This land is my land

Nearly 30 years after eco-rebels sent mining company BCL fleeing from Bougainville for wholesale environmental carnage, it is planning its return to the mineral-rich island. But, as conflicts of interest and intrigues develop, locals are less than pleased. Ian Neubauer reports

Most of the recent news coming out of Papua New Guinea is about the refugee crisis on Manus Island, where hundreds of predominantly Middle Eastern asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters have languished in legal limbo for five long years. But 1,000 kilometres southeast of Manus, on Bougainville Island, a story with far wider-reaching geopolitical and economic implications for the bloody 40-year-long independence struggle of a quarter of a million people is approaching an endgame.

Cut from a glossy travel brochure and just smaller than Hawaii’s Big Island, Bougainville is blessed with incredible natural resources: warm waters teeming with fish, hyper-fertile soil and one of the largest untapped mineral deposits on the planet.

Bougainville’s struggle sprouted from colonial exploits at the now-defunct Panguna mine. Between 1972 and 1989, the gaping hole in the Guava Mountains in central Bougainville provided nearly half of Papua New Guinea’s GDP and made its operator, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) – a former subsidiary of Rio Tinto – billions of dollars.

But less than one per cent of profits were reinvested into Bougainville, while hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings – the toxic by-product of mining – were dumped straight into rivers; turning vast tracts of farming and hunting grounds into a barren moonlike wasteland.

In the late 1970s, a landowner group led by Francis Ona presented BCL and Rio Tinto with a multi-billion dollar cleaning bill. But the mining companies argued they were in compliance with the law, insisting they had not damaged the environment, while continuing to dump tailings down the mountain like a bad tourist drops a cigarette butt on the beach.

In 1988, push finally came to shove. Ona and his mob broke into BCL’s storerooms, stole explosives and blew up Panguna’s power lines. The war on mining in Bougainville had begun.

Papua New Guinea 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 burned down villages, executed collaborators and raped with impunity. And when even that failed, Papua New Guinea applied a cruel Australian-backed naval blockade depriving the entire island of fuel, medicine and contact with the outside world.

What started as an act of explosive protest turned into the longest conflict in the South Pacific since World War Two. By the time a lasting peace agreement was signed in 2001, 10 per cent of the Bougainville population (15,000-20,000 people) had been killed or had succumbed to curable illnesses. For its woes, the island was granted autonomy and tacit control of its fantastic mineral wealth, including the $50 billion worth of copper and gold remaining at Panguna.

However, a new-look independently listed BCL is presently scheming a return to the mine; promising jobs and prosperity for all, despite having never cleaned the mess it left behind. When I flew to Bougainville late last year, the Autonomous Government of Bougainville was astonishingly courting the proposal as it desperately needs tax revenue for an independence referendum scheduled for June 2019, and the prospect of running the world’s newest country soon after. But many Bougainvillians warn if BCL does return, conflict will follow.

Happy valley

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 Papua New Guinea. Hotels, restaurants and banks lined Happy Valley, Kieta’s dreamy beachfront strip, while cruise boats and sail craft clambered 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 disembarked during a state visit in 1974. Arawa hasn’t fared much better. Its wide boulevards – once lined with villas, libraries, private schools, shopfronts and theatres – now feature overgrown fields, stain-coloured apartment blocks and abandoned petrol stations.

In Arawa, I meet Philip Miriori – the former private cabinet secretary of rebel leader Francis Ona, who died in 2005. Miriori is chair of the Special Mine Lease Osikaiyang Landowners Association (SMLOLA), a group of some 2,000 landowners who, under the new Bougainville Mining Act, hold rights to the topsoil and the minerals underground, giving them veto power over proposals to reboot Panguna. That makes Miriori one of the most powerful men in Bougainville and his opinion of BCL a concern.

‘BCL does not have any compassionate feelings. They have made no apology and caused lots of trauma in Bougainville. I have seen what they are capable of,’ he says.

Nature fights back: the jungle returns to an abandoned ore-sorting factory at Panguna, Bouganville.
Nature fights back: the jungle returns to an abandoned ore-sorting factory at Panguna, Bouganville.

‘One night during the war, the Papua New Guinea Defence Force woke up everyone in my village and made us watch while they burnt all our houses down. I hold BCL directly accountable for what happened that night because they provided the soldiers with funding, logistics and shelter. Not as long as I am alive will I ever accept BCL coming back. People in Bougainville have great hatred for what they have done in the past. That memory will never go away.’

Allegations of BCL’s complicity in the Bougainville war stem back decades and have been corroborated by the highest level of government. In 2011, Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service unearthed an affidavit signed by former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister and Minister for Bougainville Affairs Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare that stated: ‘Because of Rio Tinto’s financial influence in Papua New Guinea, the company controlled the government.’

In a separate affidavit, former Papua New Guinea Defence Force 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.’ The mining company refused comment for this story. But in a shareholder update released last October, BCL claimed it ‘has always maintained positive relationships in Bougainville’ and ‘continues to respectfully build relationships with a range of stakeholders, including project area landowners’.

The notice also refers to a SMLOLA leadership dispute between Miriori and his cousin Lawrence Daveona, a Port Moresby-based entrepreneur who has been advocating BCL’s return to Bougainville for years. Daveona is former director and secretary of BCL’s Roads Mine Tailings Lease Trust Fund – a body set up to administer mine compensation payments.

Daveona refused to talk about his relationship with the company, citing ongoing court proceedings with his cousin Miriori. But he pointed out Miriori has a corporate sponsor of his own: RTG Mining, an Australian consortium that operates seven mines in five countries and is challenging BCL’s bid to reboot the Panguna mine.

Miriori acknowledges he’s on RTG’s payroll but says his support for the company is based on its environmental and social practices at Masbate, the largest goldmine in the Philippines. ‘RTG will work well with the community,’ he opines, adding: ‘If this [article] doesn’t go well, you will not be welcome back in Bougainville.’

Legacy of the pit

In the same shareholder notice, BCL also claimed it is ‘increasing its presence in central Bougainville through the engagement activities of our local team’. However, the company has no official presence in Arawa. And it’s hard to imagine how a car with their logos could get past Alex Dakamari, a crusty old rebel with hangdog features who controls Morgan’s Crossing checkpoint – a roadblock on the only carriageway leading up to Panguna, set up by the late Francis Ona in the early 1990s. ‘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 of 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!’

The road snakes up the western flank of the Guava Mountains, affording spectacular views of the palm-fringed coast. In places, the asphalt is nearly consumed by landslides; at others it all but disappears into the mist. Rainforest hugs both sides of the road until I reach a five-storey ore-sorting plant that’s been dormant for nearly 30 years. More discarded mining equipment – from parts of a bucket-wheel excavator, to the massive wheels of mining dump trucks – pockmark the roadside like a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the mine.

Before it closed, Panguna was the largest open-cut mine in the world. Some 2.5 kilometres wide and half a kilometre deep, it is marred by copper bleaching – a blue-green oxidization caused by rain hitting exposed copper ore. On the far side of the pit, 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, forming waterfalls of the damned that lay waste to all life in the valley below. It is environmental mass murder.

Dapera is a village that once sat on land covering part of the mine. In the early 1970s, BCL moved Dapera’s residents to a squatter settlement built on a plateau of crushed rock. A desolate collection of hardscrabble shacks, Dapera II is now home to a few hundred impoverished landowner descendants like Jayden Frankie, who was born on the site.

‘You can see the destruction they did to this community,’ he says. ‘Before, my father had good land. We can’t grow crops on this land 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 over there,’ he says, pointing to a ridge. ‘But it’s dangerous in heavy rains because of landslides.’

What do they think about the idea of the notorious BCL coming back?

‘They would not be welcome,’ says a third Dapera resident, 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 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,’ he says.

‘For me,’ says Onio, ‘I am with neither. I am neutral. I want to see if they meet our terms and conditions. I am not convinced by either side yet.’

Meeting Caesar

On a ridge above the pit is a larger settlement 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 rebel leader Francis Ona and his mob set fire to after BCL left. 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 (above left), Ona’s 77-year-old half-brother and Miriori’s deputy, is Caesar of this post-apocalyptic world. With an imposing frame and crushing handshake to match, he makes an intimidating presence when I find him sitting with his family in 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 decided to act. I was on that team that blew up the power lines.’

Takaung shows me his weapon-of-choice during the war: 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 someone’s head. ‘This weapon was very good because it’s quiet,’ he explains.

I ask Takaung how many soldiers he killed during the war. He looks at two of the small children in the room who are glued to his every word, decides against answering and returns to his sermon: ‘They burnt our villages. They tortured our people. They cut off peoples’ hands and threw them from helicopters. They raped our women, young children and old ladies! They put their machetes between women’s legs! I saw it! They slaughtered us like animals!’

Two children descend moss-covered steps in Panguna City.
An uncertain future: two children descend moss-covered steps in Panguna City.

Before departing, I ask Takaung what he thinks about Panguna reopening:

‘Yes, it will be a good thing,’ he says. ‘But first we must have independence. Then our government can talk with investors from around the world – anyone apart from BCL or Rio Tinto. They are never coming back.’

On the way back to Arawa I stop at Anewa Bay, home to Bougainville’s modern port facilities. Built by BCL, it is the key to unlocking Panguna’s riches. But unlike the mine and the road leading up to it, the port lies firmly in the hands of the Autonomous Government of Bougainville. Inasmuch, this gives them a veto on who gets to run the mine.

There I meet port worker Francis Baubake, a man with a wooden leg and a tragic story to tell. ‘In 1996, the Papua New Guinea Defence Force got a new mortar bomb that was untested. So they tested it on my family,’ he explains. ‘We were in church in a refugee camp in Buin, in the south, when it struck. My daughters Brenda and Alvina, aged 7 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 and thinks for a while before mumbling: ‘The Defence Force. And BCL.’

But when I ask what might happen if BCL returned to Bougainville, he answers immediately: ‘War.’

The no-mining vote

On my fourth night in Bougainville, I’m struck with malaria and spend the evening shivering in bed; my joints and lower back burning with pain. The fever retreats the next day, but the experience makes me ponder the fate of an estimated 5,000 Bougainvillians who succumbed to malaria during the naval blockade of the 1990s, and the poor state of health of islanders today.

More than half of Bougainvillian adults are obese and alcoholism is endemic. Those with money drink South Pacific lager. Those without money drink ‘steam’ – a homebrew made from pineapples and yeast so potent it can cause blindness.

‘The war took everything out of everyone. Everything stopped. Every house was burned down and the trauma has been passed on to this generation,’ says Geoff McAndrews, a Californian who recently opened Bougainville’s first surf camp on Tautsina, one of the main island’s many picturesque islets. ‘There are no jobs. The only thing they have for entertainment is volleyball and homebrew.’

Over the next few days, I speak with Bougainvillians from all walks of life and learn a significant minority are pro-BCL. ‘If they come back, they can fix the environmental issues because they know 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 those I speak to oppose any kind of mining.

‘Our previous experience with mining was pollution and violence,’ says Alex Takena, a fisher 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 it should reopen because our island is tiny and if miners come back, they’ll tear it to pieces.’ John Boscoe, a subsistence farmer from Oemah village in the south, adds: ‘Mining did not benefit any of us in the past but we all lost our homes. The landowners will drink milk and honey and we will get nothing.’

At an anti-BCL protest last June, women’s group Mothers Against Re-Opening the Panguna chided SMLOLA for failing to consult them as the true custodians of the land in accordance with Bougainville’s matrilineal lineage. ‘When BCL mined our land, we were displaced and placed in settlements and still live in these settlements today,’ said spokesperson Regina Eremari. ‘Our gardening grounds were destroyed. Now, where will they put us if they want to mine the land again?’

For his part, Miriori simply discounts anti-mining sentiment. ‘These people have to look at the bigger picture,’ he says. ‘Mining is the right choice… 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’m strong enough to make the bone-jarring drive from Arawa to Buka, the capital. The 130km journey along Bougainville’s primary arterial roadway takes four hours and fords several unbridged rivers – testament to the pitiful state of the island’s infrastructure.

Buka is as fly-blown as a place can possibly be. When I arrive, the city has been under a total electricity blackout for a week for reasons no-one can explain.

When I visit Bougainville’s House of Representatives to speak with President John Monis, no-one is there, and it’s the same for the Ministry for Mineral and Energy Resources and BCL’s little office.

‘They burnt our villages. They tortured our people… They slaughtered us like animals’

Later in the day, news breaks that the SMLOLA leadership dispute has ended and Miriori has emerged victorious. ‘That is correct,’ Lawrence Daveona, his rival, says over the phone. ‘I’m sick and tired of going to court and I don’t have the money to fight it any longer.’

The latest twists in the game of thrones for Panguna’s riches see RTG’s share price soar 83 per cent in a single day and the inking of a ‘historic’ deal between the consortium and SMLOLA. ‘Both the chairman [sic] and Mr Daveona have also pledged support for RTG as the preferred development partner,’ RTG says in a statement. ‘This is [an] important step for the landowners, with RTG being the first mining company that has been endorsed by SMLOLA in 30 years.’

But the victory is short-lived. Bougainville vice-president and minister for minerals and energy Raymond Masono also accused the latter company of bribery and corruption. ‘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 subsidiaries acknowledge paying landowners like Miriori monthly stipends – a normal part of doing business in Papua New Guinea. But BCL has also been busy handing out money, and stacks of it.

In March, it distributed $1.5 million to landowners at a public ceremony in Buka attended by mining minister 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 to go out looking for other developers when BCL was knocking.

Masono’s comment about ‘owning the devil’ refers to Rio Tinto’s June 2016 decision to finally call it quits on Bougainville, and the subsequent donation of the company’s majority shareholdings in BCL to the governments of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea.

RTG chairman Michael Carrick says the move was partially 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.

Yet, Carrick insists the Act no longer applies: ‘BCL “claims” it has first right to the exploration licence 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, which means that the exploration licence expired 15 months ago.’ Masono remains nonplussed, insisting BCL is still at the head and RTG doesn’t even have a seat at 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 meet President John Momis at Buka’s minute airport. Right from the get-go, he contradicts Masono’s position and corresponding claims that BCL has the support of the Bougainville government.

‘We currently do not have a preferred partner. We will ask people who are interested to submit their applications and we will scrutinize their applications quite stringently,’ he says, adding: ‘We are open to discussions with BCL but there’s a whole new dimension, a new platform, today. They need to win the support of landowners who own the resources.’

I ask him what he thinks about RTG’s bid to redevelop Panguna, and of rumours that China is eyeing the mine. (Momis was formerly PNG’s ambassador to China and is said to keep close ties with Beijing.) ‘We are not sure about [RTG],’ he explains. ‘They have to convince us first [and] 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 whichever company wins, two things appear certain.

First, if Panguna reopens, its riches will inevitably end up in the pockets of oligarchs, intermediaries, shareholders and hopelessly corrupt officials instead of a sovereign wealth fund where it belongs. The ‘resource curse’ or ‘paradox of plenty’ dictates that countries abundant in fossil fuels and minerals tend to have less economic growth and democracy than countries with fewer natural resources.

One need look no further than Hela Province on the Papua New Guinea mainland for a textbook example. There, ExxonMobil’s $19 billion liquified natural gas project has failed to deliver any significant development outcomes for landowners. ‘In fact, it has 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. Moreover, tribal violence has surged in Hela. At the time of writing, ExxonMobil had withdrawn all non-essential staff.

We were the owners and they turned us into beggars. They can’t get away with it again!

This leads to prediction number two: there will be blood. According to the World Bank, countries that export around 5 per cent of GDP have a 6 per cent risk of civil war. When exports reach 25 per cent of GDP, the chance of conflict rises to 33 per cent. But when Panguna reopens, exports of minerals will account for close to 100 per cent of Bougainville’s GDP, which doesn’t bode well under the World Bank’s formula. There will probably be a lot more if BCL makes a comeback but, either way, there will be bloodshed.

But then the seas change. A fortnight after I leave Bougainville, President Momis announces an indefinite moratorium on exploration and mining at Panguna: ‘[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,’ local journalist Aloysius Laukai reported the President as saying.

It is a rare example of a politician in Papua New Guinea making a brave and unpopular decision that is unequivocally in the best interest of the people. ‘We in Bougainville have a huge [and] passionate ambition,’ Momis told me before parting. ‘And that ambition is to liberate ourselves from all kinds of transgressors, evil, marginalization and so forth. There will be unity to effect the kind of changes we need to become free, so we can truly become agents of change and development.’

Ian Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and photojournalist with a decade’s experience of working as a visiting reporter in Papua New Guinea for TIME, al-Jazeera, BBC, CNN, The Diplomat and The Australian Financial Review, among others.

Main photo: Philip Miriori stands over the gaping wound that is Panguna Mine – the largest open-cut copper mine when in operation.