The Panguna copper mine changed Bougainville Island forever.
The impact of World War II on Bougainville was temporary. It lasted only three years, after which time the belligerent forces left. Bougainville returned to being a forgotten place in the world. Other than missionaries, occasional island traders, and some political interests of Australia and New Guinea, Bougainville was largely forgotten. The main effects of World War II may have been the cargo cults that developed in areas closed to missionaries.
The discovery of copper in Panguna valley suddenly focused the world business community on this remote island. Bougainvilleans who had lived in traditional villages for thousands of years suddenly had their land seized by the New Guinea government. They were paid a government-determined sum of money to make the seizure into a legal ‘damage to property’ (even though the mining operation removed the property and deposited it elsewhere). A picture appeared in an Australian newspaper showing a Bougainvillean holding a stack of paper money about a foot high and staring it in bewilderment. The New Guinea government, under Australian direction, gave new village sites to Bougainvilleans who lost their traditional land. Resettled Bougainvilleans had little or no choice in where to resettle.
Arawa, a large copra plantation, was seized. A port city was built. Ocean freighters brought in needed heavy equipment and building materials. Large scale mining operations began and expanded rapidly. Mine tailings were dumped into the Jaba river, creating a delta in the Coral Sea that is easily visible on Google Earth.
Yet, my feelings about these developments are mixed. While the force of mining economics dictated the fast pace of events, some of the leaders in the mining operation were gravely concerned about the major impact all these events were having on Bougainvilleans, and particularly on the Nasioi that were displaced. The result was that Bougainvilleans were trained in various trades and given many jobs in the entire operation.
But Bougainvilleans had received nothing from the mine’s massive profits. After twenty years of digging the gigantic open cut, they had had enough. High-handedness and outright thievery by the New Guinea government brought about civil disobedience and civil war. Thousands of Bougainvilleans were killed. Tens of thousands either escaped to other islands or were placed in detention camps.
These terrible events, and the huge impact that they had on Bougainvilleans, have been well documented. The result is that Bougainville now has a semi-autonomous government within the country of Niu Gini.
Bougainvilleans were forcibly dragged into the modern world. Their rebellion partially returned them to a traditional lifestyle and economy, but a new generation is having second thoughts about the great riches that still lie beneath their feet.
Therein lie my mixed feelings. While I have full sympathy with the Bougainvilleans and environmentalists who say that the copper needn’t have been mined when it was, the world economy needed the Bougainville copper riches. Such forces are, as yet, impossible to control. Whatever has happened up to now, Bougainvilleans are taking charge of their own affairs.
I’m convinced that the Panguna copper mine will reopen. I hope that Rio Tinto, the original developer of the mine, will be allowed to return and operate the mine again. Even now, opportunist entrepreneurs of doubtful reputation are approaching the Bougainville government leaders in hopes of capturing this jewel of world mining for their own.
In my opinion, the future for Bougainvilleans can be bright. With astuteness they can benefit from the island’s mineral riches and maintain much of their traditional culture as well. They also need the foresight to conserve their mine-generated capital and seek other industries to take the place of mining when the minerals are eventually mined out.