in the Philippines, how people there live side-by-side with mining. They showed us how they produce benefits for landowners. They seem to respect landowners.”
“For me,” says Onio, “I am with neither RTG or BCL. I am neutral. I want to see if they meet our terms and conditions. I am not convinced by either side yet.”
On another plateau above the pit lies a small city where BCL housed more than 2,000 employees during the ’good times’. Today, around 8,000 landowners and squatters reside in the concrete skeletons of residential towers Ona and his mob set fire to after BCL withdrew. Masked in heavy fog, carpeted in moss and spattered with graffiti, it has the look and feel of a set from the Planet of the Apes.
Philip Takaung, Ona’s 77-year-old half-brother and Miriori’s deputy, is Caesar of this post-apocalyptic world. With the frame of a silverback gorilla and a crushing handshake to match, he makes an intimidating presence when I find him congregated with family and friends on the top floor of the tallest tower.
“When BCL came here and started polluting our land, we didn’t know anything about minerals. We had no education so they took advantage of us,” he says. “When we asked them to clean up the rivers, they did a feasibility study and said there was nothing poisonous in the water. We said NO! Our crops, our rivers, everything is dead! But they ignored us. They ignored us for 10 years until we took action. I was on that team with Ona that blew up the power lines.”
Takaung shows me his weapon of choice during the conflict: a nine-foot-long pole with a Y-shaped head known as the ‘Rambo Stick’ – a slingshot so powerful it can puncture a hole in a car, or take off somebody’s head. “This weapon is very good because it makes very little noise,” he says. “When you fire it, the enemy has no idea where you are. Then you can fire again.”
I ask Takaung how many soldiers he killed during the war. He looks at two small children in the room who are glued to his every word, decides against answering and continues with his sermon: “BCL burnt our villages. They tortured our people. They cut off people’s hands and threw them from helicopters. They raped our women, the young children, the men and old ladies! They put the machete in between women’s legs! I saw it! They slaughtered people like they were animals!”
On the way back to Arawa I stop at Anewa Bay, home to Bougainville’s modern port facilities.. There I meet port worker Francis Baubake, a withered old man in his fifties with a wooden leg and a terrible story to tell.
“In 1996, the PNGDF got a new mortar bomb that was untested. So they tested it on my family, “ he says. “We were in church in a refugee camp in Buin in the south when it hit us. My daughters Brenda and Alvina, seven and 12, and my wife Sicilia were instantly killed. I lost my leg,” he says, tapping his wooden stump.
I ask Baubake who he holds accountable for his loss. He stares numbly into the middle distance and thinks for a while before mumbling: “The PNGDF. The PNGDF and BCL.”
But when I ask what might happen if BCL returns to Bougainville, he answers without pause. “War,” he says, grinding his teeth. “War.”
The no-mining vote
On my fourth day in Bougainville, I am struck with malaria and spend the next 24 hours shivering in bed, my joints and lower back burning with pain. The fever dissipates the next day but the experience makes me ponder the fate of an estimated 5,000 Bougainvilleans who succumbed to malaria during the blockade of the 1990s, and the poor state of health of most islanders today. In a squatter settlement next to my guesthouse, I find a man in his twenties with a cancer the size of a football growing from his heel.
More than half of all adults here are obese, while alcoholism is endemic.
“The war took everything out of everybody here and the trauma has been passed onto this generation,” says Geoff McAndrews, a Californian who recently opened Bougainville’s first surf camp. “There are no jobs. The only thing they have for entertainment is volleyball and homebrew.”
Over the next few days, I learn a significant minority are pro-BCL. “If BCL comes back, they can fix the environmental issues because they know all about them,” says accountant Lindsay Kalio. “I don’t think any other company can do this as we have no relationship with them.”
Yet more than half of all islanders I speak to oppose any kind of industrial mining.
“Our previous experience with mining was pollution and violence so I don’t want mining to come back,” says Alex Takena, a fisherman in Kieta. “We should focus on sustainable industries like copra (coconut) and cocoa farming.”
Lawrence Robert, a carpenter in Arawa, agrees. “I don’t think Panguna should reopen because our island is tiny and if miners come back, they’ll tear it to pieces. We should have tourism instead to promote our culture and heritage.”
Adds John Boscoe, a subsistence farmer from Oemah village in the island’s south: “Mining did not benefit any of us in in the past but we all lost our homes. If it happens again, the Panguna landowners will drink milk and honey and we will get nothing.”
The SMLOLA discounts anti-mining sentiment. “These people have to look at the bigger picture,” Miriori says. “Mining is the right choice for Bougainville because we need the revenue if we want to become an independent nation and generate employment and security. Panguna will reopen, whether they like it or not.”
Better the devil you own
A week passes until I regain enough strength to make the bone-jarring four-hour drive from Arawa to the capital Buka, which is as fly-blown as a place can possibly be.
When I arrive the city has been under a total electricity blackout for close to a week for reasons no one can explain. When I visit Bougainville’s House of Representatives in the middle of the day to make an appointment with President John Monis, no one is there. Ditto at the Ministry for Mineral and Energy Resources and BCL’s little office.
Later in the day, news breaks that the SMLOLA leadership dispute has ended and Miriori has emerged victorious. It sees RTG’s share price soar 83 per cent in a single day and the inking of a “historic” deal between the consortium and the SMLOLA.
“The Chairman and Mr Daveona have also pledged support for RTG as the preferred development partner,” RTG says in a statement. “This is a historic and important step for the landowners, with RTG being the first mining company that has been endorsed by the SMLOLA in 30 years.”
But the victory is short-lived. Bougainville Minister for Minerals and Energy Raymond Masono accuses RTG of trying to sneak into Panguna through the back door. “The Autonomous Bougainville Government rejects companies that think they can bribe their way into people’s resources by giving certain individuals money to gain landowner consent,” he says.
RTG rigorously denies it has bribed landowners even though Miriori admitted to me that he is on their payroll. However BCL has been busy handing out money to landowners, too.
In March of last year, BCL distributed US$1.5 million in compensation to landowners at a public ceremony in Buka attended by Masono. “It is not the devil that we used to know, but it’s now the devil that we own,” Masono said at the ceremony, adding that it would be foolish go out looking for other developers.
Masono’s comment about “the devil that we own” refers to Rio Tinto’s June 2016 decision to finally call it quits on Bougainville – and its subsequent donation of its majority shareholdings in BCL to the governments of Bougainville and PNG.
RTG chairman Michael Carrick says the move was in part an attempt by Rio Tinto to stack the deck in BCL’s favour. But the cards had already been stacked in a very big way by the authors of the 2015 Bougainville Mining Act, who gave BCL the first right of refusal to redevelop Panguna.
RTG’s Carrick insists the Act no longer applies. “BCL ’claims’ it has first right to the exploration license under the mining act,” he says. “But our legal advice is that the renewal application for extension of the term of their licence is invalid because it was submitted out of time and was incomplete.”
For his part Masono remains nonplussed, insisting BCL is still in the box seat and RTG doesn’t even have a seat on the table. “Right now, the only legal applicant on the exploration tenement is BCL,” he says. “Until that process is completed, there are no other applicants or applications over the same tenement. That’s the position of the government.”
The president speaks
On my last day in Bougainville, I score an interview with President John Momis at Buka’s tin-pot airport. Right from the get-go he contradicts Masono’s position and corresponding claims by BCL that its proposal has the support of the Autonomous Government of Bougainville.
“Currently we do not have a preferred partner. We will ask people who are interested to submit their applications and we will scrutinise their applications quite stringently,” the President says. “We are open to discussions with BCL but there’s whole new dimension today. They need to win the support of landowners who own the resources.”
I ask him what he thinks about RTG’s competing bid to redevelop Panguna, and of rumours that China is eyeing the mine.
“We are not sure about RTG,” he says. “They have to convince us first. I don’t know if they are in a strong position. As for the Chinese, they are not in the picture right now. But we are open for business.”
And so the race for Panguna’s riches continues with no clear frontrunner. But no matter which company wins, three things seem certain.
First, the bulk of Panguna’s riches will inevitably end up in the pockets of oligarchs, shareholders and hopelessly corrupt officials instead of a sovereign wealth fund where it belongs. This prediction is drawn from the ’resource curse’, which dictates countries with lots of minerals tend to have less economic growth and democracy than countries with fewer natural resources. Hundreds of studies have been undertaken to prove the theory, though one need look no further to Hela Province on PNG’s mainland to see it happening in real time. There, ExxonMobil’s A$24 billion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project has failed to deliver any significant development outcomes for landowners. “In fact, it has, in important ways, made life worse for the majority of people living in the project area,” says Michael Main, an Australian National University doctoral student conducting fieldwork in the area.
Which leads to prediction number two: if Panguna reopens, there will be blood. According to the World Bank study ‘Natural Resources and Violent Conflict’, countries that export around five per cent of GDP have a six per cent risk of conflict. But when exports reach 25 per cent of GDP, the probability of conflict climbs to 33 per cent. If Panguna reopens, exports of minerals will account for close to 100 per cent of Bougainville’s GDP. That doesn’t bode well under the World Bank’s formula. And despite reassuring me the plans to reboot Panguna’s will definitely go ahead, a fortnight after I leave Bougainville he changes his mind, announcing an indefinite moratorium.
“We will not allow this project once again to reignite the wounds of the Bougainville crisis and distract our focus for restoring peace and our preparation for our referendum in 2019,” he told New Zealand’s Asia Pacific Report.
The decision is a breath of fresh air and a rare example of a politician in PNG making an unpopular and unprofitable decision that is beyond a shadow of a doubt in the best interest of constituents.
My final prediction for Bougainville? That the people will overwhelmingly vote in favour of self-determination when they go to the polls in 2019. “We in Bougainville have a huge passionate ambition,” Monis told me before I left, mirroring the thoughts of every Bougainvillean I interviewed on the subject. “And that ambition is to liberate ourselves from all kinds of transgressors, evil and marginalisation so there will be unity to affect the kind of changes we need to truly become free.”