24 October 2018
Australia could soon have a new country on its doorstep.
In June 2019, the people of Bougainville, a province that is part of Papua New Guinea, will vote in an independence referendum. Earlier this month, leaders from both sides finally agreed that the question to be put will be: “Do you agree for Bougainville to have: (1) Greater Autonomy (2) Independence.”
The referendum marks a welcome development in an island province that is still recovering from a horrific conflict and has never seen itself as part of either Papua New Guinea or Australia, which controlled it until 1975. But a shift towards independence carries risks, especially when the fate of Bougainville’s most famous asset – Panguna, one of the world’s largest copper mines – remains so patently unresolved.
Australia, a close and powerful neighbour, has a strong interest in ensuring that Bougainville’s status is settled peacefully. But Australia also has a moral debt from its contribution to the province’s tortured history.
During the civil conflict between pro-independence rebels and the Papua New Guinea military from 1989 to 1997, up to 20,000 people died in Bougainville, about a tenth of its population. It was a brutal, shattering war. Today, its citizens still search for the remains of their missing family members.
Australia did not directly intervene but equipment supplied to the Papua New Guinea military was used in the conflict. Canberra was closely involved in the peace process from the 1990s, and deployed troops as part of a peacekeeping mission that lasted until 2003.
But Australia also had a hand in the development of the controversial Panguna mine, which triggered the war. The mine’s operations were authorised by Australia –the colonial power – and run by Rio Tinto. Locals were hardly consulted, if at all, and received low wages and little of the profits. They watched on as thousands of workers arrived on the island and as the mine caused devastating environmental damage.
A paper released last month by Jubilee Australia, which researches damage caused by Australian interests overseas, claimed Australia “bore a substantial responsibility” for the conflict.
“[Australia] essentially imposed the mine on the islanders, including through the use of force, refused to compensate them adequately for their losses, and provided substantial financial assistance to the PNG defence and police forces during the early years of the conflict,” it said.
“Australian companies, including Rio Tinto and its suppliers, and Australian citizens also benefited significantly from the mine’s operation. Australia consequently shares the responsibility to ensure redress and remedy.”
Australia is a large aid donor to Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, and continues to exercise influence in both places. It has supported the referendum and signalled it will “work closely” with all sides as Bougainville’s future is decided.
But this leaves the question of Panguna, which sits abandoned, surrounded by rotting trucks, bulldozers, dilapidated housing blocks and old mining equipment. It could produce an estimated $US2 billion worth of copper and gold a year for twenty-five years. Not surprisingly, various entities, many backed or headed by Australians, are champing for re-entry to this “no-go zone”, which is guarded by local forces.
Local communities are divided on whether it should re-open, and who should operate it, and how the revenue should be split. Last year, Bougainville’s president, John Momis, announced that mining will not proceed until landowners unite.
Most experts believe the mine will not re-open for years and that the province should, in the meantime, start developing new industries. This will require continued Australian support. And Canberra should do all it can to ensure that Panguna’s operations do not resume without local consent and a plan to prevent environmental damage.
Bougainville first considered seceding in the 1960s and it already has a flag, an emblem and an anthem. There is a strong chance that it will soon become a new nation, though the next steps towards greater autonomy or independence remain unclear.
Australia should focus solely on securing the spoils: not the millions of tonnes of copper and 19 million ounces of gold, but a peaceful end to thirty years of devastation and trauma for a former colony.