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War in the Pacific: legacy of a copper mine

Bougainvilleans have fought six years to save their land and environment and seek independence from Papua New Guinea

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 20, 1994


A WAR festers in the southern Pacific. It is the first in this ocean basin since World War II, and, at six years, has lasted longer.

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The conflict on the small island of Bougainville involves traditional landowners, rebellious islanders, the remote governing authority of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Australia, a former colonial power. At the center lies a theme echoed in many parts of the world: an indigenous people's struggle against economic exploitation by global industrial interests.

It is also about independence. The Bougainvilleans want to be united again with the Solomon Islands, with which they are culturally and racially allied. Ripples of this desire for independence are spreading. Other small islands around PNG, and one section of the PNG mainland, are talking about uniting to form an independent federation of Melanesian states.

The war began six years ago when the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) - made up of various island landowners and their supporters - succeeded in forcing the shutdown of a tremendously profitable copper mine owned by an Australian mining interest. In retaliation, the PNG Defense Forces (PNGDF) threw a blockade around the island. But this has not prevented a handful of BRA boat captains from running the blockade to bring in supplies from the Solomon Islands. (In the rebel stronghold, right.)

The conflict raises difficult questions for Australia, which from 1919 until 1975 had control over PNG. Now its largest aid donor, Australia, is inadvertently funding this war at a time when it is trying to integrate itself into the economically vibrant Asia-Pacific region. Peace talks have begun, but have shown little sign of success.

Wars over the Solomon Islands tend to be dramatic. Fifty years ago, in the climax of a bitter campaign over the Solomons, Allied forces shot down the plane carrying Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, over Bougainville. His body was recovered sitting upright against a tree, his left hand still clutching his Samurai sword, according to Japanese accounts.

The remnants of that war have found a new use: The BRA, armed at first with crossbows and axes, has fashioned homemade guns using ammunition salvaged from World War II wrecks.

When the Panguna mine was first proposed in the 1960s, many Bougainvilleans were distrustful of it. The mine was operated by Bougainville Copper Ltd., a subsidiary of Conzinc Riotinto Australia, whose largest shareholder is the enormous London-based RTZ Corp. Roads, port facilities, power generators, the town of Arawa, and workers' housing were built, along with health, educational, and sporting facilities.

Many traditional landowners, however, felt they were being insufficiently compensated by the mining company. They also had grave concerns over increasing environmental damage. Francis Ona, now the leader of the BRA, walked out of a meeting in 1988 at which an environmental impact report, commissioned by the PNG government, was released. He called the report a whitewash.