Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG), is located nearly 600 miles from the PNG mainland. It has been inhabited by humans for at least 29,000 years.
The people of Bougainville, although ethnically Melanesian like mainland New Guineans, are culturally distinct and known for their ebony skin.
Starting in around 1870, Europeans began using Bougainville residents as a source of labor for plantations they owned in other parts of the South Pacific. The indigenous people were kidnapped by colonizers and placed on boats; they were then sent to work on cotton and sugar plantations in Fiji, Samoa, and Australia.
This phenomenon was known as blackbirding, and it was incredibly cruel.
According to one account, “Untold savagery of the kind meted out by notorious kidnappers such as Dr James Murray…were quite common. In one incident, when some of the kidnapped 85 Bukas [people of Bougainville] were trying to force themselves free from the hatches of the boat, Dr Murray’s second mate burst in boasting of killing twelve niggers before breakfast. Dr Murray’s reply was, ‘My word, that’s the proper way to pop them off.’”
European Colonization in Bougainville
In 1886, Bougainville came under German rule along with the northeastern portion of mainland New Guinea. The Germans established coconut plantations on the island, and used indentured Bougainvilleans as a workforce.
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Australia obtained possession of Bougainville.
Unfortunately, the exploitation of Bougainville was only beginning.
In 1969, huge copper ore deposits were discovered in the region. This led to the creation of Bougainville Copper Ltd, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto is an Australian corporation and the world’s second-largest metals and mining company; it has been repeatedly accused of corruption and environmental damage.
Bougainville Copper began preparing to establish the Panguna copper mine by leasing land from the Territory of Papua and New Guinea’s government.
However, the land that it was leasing belonged to local Bougainville residents; they had no say in the matter and did not receive compensation for the use of their land. This was due to an Australian mining law, which vested all subsurface mineral rights in the colonial government.
In 1971, Martin Benggong, a Bougainvillean landowner and cocoa plantation owner, successfully sued Bougainville Copper for compensation in the High Court of Australia. The company was leasing some of his land from the colonial government without his permission and had destroyed cocoa trees to make way for an access road.
Despite this individual win, the people of Bougainville would continue to be disadvantaged by the mine.
The Exploitation of Bougainville Copper
When the Panguna mine began production in 1972, Bougainville Copper paid local mine workers lower wages than white expatriates and workers from the mainland. The mine operator also began dumping millions of tons of mining waste in the island’s Jaba River; this led to the destruction of forests, soil, fish, and animals as well as birth defects and diseases in the indigenous population.
In addition to all this damage, the Bougainvilleans were receiving less than 2% of the mine’s immense profits. Papua New Guinea’s colonial government owned 20% of Bougainville Copper’s shares and Rio Tinto owned more than 50%. Outsiders were reaping all the benefits of the region’s natural resources.
The Bougainvilleans began to protest against the Australian colonial government over the harms of the Panguna mine. They demanded better working conditions, environmental protections, and revenue sharing.
However, Australian External Territories Minister Charles Barnes told the Bougainvillean people they would “get nothing” from the mine and sent in riot squads to attack the protestors.
In 1975, the mainland Territory of Papua and New Guinea worked to gain independence from Australia. Meanwhile, the people of Bougainville tried to obtain greater autonomy for themselves. However, negotiations deteriorated and Bougainville failed to secede from the newly formed country of Papua New Guinea.
Tension in Papua New Guinea
After independence, clashes regarding the Panguna mine continued. The government of Papua New Guinea was disproportionately profiting from the mine, which comprised a large portion of the nation’s GDP. However, the Bougainvilleans lived hundreds of miles away from the Papuan government and were not reaping the benefits of the operations taking place on their island.
There were also long brewing ethnic tensions between the brown skinned mainland Papuan mine workers and their darker Bougainvillean counterparts; the Bougainvilleans referred to Papuans as “redskins” and the Papuans called Bougainvilleans “as bilong praipain”, or “the ass of the frying pan.” The Bougainvilleans resented the fact that so many Papuans were migrating to their island, taking jobs at the mine, and often promoted into higher positions within Bougainville Copper.
All of this conflict erupted in late 1988. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army, led by former Panguna mine worker Francis Ona and his cousin Perpetua Serero, attacked the mine. Ultimately, the mine was permanently closed and Papua New Guinea descended into full blown civil war: the mainland Papua New Guinean government forces versus the separatists of Bougainville.
Civil War in Bougainville
After a year of fighting, Papua New Guinea withdrew and left the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in control of Bougainville. Francis Ona declared Bougainville’s independence in May 1990.
This led Papua New Guinea to impose a military blockade on Bougainville that was partly funded by Australia and Rio Tinto. It prevented food, medical supplies, and fuel from reaching the island. Curable diseases such as malaria, as well as the violence, would ultimately lead to the death of about 20,000 Bougainvilleans–a tenth of the population.
In 1993, the Papua New Guinea military captured Bougainville’s capital. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister, Sir Julius Chan, led peace negotiations with the Bougainville resistance, but little progress was made. Chan lifted the ceasefire in 1996, and the fighting resumed.
Australia declined to provide more military support, largely due to allegations of human rights abuses from the PNG army, including the rape of local women. Prime Minister Chan decided to hire mercenaries from a British military company known as Sandline International, which had been involved in civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. This was an incredibly controversial move, and ultimately led to Chan’s resignation.
The new Prime Minister, Bill Skate, successfully engaged in peace talks with the Bougainville resistance. They culminated in a 2001 peace agreement, which marked the end of the conflict.
An Opportunity for Independence
An autonomous Bougainville government was formed and a non-binding independence referendum was scheduled to take place within twenty years.
In 2019, the referendum was held. The United States helped fund the referendum, hoping that this would pave the way for its influence on what could be the world’s newest country.
Nearly all voters chose independence and Bougainville is working toward becoming an independent country by 2027. However, it is not clear that this will come to pass seamlessly.
According to NPR, “Even though Papua New Guinea’s government supported holding the referendum — it was legally bound to do so by the peace deal — its leaders are already signaling they would prefer Bougainville not gain full independence.”
Only time will tell, but hopefully history does not repeat itself. Bougainvilleans have already lost so much in their quest for independence.