"...to Bougainvilleans, the land is like the skin on the back
of your hand. You inherit it and it is your duty to pass it on to your
children in as good a condition, or better, than that in which you
received it. You would not expect us to sell our skin, would
The people of Bougainville are known throughout the world as one of
the few groups of indigenous people to have shut down a mine owned by
one of the mining giants of the world.
Throughout the South Pacific, and indeed the world, this mineral-rich
island with a population of only 160,000 has inspired those struggling
for freedom and self-determination. Refusing to be bought off with
paltry compensation offers, over the past 15 years Bougainvilleans have
risked, and often paid with, their lives - to defend their land, their
culture, their environment and the right to be free.
Bougainville has survived the onslaughts of the Australian-backed Papua
New Guinean army and the interests of a massive multi-national. They
survived an eight year blockade, preventing food, medical supplies and
reporters from entering the island. They started off combating modern
warfare equipment with homemade and antique guns - and they won!
For hundreds of years, foreign colonialists have been interfering
with the lives of the islanders, including the Netherlands, Germany,
Britain, Australia, Japan and the USA. The island was
'discovered' in 1768 by the French sailor Louis de Bougainville.
Culturally and historically it is part of the Soloman Islands and is
only 4-5km from the nearest island in that archipelago, but in 1899 it
was divided from the rest of the Solomon Islands and attached to the New
Guinea territories for administrative convenience. After Germany was
defeated in the First World War, Bougainville, along with New Guinea,
was placed under Australian administration. During the Second World War,
Bougainville again was the victim of clashing imperial powers as it was
the site of fierce fighting between the Japanese and the Americans.
Occupied by Japan and then America, it was finally put back under
Australian administration as a United Nations Protectorate, but not
before many Bougainvilleans had been killed in the fighting.
Even before mining interests were established on the island, the
Bougainvilleans and their environment were under attack from commercial
interests in the form of cash crop plantations following World War II.
These assaults on tribal subsistence living have consistently been met with
resistance. On 16 September 1975, Papua New Guinea gained independence from
Australia, but Bougainvillean demands to determine their own political
future were ignored. It is unsurprising that PNG was reluctant to allow the island
independence, given that the Bougainvilleans were sitting on, not just a
gold mine, but the greatest source of PNG's income: a copper mine.
The Panguna Mine
'Land is our life, land is our physical life - food and sustenance.
Land is our social life, it is marriage; it is status; it is security; it
is politics; in fact, it is our only world. When you take our land, you
cut out the very heart of our existence.' - Bougainvillean students,
'Mining, by its very nature, constitutes an assault on the
physical, social and cultural environment. When this assault is organised
by one of the most powerful, arrogant and racist organisations in the
international mining industry, the results can be devastating.' - Al
Gedicks, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, 1991
These statements indicate a profound difference between the values of
Melanesian peoples and those of Western multi-national corporations such
as mining giant Rio-Tinto Zinc. As many of us in the West, and those in
global South who are experiencing the plunder first hand, are realising,
corporations are not renowned for their respect for the earth.
Mekamui is the Bougainvilleans' name for Bougainville, meaning
earth. It is home to their ancestors, to their sacred sites and it is
their means for living. All RTZ saw was the copper beneath the
In 1960, while Bougainville was still under Australian rule, copper,
gold and silver deposits were discovered on the island. Plans for a mine
were strongly objected by Bougainvilleans, but, yet again, they were
ignored. Right from the start, the islanders took direct action against the
prospective mine, including pulling up survey pegs and occasionally
assaulting workers. Women, being the traditional land-owners, as
Bougainville is a matrilineal culture, played the biggest role in defending
the land at this point. Riot police were brought in to stop the women from
disrupting the mine employees, using tear gas and baton charges on
villagers standing in front of bulldozers.
Sadly, despite their best efforts, the Panguna Mine was opened in
1966, situated at the centre of the island in a mountainous region.
Bougainville Copper Ltd. (BCL), the company which owns the
mine, is a subsidiary of Conzinc Rio-Tinto of Australia (CRA), which in
turn is a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ). RTZ, a British-based mining company, is
notorious throughout the world for environmental plunder and human
Unsurprisingly, the Bougainvilleans suffered just as much as
RTZ's victims all over the
world. In the initial building of the mine, 220 hectares of rainforest were
poisoned, felled, burned and bulldozed and people were displaced from their
land, regardless of their protests. To build the mine, BCL brought in hundreds of foreign
workers, with differential pay on grounds of race and 'apartheid-like
conditions', according to an Australian engineer who worked on the
project. Contrary to BCL's claims that it would
provide an employment boost to the island, local workers were payed what
were described as 'slave wages' by an Australian Labor Party
minister who visited the island.
However, the destruction was even worse once the mine started
processing the copper. Over the 22 years it was in operation it grew to
a depth of half a kilometre and a circumference of seven kilometres -
one of the largest open-cast mines in the world. Unwanted material from
the mine was simply dumped nearby to form a 100 metre high wall of
waste. The tailings from the mine - waste products and chemicals which
are washed away - caused yet more devastation. Due to pollution from the
tailings, eight hundred people lost their land, and 1,400 had their
fishing rights jeopardised. The dangerous chemicals coming from the mine
included sulphur, arsenic, copper, zinc, cadmium and mercury and the
tailings turned a whole river system bright blue and rendered it
biologically dead. Fish in the rivers and sea were found floating in the
water, dead. 'All aquatic life in the Jaba Valley has been
killed,' concluded scientist M.R. Chambers in 1986. The food chain
was poisoned, causing long-term health problems and even death for those
trying to subsist on the land. The loss of land and pollution from the
mine destroyed the traditional subsistence lifestyle in many areas of
'We don't grow healthy crops any more, our traditional customs
and values have been disrupted and we have become mere spectators as our
earth is being dug-up, taken away and sold for millions.' - Perpetua
Serero, leader of Bougainville's matrilineal landowners.
It is in this context - people displaced, traditional ways of life under
attack and the island that supports them being killed by a foreign
multi-national - that the Bougainvilleans took action to defend themselves
and the earth.
Resistance to the Mine
In November 1988, a group of Bougainvilleans stole explosives from
the mine and blew up the electrical supply lines. They also burned other
equipment, including a helicopter, and the total damage amounted to
US$850,000. Earlier that month, BCL had laughed at their demands
for compensation, and Bougainvilleans had blockaded roads leading to the
mine using heavy machinery. The islanders had had enough. In December
that year, the transmission lines were bombed and production at the mine
This was the culmination of repeated efforts for justice, including a
strike in 1975 in which infrastructure at the mine was damaged, sit-down
protests and ongoing claims for compensation. Bougainvilleans demanded that
the mine be closed to protect their land and, when ignored, took the matter
into their own hands.
Of course, Papua New Guinea did not take kindly to having such a
valuable industry put out of action. The Panguna Mine accounted for 45% of
PNG's export earnings and
the newly independent state relied upon that income. The mine was reopened
and a curfew imposed on the population, but, due to rebel activities,
production had ground to a standstill by May 1989. In retaliation,
PNG sent in 1000 troops with
orders to 'shoot to kill'.
By this time, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) had been formed to
defend the people against all foreign exploiters. Francis Ona, leader of
the BRA, has
been a key figure in the struggle: after being involved in the
compensation negotiations, he was one of the people who conducted the
first bombing of the mine. After the mine was closed, the Bougainville
rebels declared their island to be independent and established the
Bougainville Interim Government. Ona became its first leader.
The cost of such rebellion is high. Over nearly ten years of
fighting, including eight years of blockade, over 10,000 Bougainvilleans
have died, most of them from lack of basic medical care caused by the
blockade. 7% of the population has died from the war. Throughout the
war, human rights abuses have been committed against the Bougainvilleans
by the Papua New Guinean Defence Force (PNGDF). Australian donated
Iroquois helicopters have shot civilians. There have been extra-judicial
killings, abductions, destruction of villages and crops. Thousands of
villagers were forced from their homes and into 'care centres'
(a Vietnam euphemism for concentration camps). From inside these centres
came reports of murder, beatings and rape. In 1989/90 in Central
Bougainville 6,000 homes were destroyed and 24,000 people herded into
But the BRA
did not take these atrocities lying down. All over the world, indigenous
peoples are subjected to violence by powerful states in order to steal
their land, but it is rare for them to defend themselves so successfully.
At first they fought with antique guns, then made their own from materials
left at the mine. As they conducted more and more successful operations
against the occupying force, they gained more and more weapons, stolen from
the PNGDF. The
widespread support across Bougainville.
In April 1990, nearly a year after the mine had closed, the
PNGDF were forced
to withdraw from the island. The PNGDF always relied on the
financial and military support of big brother Australia. Aside from the
Iroquois helicopters, Australia donated A$32million in military aid, as
well as arms and ammunitions. Not only that, but Australian military
officials were stationed on the island as advisors and it was on the advice
of Australia that a siege was imposed on Bougainville following the
No goods or people were to be allowed on or off the island. This included
food and medical supplies; it was also an information blockade, to prevent
journalists from reporting on the situation. The military were expecting
the Bougainvilleans to crack under the pressure within 3 to 4 weeks. In
fact, the siege lasted eight years, until international peace negotiations
forced PNG to back down.
What makes this an ecological revolution?
'The relationship between people and land is perhaps the key
relationship in Melanesian society.' - Martin Miriori, Bougainville
Interim Peace Officer
'Bougainvilleans agree that environmental concerns cannot be
disasssociated from human concerns. "Environment" encompasses
both ecological and cultural rights; the two are too often sacrificed side
by side. Government tactics such as forced evictions and population
transfers are part and parcel of development that, in the name of economic
growth, justify ecological destruction and the dispossession of
peoples.' - Bougainville Interim Government
Breaking up the coconut
It is the importance placed on this relationship by those engaging in
struggle that makes this an ecological revolution. Rather than fighting
just for themselves, or just for the environment, the Bougainvillean
revolutionaries recognise that this is a false divide. Without the land,
the people won't survive. Ecological destruction and displacement of
peoples often go hand in hand.
These people know this through their own experience. Rather than
environmentalism being seen as a luxury for the middle classes, who
don't have more pressing concerns to worry about (as it is by many
in the west), those who are intimately connected with the land know that
when the earth is attacked, stolen and polluted, it is the poorest and
most marginalised people who suffer the most.
This urgent need to protect the land is central to the way in which
the Bougainvilleans have fought their war of independence. Rather than
counting biodiversity as collateral damage, sacrificed to their freedom,
they have fought to protect and preserve it. For example, all their
electricity comes from renewable resources such as hydro-electric
turbines, built with materials abandoned at the mine. Their generators
and trucks are powered by coconut oil - available in limitless
quantities on the island and emitting a fraction of the waste products
of normal fuel.
Extracting the oil
Another factor in making this revolution ecological was the blockade
enforced by PNG. For eight
years nothing was allowed on or off the island, except what the
Bougainvilleans could smuggle through by running the gauntlet of armed
enemy patrol boats. In the face of such hardship, the islanders had no
choice but to stick firmly to the 3 "R"s of recycling: reduce,
reuse and recycle. Virtually all their equipment was made from pipes,
pieces of metal and other debris left behind by the mine. The people
also returned to subsistence agriculture, learning again how to provide
for themselves in terms of food and healthcare.
Ona has publicly thanked PNG for the blockade, saying it has
'made Bougainville a university for all of us.' Ona is one of
those on the island who has helped to resurrect traditional herbal
medicine of which he makes great claims, including having a safe and
It should also be born in mind that Bougainville is not a primitive
culture at war with the Twentieth Century, but one that has tasted
industrialism and rejected it for ethical and ecological reasons. Having
been subjected to colonial rule for centuries and the destruction of their
land through mining and plantations for decades, these are not uncivilised
'savages' striking blindly at a force they do not understand, but
people who have survived the onslaughts of capitalism, recognised it as
something undesirable and fought back successfully.
Many Bougainvilleans have a sharp analysis of western civilisation, such
as John Momis:
'Companies have no interest whatsoever in the interests of the
people. They tell lies to the people repeatedly, saying they are concerned
about their welfare. Companies have one motive only and that it to make
profit. Many of the so-called professional people do not act in such a
manner as to cause physical violence but they poison the minds of the
people. They are against us, ruining us, colonising our minds, so that our
people have no self-respect today. They have become tools: some of them
are being trained to become very effective tools of the colonial
Perhaps it is this knowledge of its enemy that has allowed the
Bougainvilleans to have succeeded where so many have failed. Many
Bougainvilleans themselves would rather attribute this success to Jesus, as
the missionaries did a thorough job on the island and Christianity is
overwhelmingly popular. Or maybe these revolutionaries have got this far
simply on their own determination, on their need to survive.
The Current Situation
In 1998 a permanent ceasefire was declared on the island, following
talks in New Zealand between prominent members of the BRA and the PNG government. Ona himself refused to attend
talks - he claims Bougainville has shown its independence through years of
self-sufficiency and should simply be recognised as independent. He also
distrusts those politicians who have been attempting genocide on the
Bougainvilleans for the past decade. He has talked about his fears of
'winning the war but losing the peace'. Whether or not this is
happening currently is difficult to establish, due to a lack of
communication between the islanders and the West.
Following the ceasefire, when many BRA members turned in their
weapons, rebel factions stole the surrendered guns and vowed to carry on
protecting their land. As it stands, the BRA technically controls
most of the island, but is cooperating to some extent with
PNG and other foreign
forces. Ona and those who live near to the site of the Panguna mine have
formed themselves into the Mekamui Defence Force (MDF) and have set up a
'No-Go Zone' in the centre of the island, where no
non-Bougainvilleans are allowed.
Papua New Guinea has still not allowed the people of Bougainville a
referendum on whether they wish to be independent or not and there are
reports of cash crop plantations on coastal areas of the island. Ona and
central Bougainvilleans continue their no-compromise struggle to protect
themselves and their island, and still suffer from a lack of equipment
and medical supplies, as they did during the blockade.
Many thanks to Alex Smailes for the beautiful photographs.
Bibliography(Not yet complete)
This article is based on outrageous plagiarism of the following
Please also see some of the booklets in the Resource section.