So it is about time that I introduced you to the history of conflict in this region and its impact on life here. Its timely having just returned from a trip to Arawa, the former capital of the Bougainville province.
Before the opening of Panguna mine in central Bougainville, this former province of Papua New Guinea was a quite place known mainly for its plantations. Development in Bougainville jumped forward with the opening of the Panguna copper mine in the 1970s (located in the centre of the main island, and one of the largest open cast mines in the world). The venture delivered significant revenue gains for Papua New Guinea - at the peak of production the Panguna mine was generating 45% of Papua New Guinea’s GDP.
This had a huge impact on Bougainville. For a start, Arawa was built pretty much from scratch, including a second town on the west coast. Hospitals, schools, power stations, a port and roads were all built to host over 3000 ex-pats, Bougainvilleans and PNG nationals (red skins). Landowners received millions through the deal, but, despite these benefits, serious malcontent was brewing in the highlands.
According to academic texts, conflict arose out of real and perceived environmental issues associated with the mine, the influx of Papua New Guinea labourers, contention over the percentage of revenue that should be invested in Bougainville vs PNG more broadly, and contention over titleholder arrangements (for a start, this is a matrilineal society, and all negotiations were arranged with local men). Francis Ona, leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, put it this way: “my fighting on Bougainville is based on these factors – one, we are fighting for man and his culture, and two, land and the environment. And the third one is independence.”
In 1988 conflict broke out and developed into a full fledged civil war between the BRA and Papua New Guinea forces (cue Mister Pip). A lack of discipline and control on both sides resulted in a pretty ugly conflict; about one tenth of the population died during the crisis.
What started as an attempt to assert more decision making power over the mine quickly became a war of independence. Ceasefires and peace agreements were repeatedly brokered and broken, but eventually a ceasefire was signed and honoured in 1997.
In 2001 a peace agreement was signed guaranteeing disarmament of Bougainville combatants, the creation of an Autonomous Bougainville Government, and provision for a referendum on independence in 2013. In 2005 the ABG was formed, and in 2006 a Strategic Action Plan for development was approved by the Bougainville Executive Council.
So, what are the noticeable impacts of this conflict? For a start, there’s the huge skill gap. The conflict was ongoing for about a period of nine years, and as you can imagine, things did not return to normal straight away. As a result, a lot of talented, skilled Bougainvilleans have left, and there is a big chuck of the demographic that haven’t completed a formal education. This shows itself in a number of different ways – firstly, in most urban centres you will notice a lot of young men, my age and younger, walking around with nothing to do. Over the channel, some of these guys will be wearing camo gears and carrying a knife (not because they are violent, but its just the thing they do here – most are really friendly). Working in the administration, you will notice that all divisions are understaffed, and mainly in their 50s. This is a real issue given that the life expectancy for males is sitting between 50 and 60 – the President, Joseph Kabui, passed away before the age of 60 in June, and he joins several members of the Administration.
What is acceptable in terms of violence is a little different here too. A fight here can escalate pretty quickly. Take last weekend for example – there was a fight recently between a Buka local and someone from Kieta (3 hours drive south). The Kieta man lost, badly. As a result, the wantok, or extended family of the Kieta man were here claiming retribution. There must have been 50-60 people down at the local hall, and we were advised to keep a low profile. Another story: over on the mainland a group of youths were drunk on homebrew, hanging out beside a road with nothing to do. A car drove past and for some reason one of the youths decided to throw a bottle at the windscreen. The car screeched to a halt and one of the passengers jumped out and killed the youth (knife in the heart). For some unknown reason, the youths decided the killer was from the south, so they rounded up a posse and went about terrorising all known southerners in the area. A roadblock was set up and, what with two roadblocks already in place (the permanent one in Panguna, and another further south following another death), Bougainville was effectively shut down.
Don’t be mislead though – things here are much better and these events are outside the norm…mostly. Being further north and the now centre of government has helped create a more peaceful vibe here in Buka. You can’t really tell that anything close to civil war took place. You’ve gotta go to Arawa to really get a sense of what happened.
Imagine it’s the 1970s and you’ve decided to go work in Arawa, a tropical paradise where you can enjoy a game of tennis or golf, dinner at the local resort, diving in tropical waters, fresh fruit and vegetables, glorious sunshine, a juicy salary and friendly locals sporting mean afros. Got that in your head?
Arawa today is…quite different. The courts and course have been swallowed by forest, the resort has been completely hollowed out and covered in graffiti, rusted structures peek out through thick vines, most of the expatriate accommodation has been burnt down, and the local sculpture in the park is riddled with bullet holes. The picturesque port nearby, once a sign of economic wealth, became a dumping ground for live and dead victims of the conflict (often thrown out of a helicopter). I imagine it would be a shock to anyone that brought their children here in the 70s.
It has been about ten years since the signing of the peace agreement, and most of Bougainville has settled down (relatively speaking). However, for some in the highlands, things haven’t changed much. The Panguna mine remains a no go area for most people, including government. A road block is in place and permits are required to pass through. There are still a few cowboys up there…there’s a self declared defence force and government up in Panguna, not recognised anywhere but in their own heads, but they have M16s so I don’t plan on taking the piss. Sadly they chose not to be parties to the peace agreement so disarmament efforts have not included that group (or so I understand).
All this makes things pretty interesting. I’m not sure what impression this might be creating for you, but I must emphasise how friendly and welcoming people are here. Its ridiculous. I walk down the road and there’s plenty of waves, smiles and how are yous. Locals are a little hurt by the reputation Bougainville has because, in all honesty, it is not a fair reflection of the people. The crime here is a result of the conflict, unemployed, unskilled, drunk youth who need help. They definitely do not represent the majority.
There is so much more to be said, but I will leave it at that. The rest of the story will be spread out over subsequent posts.