” The push to reopen a controversial copper mine on the island of Bougainville has suffered a setback, with opposition groups stopping the region’s government from going to the mine site and signing a new agreement with landowners.”
The Panguna mine was abandoned by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) in 1989 after disaffection from landowners grew into an armed uprising and a push for independence from Papua New Guinea.
The President and Cabinet of the Autonomous Bougainville Government had planned to go to the Panguna mine site to sign an agreement that would allow BCL to work towards reopening the mine.
But so-called “hardline” groups and other opponents, led by angry women, blocked the road and demanded the Government and the company abandon their plans.
BCL blamed for crisis and ‘destruction’
Many of the women were not from the specific mine area but say they were affected by the horror of the Bougainville Crisis — the armed uprising in which 20,000 people died.
“I don’t want mining to be opened, no BCL, no mining. Because land is owned by the women, not the men,” said Regina Erengmari, one of the women in the blockade.
Many of the protesters are specifically opposed to BCL returning, because they blame it for the crisis.
But others, like Bernardine Kama, are opposed to any company reopening the mine.
“I grew up within the damages and the destructions of the mine and I know much destruction has been done,” she said.
But there are many people from the area who want negotiations about reopening the mine to begin.
Panguna’s nine landowner associations were expecting to sign a memorandum of agreement with the Autonomous Bougainville Government to say the mine would reopen and that BCL would operate it.
Theresa Jaintong, who chairs one of the landowner associations, said signing the agreement is important.
“It’s important to me because I have issues to address with BCL and also the government, all other landowners and also representing my own people, and we were looking forward to sign and then open the door to other outstanding issues,” she said.
Government needs mine’s revenue for independence
Bougainville’s government is in a hurry to reopen the mine, because it needs the revenue if it wants to be viable as an independent country from Papua New Guinea.
President John Momis said the mine is critical to any proposal for independence.
“Will independence be possible without Panguna mine? I don’t think it is possible,” he said.
The Government is now waiting two weeks while the groups negotiate and is planning a public information campaign.
In two years’ time, there will be a referendum on Bougainville to determine if the region should secede from Papua New Guinea.
Some opponents have threatened violence if the proposal to reopen the mine proceeds.
But President Momis says the Government will continue to work towards reopening Panguna, because it believes it’s the best way to provide for the people most affected by its closure.
“This government is committed to make sure that people who have been most detrimentally affected, and the landowners have been in Panguna, we have to look after them,” he said.