Bougainville News Feature : If we have all learnt anything from Panguna, it is this. We have not learnt enough.

 ” PANGUNA and its landowners have had a mixture of these feelings and positions during the time of mining but have not felt much this way since the mine was forcibly shut down at the end of 1989. That is 31 years ago now.

The ordinary folk up there that still wake up to an altered landscape with their women – mothers of the land – are still asking what they did to deserve this as they eke out their livelihood from their usable plots of land which are mostly on hillsides.” 

Contributed by Simon Pentanu

Their biggest local hero Francis Ona came to prominence when he took a stand against his own extended family members and BCL for what he saw as an unfair and unjust payment and distribution of royalty, lease, inconvenience payments and other payments.

Ona was incensed by what he thought and saw as the vanguard of RMTL Executives supported by BCL against a mounting dissatisfaction of younger landowners who felt their grievances and interests for the share of the pie was not being given due consideration.

Their growing frustration culminated in an attempt to out-vote and replace the elderly and duly elected PLOA whose numbers comprised the majority in the RMTL Executive. Rather defiantly, if not boisterously, an AGM was convoked by Francis with this specific aim in mind.

Let us say the rest is history now, a short and sad history that BCL and the rest of Bougainville became embroiled in without any indication or warning that armed conflict, menace and mass exodus was going to follow. It is a history that is intertwined with irreverent behaviour, blood letting and a descent into the abyss that we must never follow or repeat.

The fall out from the voluntary pull out and disbursement of shares in BCL by Rio has developed into arguments and differences between some of the same people that Francis took a singular hard line stance against. If time heals, up in Panguna the healing has been slow though not exactly without some positive progress.

The reverberations have been still audible and the fractures have been still visible. In the mean time everyone else is still trying to figure out what Panguna means now after Rio has pulled the plug and cartwheeled out of Bougainville.

Well not quite! Rio was left in both an unenviable and untenable position that left it little choice but to make the commercial decision it made. The pros and cons, the timing and implications of Rio’s decision will long be argued, possibly in the Court rooms as well. What is most certain is Rio will never find any favour in Bougainville by landowners. Not in any obvious way anyway.

In the beginning everyone rushed into Panguna like honey bees taking to a new beehive. To the mining investor at the time it was seen as a cash cow ideally located in the largely virgin Crown Prince Range. The forest was dense green, the creeks and flowing rivers and estuaries pristine and bird life and marsupials adorning their habitat in plentiful numbers.

For everyone, including the often bewildered, sometimes excited and expectant landowners this was probably the best opportunity to catapult Bougainville from the backwaters to unimaginable affluence. No one foresaw or imagined the stuff of effluence that everyone from miner to landowner, hardliner to politician and the environmentalist would be mired in.

When the decision was made to mine, its timing and the set and scene was ideal. To the colonial administering authority Panguna provided the perfect investment to finance the Territory of Papua and New Guinea which was already showing signs that its political independence was emerging as an issue for open and frank discussion with Canberra. To Australian PM then, John Gorton, and his Ministers at the time Charles Barnes, Andrew Peacock and those in Konedobu like David Hay, APJ Newman, Tom Ellis and others Panguna looked a very promising prospect if Independence was going to be forced and fostered on PNG sooner than later.

As the turnstiles sometimes turn in history, it turned out it was Gough Whitlam and his Labour Government that gave the inevitable nod to Independence.

The dye was cast both for Panguna to go ahead as a real mining proposition and for the inevitable political process and transition to Independence for Papua and New Guinea as a single entity and as one country.

I’m not sure whether Panguna today is lying flat on its face or lying down on its belly. I don’t think it is either. After the landscape has been defaced and the booty and loot is gone there isn’t much of the old Panguna face that is left to be recognizable any more. And it has no belly to speak of or talk about after it has been gutted out.

But for the insatiable world hungry for minerals there is not any aota of doubt that Panguna and and its surroundings and vicinity still hold billions worth of copper, gold and silver below people’s customary land.

So what else is left of Panguna? Among the LOs they are pitted at different ends of the same table but they are seeking the same outcomes in different ways with different foreign interests.

The remnants of the old and new LOs may not be obviously visible but some of the same players that bore much of the brunt of Francis Ona’s spite and antagonism still differ in their demands and approach, even the modus operandi on how the last of the spoils from the damages might be shared or divided and how the mine might be regurgitated into the future.

What is more and more stark is, in the landowning family and extended family the differences and cracks in their arguments and claims about who has more rights to entice investors or negotiate with ABG or deal with anybody for that matter has never been more uncertain and never more confusing.

The alliances and dalliances landowners have formed with foreign interests has also added to the differences and arguments, and even doubts, as to who has more rights and claims to SML and other leases up there.

In this regard the Bougainville mining law has been tested more or less whether it adequately covers the interest of the landowners as espoused or intended in the preamble and opening provisions of the Bougainville constitution.

IF we have all learnt anything from Panguna, it is this. We have not learnt enough.