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Rough bisnis: How the Americans came seeking gold

LeonardLEONARD FONG ROKA | Supported by the Jeff Febi Writing Fellowship

IT WAS IN 2008 that Edwin Moses from Sireronsi village on Bougainville and Amos Ove from Kongara got in contact with Americans Steve Strauss and Mike Holbrooke.

The Americans and their company, Tall J, said to be specialists in small scale mining, also had connections to the so-called Meekamui government of Panguna led by Philip Miriori (president) and Philip Takaung (vice president) – two people who, when talking about BCL to the media, had being so anti-mining.

In early 2009, Edwin Moses, Amos Ove and Philip Takaung formed their own company with the blessing of the Meekamui government. They called it O’orang with all the executives from their respective villages and Amos Ove as manager and Edwin Moses as director. Its first job was to start formal negotiations with the Americans.

After O’orang was established, Tall J money began entering Bougainville. O’orang was assigned to do the groundwork for possible mining operations in Panguna, especially in the Tumpusiong Valley where Amos Ove was married.

Back in the US there was excitement to have established a link with one of the Pacific’s richest islands and its landowners. Money flowed in and O’orang members drove around in new vehicles.

 

In mid-2009, the Americans and O’orang met in Honiara to finalise the go-ahead for a joint venture in alluvial gold mining at Panguna.

A week later, under the leadership of Steve Strauss, a team of nine Americans arrived in Panguna with a Komatsu front-end loader and other equipment for sampling and other preparatory work. They learned that nothing had been done with their money or to earn it.

Spending months in Panguna in rented rooms owned by Philip Takaung, they tried to sort things out. Half of the Americans left, seeing that their money was wasted. But the others stayed on, including Steve Strauss and Mike Holbrooke.

With the Americans around them and Amos Ove gone due to illness, Philip Takaung and Edwin Moses began to fast track negotiations with various people around Kieta. They visited the Eivo area, went into certain parts of Kokoda, and frisked the whole Panguna valley for partners, especially the Tumpusiong Valley.

They entered Kupe, where an Australian company once had a gold mining operation in the 1930s, three times and, on the fourth visit, the angry Kupe people chased them away.

By Christmas 2009, all the Americans left except Strauss, who was concerned to find ways to recover the money already spent. By early 2010, the Americans had spent some K1.7 million through O’orang to secure alluvial gold mining operations.

Michael Tona (Photo - Leonard Fong Roka)With 2009 winding down, Strauss saw no hope and was packing to leave Bougainville when Michael Dendai and Michael Tona (pictured), who were not involved with Tall J, met him in Panguna with a claim that they and their families owned much of the west Tumpusiong Valley tailings area.

Strauss was relieved and made an agreement with the pair and also donated an open Landcruiser to serve the Tumpusiong communities.

In a series of meetings held at Panguna over a period of two months, a new company, Middle Tailings Resources Limited (MTRL), led by Michael Dendai, who now controlled the Landcruiser, and Michael Tona was born.   

O’orang fought hard not to be left out of this new relationship and was accepted. Strauss sought to secure more offshore funding for the new operation.

This time funds were committed by a Chinese partner and once again Americans began to arrive to pave the way for the Tumpusiong project. Having the Chinese money in their hands, Dendai and Tona carelessly fast-tracked the project without engaging the majority of the west Tumpusiong community in decision making. The project went steaming on with a happy MTRL gang.

The joint venture, named as Jaba Industries, consisted of O’orang with 33.33% of the shares, MTRL with 33.33% and Tall J holding the last 33.33%. The unidentified Chinese financier was catered for by being a shareholder in all three companies.

At the same time, Tall J had a percentages of the 33.33% owned by O’orang in Jaba.

With the business arrangements sorted, equipment and plant funded by the Chinese started arriving one piece a time for the whole of 2011 and half of 2012.

The equipment was kept at Birempa on the Morgan-Panguna mine access road near Edwin Moses’ home. It included dump trucks, an excavator, a front-end loader, a number of open Landcruisers and gold processing equipment.

Over Christmas 2012, project development began at Toku village in the western section of Tumpusiong Valley.

Conflict surfaced. The locals brawled with MTRL executives over decision-making processes as landowners witnessing that Michael Dendai was running MTRL as his private business.

Also, despite the fact the men involved with the creation of MTRL were close relatives of current Autonomous Bougainville Government mining mister, Michael Oni, the parliamentarian was said to know nothing of this development.

So people publicly condemned MTRL and Jaba Industries as illegal businesses.

Furthermore, the main village of Toku boiled with strikes. At a launching and dedication ceremony held at the mining site just before Christmas 2012, half the Toku villagers did not attend nor did they eat the food that was brought to them.

The locals were also angered by all executive positions in the joint venture being held by O’orang people who were not even landowners at the Panguna mine site or in the Tumpusiong Valley.

They were from the inaccessible hinterland villages of Pangka and Mosinau to the south-east of the Panguna mine; people who now squat in the remains of Panguna township causing a lot of disharmony with the people who own the mine and town areas, like the Moroni people, and even with the Panguna District administration.

Most of the Tumpusiong men were employed as security guards earning a K75 per fortnight. Plant operators and other better paid workers were O’orang employees.

And the former Bougainville Revolutionary Army fighters disliked that Dendai had not been home during the conflict and was now walking over them as sole decision maker in the project.

In late 2012, the Chinese partner that it would release K300,000 and two vehicles for the Tumpusiong Valley as a community development package.

The people watched a week’s test-run of operations in January 2013 that produced samples that were shipped overseas.

In mid-January, a new accusation surfaced that the K300,000 development money was already deposited into Michael Dendai’s bank account.

Without hesitation, the villagers torched the gold processing equipment in broad daylight.

All the Tumpusiong men working as security guards walked off the mining site with a demand to Jaba Industries to resolve the issue or pack up and leave.

The valley has tonnes of gold washed down from the Panguna mine’s long operations and today is one of the main alluvial gold attractions in the Kieta District. O’orang’s attempts to lure the targeted people often met with opposition but the reports that went to America were of positive progress.

Comments

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Steve W Labuan

It usually takes a nation so many generations after its wars to really live peacefully again, and really submit to civil laws.

We pray, hope support our leaders to do more so that it is different with PNG after the Bougainville revolution war.

Dominique Dakuna

It sad to read about Panguna and investors being brought in especially when the people are not ready to accept change as yet.

I think its time the national government reviewed the mining laws to accommodate more landowner participation and at the same time safeguard investors' interests.

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