The colonial project in its design, and the mine in its implementation, assaulted freedom on Bougainville in the deepest sense of the word.
Freedom as the ability of human beings to realise their individual capabilities through participation in activities that have meaning to them, through access to culture, science, politics, work, art, sport, spirituality, and indeed the ecosystems humans are a product of, and wedded to.
When culture was disrupted, ecosystems decimated, sacred places vandalised, custom eroded, people’s ability to be free on Bougainville was seriously curtailed.
From 1972 until 1988 a sprawling industrial apparatus operated in central Bougainville. Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste was generated each day, as Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) extracted ore for export.
Through sale on the international markets, the company realised profit, its creditors interest, and the government taxation.
The colonial power, Australia, had left behind in Papua New Guinea an expansive system of Westminster government that needed a considerable volume of taxation receipts to function.
Once devolved to local management following independence, a new regime of state managers emerged. While made up of people from all parts of Papua New Guinea, they were bonded to the course set for them by the Australian regime.
As this ‘new’ nation matured, a wealthy national elite emerged, and began to engorge its own returns by preying on taxation receipts through all manner of corruption.
The mine, therefore, was no less a key strategic part of Papua New Guinea post-independence than it had been before.
For those impacted on Bougainville, it was not a matter of observing disruption and damage, for which money and business activity could compensate.
It was a violent process of dislocation from all the assets essential to a good and dignified life, that has meaning people value. It was the denial of freedom.
This created the epic stakes for which some were prepared to risk their life.
The Destruction - Further Context
Production at the Panguna mine began in April 1972. As many local communities predicted in the 1960s, its environmental, socio-cultural and psychological impacts were seismic. For apologists, the mine’s deleterious effects have been portrayed as the ‘environmental’ toll which communities had to pay in order to accrue benefits from a new way of life embedded fundamentally in the relationships of capitalism, with its associated dynamics of industrialisation, urbanisation and consumerism. To remedy particular impacts on customary landholdings, Rio Tinto’s subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited paid compensation levels above the mandatory minimum set out in legislation, and delivered other benefits designed to uplift the population, so the argument goes.
This series examines, from the perspective of impacted communities, the injustice of this forced ‘transaction’, where heritage and culture had to be sacrificed for a set of objectives originally authored by the colonial powers. The loss of land and the destruction of environment, could never find commensurate expression in money or in-kind benefits, landowners argue. Accordingly, as mine impacted communities faced a growing social dystopia, this series outlines how its members suffered feelings of disorientation, alienation and trauma. People also began to express social outrage at local figures who had been coopted into this destructive process through the lures of money, business and white-collar employment.
Even at a base statistical level, the mine’s physical impact was enormous. The ore body was extracted by conventional open cut methods, employing electric shovels and 100-150 tonne trucks. Approximately 100,000 tonnes of waste rock was extracted per day. It was transported to dumps in the headwaters of the Kawerong Valley. Another 100,000 tonnes of ore rock was extracted daily and sent to the concentrator. Five per cent of this rock was turned into a concentrate slurry which was pumped to the east coast of Bougainville for export overseas, while the remaining 95 per cent formed a waste known as tailings, which was pumped into the Jaba river. By 1988, 300 000 tonnes of ore and waste rock were being removed from the mine on a daily basis, resulting in even greater volumes of waste. The Kawerong valley became a wasteland, and the Jaba river became twenty times wider.
Yet the mine’s impact cut deeper than this. The mine represented in a particularly visceral and dystopian form nature’s subordination to the objective of profit (capital accumulation), articulating a wider western attitude of mankind’s right to master nature and exploit its riches to the point of exhaustion, for transient forms of wealth (see series two). This was experienced locally as a particularly gross and irresponsible approach to the management of the relation between human communities and the natural world; contrasting notably with civilisations indigenous to Bougainville, which have emphasized balance with nature, and the custodianship of resources, as both a deeply personal ethic, and a responsibility to future generations. Within matrilineal tenure systems that dominated the mine area, women were the most visible agents of this philosophical stance.
However, it would be simplistic to juxtapose a homogenous Western creed which railed against unified local resistance. The abuse of nature for wealth in its ephemeral monetary form, has been resisted globally, through diverse social and revolutionary movements. Equally, the imposition of destructive extractive enterprises on the Global South has found local adherents prepared to act as champions for nascent capitalist systems, convincing their compatriots of its merits and necessary nature.
These complex fault-lines were evident in Bougainville, as ‘independent’ national and provincial governments in 1975 assumed ownership of a colonial project introduced by the Australian administration. Bougainville’s North Solomons Provincial Government proved an efficient and adept vehicle for stimulating attitudes, skills, capacities, economic practices, and political currents, that could see communities immerse themselves in a new way of life compatible with a global capitalist economy. This would need to be a gentle and gradual process if resistance was to be diffused.
However, such a luxury was impossible in the mine impacted areas, where the transition was turbulent and rapid, thus creating for the North Solomons Provincial Government, and their national government colleagues, an acute challenge.
They had allies in the mine impacted communities – principally, a small but influential group of men, who had accumulated wealth through businesses, white-collar employment and other benefits linked to the mine.
On the other hand, there was a sizable body of people who experienced their dual existence as proud custodians of a land and culture on the one hand, and on the other an employee or beneficiary of the mine associated economy, as a deeply felt crisis of conscience. Some sensed they needed to atone for their role through joining a growing body of resistance against the mine, which was steadily growing in size, a dynamic further explored in series four.
Slowly the seeds germinated in the 1960s were taking root, and preparing the ground for a more violent process of confrontation.
Paramount Chief Michael Totobu
- Toberaki area
Chief Michael Totobu begins.
‘Much of my land today is under the lake which BCL created’.
‘Where is my future generation going to go?’
Chief Totobu points to the destruction.
‘The [destroyed] area you are looking at is where I [would] do my hunting ... I hunt wild animals such as wild pigs, birds, possums’.
‘There are big fish here but they are polluted ... All our greens in the bush, the vegetation, they are also polluted’.
‘The smell of the forest before BCL operations used to make me very happy’.
‘I used to walk around, see birds, pigeons, and all these things that used to make me happy’.
‘That was my real life. Where I had this freedom and peace’.
‘For me they [BCL] gave me 4,000 Kina per year as compensation ... but when the land is destroyed money can never match the destruction that we live with’.
‘I had no knowledge about money. I only had knowledge about how to live in my place. To till the land and to live’.
‘So when BCL came, and they gave me this rubbish money, I gave it back to BCL, in the [company] supermarket!’
“Today my freedom, it's gone. It's gone. BCL removed this life from me … I used to be happy, a free man on my own land. There was freedom, harmony in my place. But today there is nothing. I'm not free. I'm living like a slave on my own land”.
‘So BCL didn't just cause the destruction of the environment, but our lives as. We, as human beings’.
‘In the name of development BCL destroyed my home’.
‘And its not just me, not only my clan, there are so many clans and they are still crying for their land’.
‘For the young upcoming and future generations, they need to learn, they must see, they have to strand strong in education and protect our people, protect our environment ... Standing strong on our culture and tradition’.
- Makosi Village
‘Where we were before is no more ... This not the Ouna [village] nor the Makosi [village] of the past .... Our land here, the real landmass is deep inside, right inside many meters deep. We are living on the rock waste from BCL operations’.
Teresa was very young when the mine was constructed. She recalls the speed with which land was destroyed.
‘All this was done quickly because people were definitely blinded. Had it been done slower, people might have realised its impact and they might stop it’.
‘The white people were working in haste with the bulldozer digging, assisted by the water pump to do this thing all at once'.
Living downstream from the project, Teresa’s village could not predict how the operation would affect them.
The mine, once operating, overwhelmed them, as waste rock and pollution was pumped downstream.
“This mine pit up there is like the intestines of a pig and its excreta comes out, washing down our area”.
‘...White people treated us and our place as dumping areas’.
‘Now there is nothing. They have destroyed everything and fish started dying and stinking everywhere’.
Teresa remembers village elders collecting and eating a mass of dead prawns found in the polluted waterway. They were unaware of the dangers.
‘Taking them back they wondered: “Maybe there is some form of miracle happening”. Because they were collecting dead prawns, one on top of the other. They grabbed many of them. And all these prawns were then cooked in coconut cream in the village'
‘They drank their soup and imagine, there were chemicals already. But they never knew’.
This destruction would not have occurred Teresa contends if the women’s permission had been sort, as custodians of the land.
The colonial administration and company circumvented customary law.
‘From what I know Dapera, Moroni, Guava, even us in Onove, coming down to Enamira, no woman signed for the opening of the mine’.
‘You BCL, you just destroyed women's power in the village’.
The men who signed agreements with the company, Teresa claimed were corrupted and irresponsible.
The same is true today, she maintains.
‘I see very clearly that it is the lazy blokes that are after the reopening [of Panguna mine] because they cannot sweat their own asses to produce food. That’s why they are running after money’.
“Our leaders are lazy ... These men here they wear shoes and socks, pretending to be big people, with big bellies, filled with cash as they hog imported stuff like tin food and they fill themselves with chicken wings or sausages. They no longer think of us who are suffering”.
‘We do everything to protect the land, and these ones come and destroy it with the flawed knowledge they have’.
Where Will We Go?
- Site Village
The Paruparu community performs under a moonlit sky.
History is not always a progressive movement. Sometimes it’s a movement towards darkness.
‘Our salivation for money led us not to think clearly, the song begins.
Standing alongside the vast territorial wounds inflicted by a global industrial economy primed by the limitless bounds of profit, the singers continue.
‘Where will we go after our bushes, our mountains, our rivers and our sea are destroyed’.
‘Where will we go?’