To re-open the notorious Panguna mine or not. This is the question for the people of Bougainville. Are the prospective financial benefits of the mine enough for the people to want it opened? Will the islanders be able to keep control of the mine or will it open the doors for the mining companies to dominate and operate unaccountably as they have done in the past?
In the late 1980’s and 1990’s what was described as the first eco- revolution took place on the Pacific Island of Bougainville. The story was similar to so many places on earth, exploitative multinational company takes the resources of a land without any regard for the local inhabitants or their environment.
In Bougainville’s case it was copper and in their case they decided they had had enough of the mine and starting with homemade weapons they forcibly closed the mine and defeated first the Papua New Guinean army then the Australian army brought in to take the mine back for BCL a subsidiary of the British company Rio Tinto.
After the Bouganvillians had taken control of their island Papua New Guinea imposed a naval blockade on the island to make the people there suffer with hope that they would turn against the revolutionaries. It had the opposite effect, reinforcing the peoples will, and creating fertile ground for human ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness. Forcing the population to live at one with their land, making use only of what they had with no imported goods.
Remarkably they managed to create their own electricity and found a way to drive cars with coconut oil. The result was a small example of people effectively being forced to live in a sustainable way. Unable to aqquire imported goods they resorted to their imagination, creativity and hard work to rebuild their society in harmony with their environment. They proved that a society with creativity can make plenty of electricty with water and can fuel essential vehicles with renewable oil.
The mine was closed in 1989. On several occasions the re-opening of the mine has been raised. Recently an article appeared on the Australian network, ABC, suggesting that the mine might be re-opened. The islanders belived that the income would help finance their moves for full political independance. The former president of Bouganville, Joseph Kabui, stated back in 2005 that if they re-opened the mine Bouganville could become the ‘Kuwait of the Pacific.’ Whether the mine is reopened or not, it will rightfully be the desicion of the islanders and not the trans-national companies.
All over the world from Chile to Africa to Papua, indigenous people, the ones who know how to manage their land wisely, are shamefully brushed aside and treated as an obstacle for development (a common pseudonym for natural resource theft). That the people of Bouganville are considering re opening the Panguna mine shows that people are not per se against the use of their environment for their benefit. It’s a matter of the overall control of the resource and fair distribution of the benefits that is at the root of natural resource conflicts such as that which ignited the revolution in Bouganville. Precisely two points which are in direct conflict with the accepted norms of the shareholder demands that drive international business.
If those in power in transnational business do not change the way they operate then people all over the world are entitled to follow in the footsteps of the people of Bouganville and take their land back.