Bougainville News May 2022 : Simon Pentanu “ The lessons out of Panguna provide an almanac of social, political, economic and environmental concerns we will do well to heed. “

For now ABG and the people have been all too aware matters surrounding mining and landowner concerns must be handled much better.

The lessons out of Panguna provide an almanac of social, political, economic and environmental concerns we will do well to heed. ” 

Simon Petanu

The benches around the Panguna mine that were so conspicuous and became almost a landmark of this humongous pit are still visible but mostly either in a state of collapse through slow seeping water erosion or giving way, tired of lying around with no purpose to fulfil.

The pit is a massive ‘dingkung’ (hole) on Bougainville’s landscape; it is also a massive statement that man is capable of gutting the resources and riches of the Earth from its belly and leave the land wasted and torn asunder after its riches have been extracted and shipped away.

The creepers and dwarf alpine tree roots that have held the land around the rim of the open-cut mine intact have been eroded through crevices allowing rain water to seep into the pit. Some of this water turns into a turquoise-green pond after it has come into contact with copper traces in the rocks.

The Euclid trucks and electric shovels in the pit that were torched at the height of crisis and sat in neat rows as lifeless sitting ducks, looking down from the top of the pit, are no longer there. Anything that was worth salvaging to sell as scrap has gone.

There is nothing much to find, cut or sell from Panguna anymore. It would be a completely desolate place if not for the resilience of women, who – despite the land, the creeks and the jungle and fauna and flora they have lost – still go about their traditional chores attached to the land.

Any activity that maintains a semblance of normal life here involves women. They have gone back to gardening, growing vegetables on whatever arable land was spared of mining.

There are no commercial tree crops like cocoa and coconut grown in Panguna. The people’s limited source of income comes from the vegetables from the land that find their way from the Crown Prince Range to the fruit and vegetable markets at Morgan Junction and Arawa.

The more you look at Panguna and the few remnants from its mining days, the more it looks as if some gigantic monster landed here and trampled on everything with its huge feet.

It is unimaginable how a whole area of rainforest could disappear from this once-beautiful place. Yes, humans – at our very best and our very worst – are capable of many unimaginable things!

Panguna is a paradox, a Pandora’s box. Once opened, its contents cannot be easily contained. This is still a huge mineral deposit under the ground. There is no doubt it still holds the potential to largely, perhaps singly, drive Bougainville’s economy in the same as it did pre and post independent PNG, if it is reopened.

For now ABG and the people have been all too aware matters surrounding mining and landowner concerns must be handled much better. The lessons out of Panguna provide an almanac of social, political, economic and environmental concerns we will do well to heed.

Much of the problem is that we tend to start by thinking about how much money mining promises to provide and imagine how that will transform everything for the better without also thinking through otherwise. We tend not to turn our minds to the human feelings, the societal issues, the injustices and the environmental harms that arise when huge projects of this magnitude are given the green light.

Yet the views, human feelings and sensitivities are much more powerful than what money may achieve in trying to reopen Panguna. Just consider how many millions, a figure close to K20m if you include hidden costs, of our good money has been thrown over the years at discussing re-opening Panguna.

A lot of this isn’t necessarily any government’s fault, the landowners’ fault or anybody’s fault.

What some of it is, is this. When a mammoth project like Panguna, particularly an extractive project like mining, is shut down while there are still underlying conflicts and competing interests in a complex land tenure system, it is very difficult to get traction with anybody unless you satisfy everybody.

In a society where land is not owned individually, but its use and tenure is shared, it is impossible to satisfy everybody regardless of how many MOUs, MOAs or similar pledges are signed. Or for that matter, how many reconciliations are done.

There are tried and tested ways to resolve land claims, land feuds and land grabs in traditional societies. These involve methods where the settlement of a dispute doesn’t benefit one group, one party, one clan or family, while disadvantaging others. Any resolution reached cannot have adverse impacts for some and benefits to others if it is to be widely accepted and shared.

Traditional Melanesian society is highly egalitarian.

It does not necessarily fit with a system where land is regarded as a valuable commodity – a resource that can be bought and sold, used and disposed of.

Paying heed to heartfelt feelings is critical when dealing with resource issues, as the following words from a New Zealand journalist’s interview with the late President Joseph Kabui remind us:

“The Panguna mine did a massive damage to the environment of Bougainville. Damage that affected the river system in the immediate vicinityi of the mine and of course all the way down to the sea.

The river that I once swam in as a young boy spearing prawns and fish, eels, whatever, the normal life of the river disappeared right in front of my eyes. It is still dead, it will never come back to what it was before.”

Land is not only the stuff we walk on, are buried under, sow gardens into, go walkabout on and hunt in.

Land is also the rivers and creeks, the shrubs, trees and forests, the insects, birds, lizards and marsupials the same land supports. When people sense a threat or get the notion they might be dispossessed, they will fight and protect their land with their lives if they have to.

No wonder Panguna continues to be a difficult problem to resolve, where good money has been thrown after dubious decisions. It is always better to start well at the front end of a complex equation than to go in, boots and all, make a mess then try to fix up issues from the back end.

Let us hope the Tunuru Agreement, which was openly representative and inclusive of the main custodial clans of traditional land in Paguna and its upper and lower tailings, has done things differently and is given a chance to succeed in ways other agreements did not.

Because if we continue to do the same things over and over again, but expect a different result, our hopes may collapse like the benches around the mine pit.

PHOTO: “Any activity that maintains a semblance of normal life here involves women. I am thankful we have women elected into our Parliament.”