The Bougainville Crisis

By Sera Price

Apologies for not writing about this sooner. I was going through my photos just now and they reminded me.

Most of what I know has come from conversations with my Bougainvillean colleagues, friends and acquaintances, plus a bit of reading and documentary watching. I am by no means an expert, I just want to help you understand Bougainville a bit better. There are some great articles, books and documentaries out there so I hope you have an explore – my favourite documentary is An Evergreen Island. Click on the title and watch, it’s such a good story about their resilience and innovation.

A quick history

Bougainville has been inhabited for about 30,000 years. Over this time there have been several waves of migration, movement and settlement of  the original landowners. When put like this it’s easy to see how they have developed over 20 very distinct languages. European settlers arrived in the late 1800s and Germany took control. At one point Germany and Britain did a deal. Germany relinquished it’s control of the rest of the  Solomon Islands to Brittan in exchange for Western Samoa. They kept control of Bougainville, the northern tip of the Solomon archipelago.

During the World Wars political power changes hands to Australia, Japan and back to Australia. Papua New Guinea gained independence in 1975; Bougainville has been fighting for their own independence but this was never recognised.

In the 1960s mining companies were prospecting in Bougainville for minerals. A particularly rich copper deposit was found and the Panguna Mine was created, eventually becoming the worlds largest open pit copper mine at that point in time. The mine was both good and bad for Bougainville and Papua New Guinea. At the height of production it was contributing about 45% to the national GDP. Bougainville became the most developed province in PNG with an efficient administration, good schools and health care.

The Bougainville Crisis

When the mine was originally surveyed local customs and norms were not well understood, nor were they sought to be well understood. This resulted in erroneous registration of land ownership and boundaries, and thus benefit sharing. The mine caused significant environmental damage: pollution of waterways and dumping of tailings ruining wetlands, forests and valleys. There were also social and cultural issues from the influx of workers from other provinces in Papua New Guinea and further afield.

There was growing opposition to the mine. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was forming and in 1989 a pylon that supplied power to the mine was blown up. The mine was shut down and as hostility grew expats and non-Bougainvilleans were evacuated. The Papua New Guinea Deference Force came in to restore order and the PNG Government imposed a blockade restricting the movement of goods, food and medical supplies into Bougainville. The conflict turned into a fight for independence. The PNG Army eventually retreated but were called back by Bougainville communities because rebel factions of the BRA were attacking their own people. A ‘Resistance group’ of Bougainvilleas started to work with the PNG defence force to keep their communities safe from the rebels. It turned into a civil war and about 20,000 Bougainvilleans died.

The women and youth were instrumental in bringing about peace. They risked their own lives to move between the BRA and the Resistance forces, talking to brothers and uncles to stop the fighting. The Australian and New Zealand armies were brought in to broker peace. Eventually, New Zealand’s un-armed approach earned the trust and respect of the locals and meaningful negotiations took place at Burnham Military Camp, in New Zealand. The Bougainville Peace Agreement was signed in Arawa, Bougainville on the 21t August 2001, and peace has been maintained ever since.

Moving forward

The Bougainville people are so positive about their future, and so they should be. They stood up for what they believed in and when things got out of control they brought about peace, with a bit of help. They have their land and resources, and now autonomy. There are still challenges and they acknowledge that. I remember there were some issues in the south and someone made the comment about it getting darker before the dawn. That resonated with me. It’s not easy, they are having to maintain their resilient and innovative attitude but they are making great progress. We are hoping that this project will be a positive win for them and contribute to growing their sustainable, valuable cocoa industry.


Derelict Mobil petrol station


New petrol station


The old administration and government buildings, Arawa


Old Arawa town centre.


Burnt, crippled Arawa Town.


The old hospital, Arawa. The jungle has reclaimed it.


The Other Whitehouse. Old administration and government buildings in Arawa.


Redundant road signs and suburbs.


Burt out house, Arawa.


Landowner Angela and Panguna Mine


Taking in the scale of the damage. Massive


Parked up, burnt out trucks. Panguna Mine


Industrial, burnt out shed. Panguna Mine


Brand new, massive mining trucks, burnt where they were parked in their very large garage.


Ruins from one of the accommodation blocks. Panguna mine


Upper tailings. Panguna mine


Where the tailings were piped and dumped.


Waterway from the Panguna mine. The blue colour is from copper sulphate


Lower tailings, where all the dug out gravel from the mine ended up, slowly moving down toward the coast. This used to be a valley, now it’s a gravel wasteland where people pan for gold.


Village on the edge of the tailings.

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