Logo: Solidarity South Pacific

Ecological Revolution on Bougainville

"...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 you?"

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.

Photo: Indiginous warrior standing against a cobalt-blue waterfall

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!

Colonial History

Map of Bougainville

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, 1974

'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 ground.

Photo: Panguna mine.

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.

Photo: Panguna Mine from Car

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 rights abuses.

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 the island.

Photo: Stream turned blue by copper deposits

'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

Photo: Silhoettes of Bougainville warriors on top of a bulldozer

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 halted.

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 these camps.

Photo: Man and his boy with a gun.

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 BRA gained 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 PNGDF withdrawal. 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

Photo: Woman breaking up cocounts
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.

Photo: Stamping on coconut
Compacting coconut
Photo: Processing coconut for its oil
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 harmless contraceptive.

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 system.'

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.

Photo: Man with a gun

Many thanks to Alex Smailes for the beautiful photographs.


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This article is based on outrageous plagiarism of the following sources:

Please also see some of the booklets in the Resource section.