PNG Post Courier

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 14) – Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea is struggling to emerge from the shadow of the civil war and its repercussions. Autonomy has been granted to the region and the new government of Joseph Kabui is trying to come to grips with the reality of reviving a large island with many lingering problems.

The issue of opening the province up to mining development has never been far from the minds of leaders of Bougainville. Now Mining Minister Sam Akoitai has flown into London to hold talks with officials from Rio Tinto, the mining giant that owns the Panguna mine site. It was Panguna and the control of the mine’s money flow to landowners that were blamed for the decade-long civil war that swept life in Bougainville back into history.

Arguments over distribution of the benefits pitted family against family and the end result was the devastation of the economy and human life. Tens of thousands died, in battle and from the effects of war, such as malaria, death in childbirth and so on. What was the beaming light of development, the Panguna mine, the satellite townships of Arawa, Loloho, Kieta and Toniva, all were swept aside. A lifestyle that looked permanent for thousands of people and their families, Papua New Guineans and foreigners, was dashed overnight.

[PIR editor’s note: According to PIR news files, Papua New Guinea rebel leader Francis Ona and his followers launched hostilities on the island in 1989 fuelled by landowner anger over benefits from the mine and the environmental damage it was causing. The conflict dragged for ten years and claimed more than 10,000 lives (read the story).]

Now there is talk of dumping the moratorium on mining exploration in the region of Bougainville.

It is coming from the Minister, who is also the Member for Central Bougainville – the electorate that covers Panguna and the old townships. He was an active leader of the Resistance fighters, one of the factions in the fighting.

The Autonomous Bougainville Government has previously spoken in favor of allowing exploration to resume. There will be a need to look anew at the old Bougainville Copper agreement if there is to be any consideration of the old Panguna lease.

We suspect exploration will be a difficult item for many Bougainvilleans to digest after the travails they have been through. It goes almost without having to say it that it is a decision that primarily must rest with the people and the leaders of Bougainville.

It is common knowledge that precious metals abound in the mountains of Bougainville, not just in the peak called Panguna. But there will have to be a well thought out approach to the issue and due attention to that topical word, transparency.

Bougainville cannot afford to go through another crisis. We eagerly await Mr. Akoitai’s report on the talks in London.

March 15, 2006

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