PANGUNA and the landowners have had a mixture of these feelings, expectations and aberrations during the time of mining but have never felt so unsure and deflated since the mine was forcibly shut down at the end of 1989. That is 27 years ago now.
Today the folks in Panguna still wake up to an altered landscape asking what they did to deserve to be left in abeyance like this. Their women – mothers of the land – still eke out their livelihood from tilling their only remaining diminished arable plots of land which are perched mostly on hillsides. They say the rest of what used to be fertile grounds is barren or cannot support life as it used to.
But on the hillsides at least the taros are rooting well, the bananas are bunching big, the sweet potatoes, and the cassavas and greens are more pleasing to the women that grow them and who are keen to work the land than pan for gold under the hot sun or in drenching rains.
Everyone is resigned to thinking a scorched and altered land and landscape may never be restored or replenished to its original state. No one has been around here to tell the women otherwise.
You can be fabulously happy and absolutely content
Cheery with day to day pleasures in life
Feel a great relief within yourself
Be very positively out looking
You feel good and quite futuristic that life ahead will be a real treat
You couldn’t ask or wish for more
But when things aren’t working out
Each day becomes a confounding liability
A seemingly insoluble dichotomy
Like a light load has become heavy as lead such as not even experienced in conflict
Such is what PANGUNA has become
What a lot for the people of Panguna
From Simon Pentanu
The starkest example of this is along the water banks of Kaverong and Karuna rivers and down their estuaries that confluent with the Jaba before they silt their way down to Empress Augusta Bay on the west coast.
Along here, a lot of original locals and recent arrivals wash after gold, convinced it is the only promising opportunity where there are no other viable means to earn any reliable income. It’s an opportunity people put a lot of effort into. It is a tedious and unenviable, even hazardous, process. But it has become a daily constitution, an important part of their active living and working day.
The numbers of people you can see, including many women and children, that conglomerate and dot whole areas along the banks, estuaries and puddles are like earthlings resigned to this fate until they are provided another means to earn their keep. This is serious business for the people who do this as this is their best mainstay that provides any income.
It is a cruel irony that this place which provided for over 40% of the country’s GNP (or is it GDP) when Panguna was on full throttle has nothing to show for or give today except a mighty big koropo (hole) and denuded structures, twisted steels and a few remaining scavengers still after what’s left of the scrap metal that once attracted so many buyers and flyers here.
The Chinese were the last here but arrived better equipped and prepared, virtually clearing out the remaining lot including the torched trucks and electric shovels deep down in the mine pit. They may have been the last to get in but they are the first that decided to stay on. And they are staying put up there, apparently with the imprimatur of some of the landowners.
What seems even more cruel is, sources for regular reliable income support in my Panguna is scarce. The people cannot grow cocoa and coconuts because of the altitude and topography of the area and the menace mining left to good gardening land.
As usual women are burdened to provide food in what they can grow to eat and sell to bring in some money from selling at two Morgan Junction markets as well at roadside fruit and veggies markets along the way from Panguna to Arawa.
Panguna’s biggest local hero Francis Ona came to prominence when he took a stand against his own extended family members and relatives, and BCL for what he saw as an unfair, unjust and iniquitous control and distribution of royalty and lease payments
Francis was incensed by what he thought and saw as the vanguard of RMTL Executives supported by BCL against a mounting dissatisfaction of younger generation that felt their grievances for share of the pie was not being given due consideration.
Their frustration culminated in an attempt to oust and replace the elderly and duly elected PLOA whose numbers comprised the majority in the RMTL Executive already in place. Francis and his younger followers as well as dissatisfied allies that were attracted to his rallying calls held an AGM convoked by Francis and his close confidants.
That AGM, whether it was called and held as an extraordinary meeting or not, was a turning point, a trigger to many extraordinary and unsettling incidents that followed.
The RMTL Executive, not unexpectedly, put out a notice in the printed media, locally and nationally, that the actions and intentions by Francis with his cohorts, followers and supporters was null and void, not legitimate, it was not legal and the status quo with RMTL and the powers that be did not change.
Let us say and accept the rest is history, a short and sad history that BCL and the rest of Bougainville became embroiled in without any indication or warning. It is a history that is intertwined with irreverent behaviour, blood letting and a descent into the abyss that Bougainville has managed to come out of but must avoid ever returning to at all costs.
There is some lingering concern that the fallout from the voluntary pull out and disbursement of shares in BCL by Rio is developing into arguments and differences between some of the same people that Francis took a singular hard line against.
The reverberations within the rank and file of the Panguna mine-affected landowners associations are still audible and the fractures are 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.
May be 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 here and abroad as well.
There are lessons we can learn from this. One such lesson is to be aware and accept to a greater or lesser extent that we may be a traditional Melanesian society but we no longer live in a totally Melanesian world any more.
Gladly, the ABG and in particular the Minister for Mining, is keeping a vigil on the shares issue. Despite the adverse comments and spurious criticisms often leveled and directed at ABG no one is more acquainted and familiar with the issues surrounding Panguna and Rio’s decision to offload its interest, than the ABG.
In the beginning everyone rushed into Panguna like honey bees taking to a new beehive. The success was profuse and very visible in the way Panguna started.
To the mining investor at the time Panguna was seen as a cash cow, though not 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.
But 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, that Bougainville and Bougainvilleans across the Island would be mired in.
When the decision was made to mine, it’s timing, the setting, the script and scene was ideal. May be more than ideal. To the colonial administering authority Panguna provided the perfect investment to finance 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 the Australian PM at the time John Gorton, and his Ministers at the the time like Charles Barnes, Andrew Peacock and to 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 by some of its own brooding politicians sooner than later. As it turned out it was Paul 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’s either.
After the landscape has been defaced and the cream of 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 totally gutted out.
There is a lot of doubt there will be anyone going in to reopen Panguna any time soon or in in the foreseeable future.
No investor in their sober mind would do without any assurance that it will not be run out of there by landowners and the so called hardliners. The challenge to all of us is excruciatingly difficult mammoth and complex as everyone, including ABG and Rio Tinto have found.
It is heartening to hear now that through the efforts of member for Kokoda Mr Rodney Osiocco all MHRs from Central Bougainville have embarked on all inclusive consultative meetings and discussions that will be ongoing that will include all ex-combatant factions and those that have labeled themselves “hardliners” from central Bougainville. We can only be optimistic that with the direct and deliberate involvement of elected local leaders of the House some of the long insoluble issues can be dealt with, with a more united approach and unity of purpose.
So what is left of Panguna? Among the LOs they are pitted at different ends of the same table but seeking the same outcomes. The remnants of the old and new may not be clearly visible but some of the same players that bore much of the brunt of Francis Ona’s spite and angst, even antagonism, still differ in their demands and approach. Even the method in how the last of the entitlement payments from Rio Tinto might be shared or divided and how the mine might be regurgitated into the future are still not one hundred percent resolved.
Panguna is not the same anymore. The ground rules have changed both at political and landowners level. The real headache for ABG irrespective of who is in Government is, any Tom, Dick, Harry, Mohammed and Wong can go in and stake a claim up there as long as they have the favour of one landowner clan family member or an ex-combatant operative.
In all of these intrusive dalliances with foreigners that juice favour with limitless amounts of cash from dubious sources, peddled in Bougainville by dubious men. These people have very little regard to the processes that registered LO Associations and ABG and BCL have been engaged in, in attempts to deal with Bel Kol, legacy issues and move on.
BCL as a company is now owned in equal parts by ABG on behalf of ARoB and by GoPNG on behalf of the Independent State of PNG.
The best that can happen, and we hope it does, is for the new owners of BCL to sit in one room across a table and feel comfortable enough to start talking.
It’s called opening up to one another, casting politics aside and have time for sentiments and for each other at a real human level.