In 2016, Gordon Peake answers a job advertisement for a role with the government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, a collection of islands on the eastern fringe of Papua New Guinea looking to strike out as a country of its own.
In his day job he sees at first hand the challenges of trying to stand up new government systems.
Away from the office he travels with former rebels, follows an anthropologist’s ghost and visits landmarks from the region’s conflict. In 2019, he witnesses joy and euphoria as the people of Bougainville vote in a referendum on their future.
Out of these encounters emerges an unforgettable portrait of this potential nation-in-waiting.
Blending narrative history, travelogue and personal reminiscences, Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation is an engaging memoir as well as an insightful meditation on the realities of nation-making and international development.
Download the book here
‘Heartfelt and honest. This book is an insightful read and a valuable addition to scholarship on Bougainville’s journey to peace.’
— Joseph Nobetau, former Chief Secretary to the Autonomous Bougainville Government
‘An excellent piece of engaged travel writing. With first-hand observation and curiosity, Gordon has produced a deeply informed, compelling and evocative account of war, survival and nation-building in what may become the world’s newest country.’
— Tom Bamforth, author of The Rising Tide: Among the Islands and Atolls of the Pacific Ocean
Unsung Land, Aspiring Nation is also available as an audiobook.
From New Dawn FM News
Bougainville needs economic strength to support our mandated visions and goals, the Autonomous Bougainville Government is working on an economic roadmap for Bougainville help to budget on matters we need.
ABG Chief Secretary reminded the people that the current internal revenue of K20million increased by K10million to K30million and hopefully to K55million as projected in this year’s budget.
Himata said the economic projects in the pipeline included the ‘commissioning generator for gold refinery three weeks ago in Arawa and awaiting the refinery plant to arrive and install, so we hope that we can commence buying & refining gold in second quarter of this year.
‘Secondly, the water bottling factory in Toniva, the factory building is up, we are waiting for the water bottling & packaging machine that we ordered from China. So, when it arrives, machine will be installed and should commence project mid this year.
‘Thirdly, the airline business the ABG government is investing in the ‘setup of Bougainville Wings Limited’ our airline company. ABG has bought our first airplane two weeks ago, as soon as we bought the airplane-our first revenue started flowing into our Bougainville Wings Limited account.
‘One successful investment and proposal our team has put together, the plane is attached to corporate charters and cargo charters as well.
‘Business will commence business starting this year by 2024 and 2025, we should have our first passenger airplane to support our travels outside of Bougainville and also overseas.
‘Another impact project is the Bana Special Economic Zone, project has started, our team is working on creating our development bank to deal with all foreign direct investments ‘this bank is required’ because we will be dealing with foreign currencies, when foreign companies come to assist us with our development projects n programs in Bougainville, they can bring in their foreign money through this bank, so this will boost economic activity in the region.
Himata also added the Panguna mine, is waiting for the certificate to be transferred by the National Govt, this is currently in progress.
‘Until we own majority of the share-holding from Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL). We can look at how we can open the mine. The decision was made by the people at Tonuru that they want to open the mine with their own mining company.
‘The Manetai limestone project will also be supported by the Panguna hydro, where power will be needed to power the project.
‘We are also focused on the Chocolate festival and the government has budgeted for this at the end of this year.
‘In-terms of fisheries revenue, the National government has agreed to to give the ABG government 15% of all tuna catch in PNG-waters -as Bougainville to entitled to another peace agreement. Currently, we get only K5mill per annum.
Himata stated that the tax regime will be looked into as well.
‘ABG has also invested K20million at Central bank which means our government will be collecting dividends per annum, a good revenue making.
‘Tonolei, will be looked at relating to the option of carbon trade and climate change.
‘Tourism Act, where tourism legislation is established and a board will be setup to promote tourism activities in the region.
‘ABG will strengthen its commodities thru the BACRA law to regulate all our commodities through the signed MOU with PNG Cocoa Board.
‘The ABG Team who travelled to Solomon Islands (S.I), may strike a policy framework, by starting to look at in-terms of petroleum products. ABG may want to purchase low petroleum prices from S.I, to avoid high prices from PNG.
‘Ramazon hydro and Soroken plantation is also being eyed for the solar farm.
‘ABG is also establishing its own power company and telecommunication. Right now, we heavily rely on Digicel, Bemobile and Telikom. Going forward we will use Huawei cable from Arawa to Buka. Dark spot areas will be used to setup towers where Digicel and the others can facilitate their communication.
‘While, Atolls continue to roll out VSAT.
‘We will improve the frequency for National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) reach for Bougainville coverage.
‘K70million budget is also available to improve the Arawa General Hospital, while Buin funding under Asian Development Bank will kick start construction in September this year.
‘The government is committed to the road infrastructure from Aropa and Buin road, Pitono to Kesa road and continue to meet with Chinese government to discuss bridges program to continue from Bana to Buin, continuous development from Buka to Arawa roads,’ Himata explained.
He appealed to the people, we need your support and dedication to ask God to create an environment that we can become a country of our own.
A new independent report reviewing satellite images and other historical data on Rio Tinto’s former Panguna mine has warned of serious risks to local communities posed by unstable mine infrastructure and flooding caused by the build-up of mine waste in the rivers.
The report, produced by global environmental firm Tetra Tech Coffey, is a preparatory desktop study on the mine, which will inform an environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine due to commence later this year.
The report found that a levee at the junction of the Jaba and Kawerong rivers, constructed at the time of the mine’s operation, “is almost certain to collapse at some stage in the future” and that “structures and people that live on the floodplain downstream of the Jaba River would be directly impacted by flooding or landslide effect”. The report noted that “it is not yet possible to predict when the levee at the junction of the Kawerong and Jaba rivers may fail or how severe its failure may be due to limitations of current information.”
The report also warned that “the bed of the Jaba River has raised over time due to flooding and build-up of previously deposited tailings, such as at the lower Jaba River near Bato Bridge”. This “caused the Jaba River to change course in 2017 and start to flow into the Konaviru wetland and lower Kuneka Creek, changing their flooding patterns and depositing tailings into them.” The report noted that “this change of flow into Konaviru wetland is likely to remain and become the focus of further tailings deposition in the future”, posing future flooding risks for people living in the area. However, “it is not yet possible to predict when this will happen and whether the change will be permanent”.
Due to the urgent nature of these two risks, a rapid risk assessment by Tetra Tech Coffey, including on-ground inspection to verify the report’s findings, is due to commence in the coming weeks. The process has been escalated outside of the formal impact assessment and is being led by the Autonomous Bougainville Government, with the support of Rio Tinto and the Human Rights Law Centre.
The other issues identified in the report, including risks posed by old mine infrastructure and pollution of local rivers and water sources, will be examined by the formal impact assessment, starting later in the year.
Last year, Rio Tinto committed to fund the impact assessment following a human rights complaint brought by 156 local community members, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre. Rio Tinto has not yet committed to funding solutions to any mine-related risks or impacts identified through the impact assessment.
The Tetra Tech Coffey report was released by the Panguna Mine Legacy Oversight Committee – a multi-stakeholder Committee comprising community members, landowners, government representatives, and representatives from the Human Rights Law Centre, Rio Tinto and Bougainville Copper Limited.
Traditional landowner and lead complainant in the human rights complaint, Theonila Roka Matbob, who is also the member of parliament for the area where the mine is located said:
“We welcome Rio Tinto’s commitment to investigating these problems and to supporting the Bougainville Government to escalate the serious levee risk and lower Kuneka Creek flooding risk for urgent investigation.
“This early report shows the world just some of what we live with every day. Every day we worry about levees collapsing on us, about rivers full of mine waste flooding our land and villages and about whether the water we drink and wash with is making us sick.
“We appreciate Rio’s message at the launch of the Secretariat’s office that it is committed to the Impact Assessment process. It is critical that Rio Tinto also commits to supporting the implementation of solutions to the huge problems we face.”
Keren Adams, Acting Co-CEO at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:
“This report reinforces the devastating environmental legacy of the Panguna mine and the dangerous, volatile situation that this has left local communities living in. When we visited these communities, we saw first-hand the devastating effects of mine-waste mud flows on communities’ water sources & fishing areas. We spoke to people who live downstream of the collapsing levees and fear their houses could be swept away.
“Over the coming weeks, we will be working with communities, the ABG, Rio Tinto and the Tetra Tech Coffey team to ensure that the acute levee and flooding risks are urgently assessed. We hope this will help give communities a better understanding of the risks they are living with and to identify options for addressing these serious risks to peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”
In September 2020, 156 residents from villages downstream of the Panguna mine, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre, filed a complaint against Rio Tinto with the Australian National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The complaint was about the environmental impacts of the mine and the effects these have on the lives of people living near and downstream of the mine from things like pollution of rivers, lack of access to clean water, flooding and land destruction, collapsing levees, food shortages, disease and illness.
In 2021, Rio Tinto publicly committed to fund an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine. The company has not yet committed to fund the clean-up and remediation of affected areas and communities.
A tender process is currently underway to select an independent company of environmental, social and human rights experts to carry out Phase 1 of the Impact Assessment, which is expected to start by the end of the year and run for around 18 months.
Following the impact assessment, further discussions will be held between the company, community representatives and other stakeholders regarding the assessment’s recommendations and next steps.
For further background on the impacts of the mine, see the Human Rights Law Centre’s After the Mine report.
” Scramble for Resources shines much-needed light on the practices of the new waves of mining and exploration companies in Bougainville. Given the sheer number of Australian companies involved in this stampede for Bougainville’s resources, and the consequences for people living on the island, its findings should cause Australians to sit up and take notice. ”
– The Hon Kevin Rudd, 26th Prime Minister of Australia
Jubilee published a report revealing how the Autonomous Region of Bougainville has become the target of a scramble for resources.
Bougainville, which is transitioning towards independence from Papua New Guinea, has attracted mining and minerals exploration companies from around the world, drawn by its valuable copper and gold reserves. Most of these companies are based in or have links to Australia.
Download / Read the report here Bougainville mineral wealth
Bougainville is home to the Panguna mine – once one of the largest operating copper and gold mines in the world. During its operation from 1972-1989, the mine operator, then a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, dumped one billion tonnes of mining waste into Bougainville’s rivers with devastating environmental consequences. The mine sparked a brutal ten-year conflict on the island, the effects of which are seen to this day.
Over a two-year investigation, we tracked the companies vying for the right to mine on the island, ranging from one-person outfits to global operations backed by major investors. Some are hoping to reopen the defunct Panguna mine.
We found that at least two of the companies seeking mining rights at Panguna have been making payments to landowner groups who are likely to be involved in decisions about whether to reopen the mine. Another company made payments to the local police.
Our report also looks at two leaked corporate presentations prepared for the Bougainvillean Government that advised it to put valuable mining rights in the hands of offshore companies set up in a secrecy jurisdiction.
Our report raises questions about corporate accountability, transparency and who is responsible for safeguarding human rights and the environment when multinational companies are operating overseas.
Further, it highlights the importance of corporate political engagement being transparent, responsible and in the public interest. When Australian companies operate overseas, they should be answerable for the human and environmental impacts of their operations.
Based on the findings of the report, we recommend that Australia put in place a mandatory human rights due diligence mechanism and a corporate beneficial ownership register to hold companies to account for the impact of their operations on communities overseas.
Whether or not to reopen Bougainville to large-scale mining is a decision for the people of Bougainville and their government. It is important that anyone seeking to mine there has the free, prior and informed consent of all landowners, and that mining ventures deliver genuine benefits to local communities and avoid repeating the environmental devastation of the past.
“ 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. ”
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.”
Three years ago, after no national or international action from anyone on a solution to environmental damage for the Jaba River Tailings over 40 plus years, Bana District reached out to some old friends in Australia and asked if there is anything that could be done to stop the deteriorating living conditions for people living along the river.
Often mining activity throughout the world have had a bad name for environmental impact.
This certainly is the case on Bougainville where tailings discharge from the Panguna mine has silted up the Jaba River and overflowed levees, (constructed during mining operations to provide some river adjacent communities tailings and flood protection) covering agricultural land destroying the ability of the local communities to grow their crops, keep farm animals and access clean drinking water.
An estimated billion tonnes of mine tailing’s pollution was spread downstream from Panguna, spreading across the Jaba-Kawerong river delta stretching 40 kilometres to the coast.
Fortunately thanks to the 3RE Group, an entrepreneurial Australian collective of environmental, mining and industrial individuals with a long positive history in Papua New Guinea there may be a solution in sight.
3RE Group for free has engaged some of the best consultants in the world to work on the problem After 2 years of sample testing, analysis and modelling of new high tech separation techniques an answer was found.
The removal of some 30 plus kms of river will produce aggregates, minerals and some precious metals that include gold and silver, that will not only clean up the tailings but provide a long-term revenue for the local communities as well as investment in health, education, and training
The Jaba River Tailings can be recycled and exported, it will need K300,000,000 in new infrastructure to achieve this and over 1000 new direct jobs for locals.
“All of this can be funded by offshore investment, zero cost to ABG. It will also provide the framework for integration of many new businesses that will bring much needed prosperity, increased health and education to all sectors of the Bougainville community “said a spokesperson for the 3RE Group
Picture above : Briefing at ABG president residence on 3RE Group Java River Rehabilitation project.
This multi-faceted project needs urgently full support of the communities and the new Autonomous Government of Bougainville (AGB) and following successful investment there will a 20 year project life and economic and culturally viable solution to clean up the disastrous environmental legacy of the Panguna mine operations
For more information go to www.3regroup.com.au
Landowners from the Panguna Mine area and the Autonomous Bougainville Government have reached a joint resolution to re-open the Panguna Mine.
The joint resolution was signed by clan chiefs and representatives from the five major clans of the Panguna area – Basikang, Kurabang, Bakoringu, Barapang and Mantaa.
The signing took place at the end of a three-day summit for the Panguna Landowner groups hosted in Tunuru, Central Bougainville this week.
ABG President Hon. Ishmael Toroama acknowledged and congratulated the five clans and their respective leadership for taking the bold stand to re-open the Panguna Mine.
He said the signing of the joint resolutions signifies the beginning of a new chapter for Bougainville.
“Today marks the ending and the beginning of a new chapter, a chapter to realize Bougainville’s independence,” he said.
President Toroama reassured the landowners that the government will continue to be there to protect the people and their resources through relevant laws passed through the Bougainville Parliament.
He urged the landowners to continue to use the government as a tool to control what rightfully belongs to the people in terms of resources.
The Toroama-Nisira government is confident that the re-opening of the Panguna Mine will be a major booster for Bougainville’s economic future and at the same time, guarantee Bougainville’s political independence.
Following the signing of the joint resolutions, the ABG through the Department of Mineral and Energy Resources and other relevant departments, will work together with the landowner groups to facilitate the process towards the re-opening of the mine.
“ The mining agreement, negotiated by Rio Tinto with the Australian government in the 1960s, did not include significant environmental regulations or liability for mine site rehabilitation.”
Multinational mining giant Rio Tinto has agreed to fund an independent assessment of the human rights and environmental impacts of its former Panguna copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region of Bougainville.
Rio Tinto abandoned the mine in 1989 during a brutal civil conflict on Bougainville and now no longer holds a stake after controversially divesting its shareholding to the PNG and Bougainville governments in 2016, rejecting corporate responsibility for environmental damage.
The mining agreement, negotiated by Rio Tinto with the Australian government in the 1960s, when PNG was a colony, did not include significant environmental regulations or liability for mine site rehabilitation.
An estimated billion tonnes of mine tailings pollution has now spread downstream from Panguna, spreading across the Jaba-Kawerong river delta stretching 40 kilometres to the coast.
“This is an important day for communities on Bougainville,” said traditional landowner and MP Theonila Roka Matbob, representing the communities involved in the complaint.
“Our people have been living with the disastrous impacts of Panguna for many years and the situation is getting worse. The mine continues to poison our rivers.”
“These problems need to be urgently investigated so solutions can be developed and clean-up can begin. Today’s announcement gives us hope for a new chapter for our people.”
Last November, a complaint by 156 landowners against Rio Tinto was accepted by the Australian government for mediation under its obligations as a member of the OECD club of wealthy nations.
Their environmental and human rights claim states: “The mine pollution continues to infringe nearly all the economic, social and cultural rights of these indigenous communities, including their rights to food, water, health, housing and an adequate standard of living”.
“This is an important first step towards engaging with those impacted by the legacy of the Panguna mine,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said in a statement.
“Operations at Panguna ceased in 1989 and we’ve not had access to the mine since that time. Stakeholders have raised concerns about impacts to water, land and health and this process will provide all parties with a clearer understanding of these important matters so that together we can consider the right way forward.”
“We take this seriously and are committed to identifying and assessing any involvement we may have had in adverse impacts in line with our external human rights and environmental commitments and internal policies and standards.”
The Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) has confirmed it supports the process.
Rio Tinto has not yet committed to funding clean-up and remediation of the mine.
The Panguna mine was one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines, generating an estimated US$2 billion in revenue for Rio Tinto during the 1970s and 1980s.
Disputes over jobs for landowners, environmental pollution and distribution of profits sparked a decade-long ‘Bougainville Crisis’ civil war in 1989 that claimed the lives of nearly 15,000 people.
Landowners also want Rio Tinto to fund long-term rehabilitation efforts.
“This assessment is a critical first step towards addressing that legacy,” said Keren Adams, a legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre.
“However, we stress that it is only the first step. The assessment will need to be followed up by swift action to address these problems so that communities can live in safety.”
“Communities urgently need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. They need solutions to stop the vast mounds of tailings waste eroding into the rivers and flooding their villages, farms and fishing areas. This is what remediation means in real terms for the people living with these impacts.”
Estimates of the cost for full mine site and downstream tailings rehabilitation is in the billions of dollars.
“It’s destroyed the sago palms and other trees … and destruction continues. You can see where the fertile land is covered over,” said downstream landowner and claimant George Posiona.
“It’s taking up a large area and we believe in a few years time we will not be able to plant food. It continues to flow down and destroy this land.”
The Department of Treasury’s OECD National Contact Point (AusNCP) is responsible for mediating the dispute, issue findings, and recommending action to address any breaches.
The announcement comes as Rio Tinto continues to face a federal parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of the sacred Aboriginal Juukan Gorge cave site in Western Australia which contained evidence of 46,000 years of human use.
Bougainville overwhelmingly voted for independence from Papua New Guinea in 2019 and hopes to gain nationhood by 2027.
Debate continues over whether to reopen the mine to underpin the economic security of Bougainville.
” The aim of highlighting here important aspects of the ABG’s commitment to and plans for achieving independence is not to raise questions about how realistic they are being, but rather to indicate the depth of commitment evident in the ABG position and its related post-referendum initiatives.
It is clearly going to be difficult for PNG to persuade the Bougainville leaders to accept anything short of full independence.
Neighbouring countries need to be aware of the direction that the consultations are taking, and the difficulties likely to arise in reaching compromises in the initial consultation process, and perhaps beyond.”
Anthony Regan writing in The Lowry Institute The Interpreter
Setting goals for independence by 2025, UN membership and a sustainable economy signal Bougainville’s resolve.
The second constitutionally mandated post-referendum consultations between Papua New Guinea and Bougainville leaders about independence for Bougainville are being planned for late June 2021.
Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama stated a goal of independence and full United Nations membership by the end of 2025 at the first consultation meeting, chaired by the UN, on 18–19 May.
Together with significant initiatives taken by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) since elections last year, the statement of these goals signals a degree of commitment to independence that not so far fully understood outside Bougainville.
The PNG/ABG consultations are required following the referendum on Bougainville independence held late in 2019. There was a 97.7 per cent vote for independence, based on an 87 per cent turnout of enrolled voters, in turn based on a remarkably accurate roll. The referendum was adjudged “credible, free and fair” and “transparent and inclusive” by multiple independent international and national observers.
Unlike other conflicts resolved by agreements requiring a referendum on independence following a period of autonomy (notably Southern Sudan and New Caledonia), the Bougainville referendum outcome is not binding on PNG.
Rather the Bougainville Peace Agreement and the PNG constitution leave the referendum outcome to be dealt with by three possible processes: first, PNG and ABG consultation; second, subject to consultation outcomes, tabling of the referendum results in the PNG Parliament for “ratification”, involving “final decision-making authority” of the parliament; third any “differences” being resolved per the “dispute resolution procedure” provided for in the PNG Constitution.
The first consultation was held almost 18 months after the referendum, much to the frustration of many Bougainvilleans. Reasons for delay in the first half of 2020 included ABG constitutional amendment processes and a PNG Supreme Court challenge (both unsuccessful) directed to giving then sitting ABG president John Momis a third term in office.
Subsequently Covid-19, ABG general elections, and a late-2020 PNG political crisis were factors. But in addition, there was a lack of PNG focus and preparedness.
During the two day consultation, ABG President, Ishmael Toroama tabled a short “timeline” of main steps towards achieving independence in 2025.
It included the end of 2022 for achieving not only transfer of all powers as yet to be transferred to the ABG from PNG under the autonomy arrangements, but also for achieving “self-government” for Bougainville.
Self-government would involve establishing a “constituent assembly”, which by the end of 2024 would present “feedback on the draft Independent Bougainville Constitution”. The timeline steps were intended to set the agenda for the second consultation meeting.
PNG’s Prime Minister James Marape did not reject Bougainville’s independence demand outright.
He expressed concerns, however, both that Bougainville independence could provide a precedent for other parts of PNG to secede, leading to the dissolution of PNG and about Bougainville’s capacity to manage independence.
All Bougainville public service departments are being challenged to become independence-ready.
Perhaps the most significant initiative illustrating the extent and depth of commitment to the goal of early independence is the ABG’s multi-faceted “independence-ready” program.
Launched by a late 2020 resolution of the ABG House of Representatives, the program was inspired by the highly successful 2016 to 2019 ABG constituency-based “referendum-ready” program, which made significant contributions to local-level referendum-awareness.
The independence-ready program has a similar constituency-based focus, involving locally focused independence awareness and encouragement of behaviour change in all 33 single member ABG constituencies, as well as the three “regional” constituencies, each represented by one woman and one “former combatant” and has so far been launched in 23 of the single member constituencies.
A major independence awareness focus involves the related issues of economic development and generating the sustainable Bougainville government revenue needed to support independence.
The ABG accepts the conclusions of research undertaken for the PNG National Research Institute since 2018 by economist, Satish Chand, and others, indicating that an independent Bougainville is likely to need a budget two to three times the current ABG budget. The 2020 ABG budget was about K440 million (K151 million recurrent and K242 million capital expenditure).
“Internal” revenue sources in 2020 (some under PNG control but nevertheless derived locally, such as goods and service tax and tuna licence revenues) were estimated at K30 million, about 16 per cent of the total budget.
The independence-ready program responds to the internal revenue deficit through awareness efforts encouraging all Bougainvilleans, including resource owners, to engage in income-earning activities (wage employment, cash crop production, or establishing businesses) with a view to contributing to economic growth, and also encouraging people to be tax payers, contributing to the proposed independent government’s revenue base.
Bougainville is also exploring what it should receive from PNG’s current share of revenue from a regionally administered Pacific tuna fishing licence scheme for fishing in Bougainville-associated waters, which Chand estimates “could range from K30 million to K130 million per year”.
The President also talks of proposed new ABG supported business ventures, part funded by the ABG (US$19 million) and investors (US$100 million), creating 2,000 new jobs.
All Bougainville public service departments are being challenged to become independence-ready by moving promptly to develop ABG legislation to transfer as yet untransferred powers available to the ABG under the autonomy arrangements.
The constitutional transfer process has been simplified by the ABG-initiated Sharp Agreement signed by both governments a few days before the first consultation meeting. The ABG sees this simplified transfer process as contributing to the independence-ready process.
Finally, recognising the difficulties likely to be involved in gaining international community recognition as a new state and gain UN membership, the ABG cabinet has recently established a Ministerial Committee on International Relations that will be “cultivating international support” for Bougainville independence.
The aim of highlighting here important aspects of the ABG’s commitment to and plans for achieving independence is not to raise questions about how realistic they are being, but rather to indicate the depth of commitment evident in the ABG position and its related post-referendum initiatives.
It is clearly going to be difficult for PNG to persuade the Bougainville leaders to accept anything short of full independence.
Neighbouring countries need to be aware of the direction that the consultations are taking, and the difficulties likely to arise in reaching compromises in the initial consultation process, and perhaps beyond.