LEONARD FONG ROKA | Supported by the Jeff Febi Writing Fellowship
ABG President John Momis stated, “My government believes that, as the Panguna mine helped bankroll Papua New Guinea’s independence in the 1970s, it too can again bankroll Bougainville’s autonomy and independence.”
With the story of wealth creation soaring, decision-makers have narrowed down to dealing with known political factions and landowners who may be able to influence the future of mining.
But in the Panguna district there are people who do not worship these political factions nor are they landowners in the mine lease areas.
The Panguna district, as it has been known since 2010, is made up of six areas: Pine Valley on the port-mine access road; Panguna minesite site itself; Tumpusiong Valley; Toio Valley; the Orami area; and Biampanari Valley.
In demographic terms Pine, Panguna and Tumpusiong are readily accessible to most infrastructure development developed in the sixties by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL).
These three areas can readily access services and have higher socio-economic indicators. Furthermore, they host the main landowners of Panguna.
But the inland areas of Biampanari and Toio are backwards. Because of rugged terrain the people daily have to conquer distance to reach the Panguna to South Bougainville highway.
Orami is a bit different. There are two feeder roads, Sikoreva-Kori and Bolave-Orami, but the topography is rugged and the roads were not built for the environs. As the result of dereliction, they are now inaccessible by vehicles.
In these areas, people have to leave their homes in the night with their saleable garden produce, sick patients or on their way to school to reach the closest spot on the highway to get to Arawa or Panguna.
So there are the better off mine landowner areas and the worse off non-landowner areas.
Of all those in the latter group – Orami, Daru, Iarako, Rumba, Sirobana, Kori, Irang, Pangka, Damara, Tumpuruno, Diri, Widoi, Karanau, Poaru, Mosinau and Utongpunta – only the village of Poaru, where the majority settled after journeying from the Tumpusiong Valley through the Panguna minesite, has some custodian rights to land areas the mining lease.
They have a more recent history. At the start of the conflict in 1988, young men from these isolated villages stood behind the disgruntling landowners to force BCL to shut down. The late Francis Ona ran off to Mosinau village to hide. The first Papua New Guinea Defence Force soldier was killed at Orami.
And, in comparison to other areas of Panguna, more young men of these villages were killed in direct action by pro-PNG resistance and PNG soldiers. These are contributions these people, most of whom are not landowners, have made in the interests of people who are landowners.
As the New Zealand-brokered peace gained momentum and business opportunities arose, some of these people migrated and settled on the Panguna minesite and in the alluvial gold mining valley of Tumpusiong.
Many became successful in business, owning retail outlets or trading in gold. Most businesses operated in Panguna today are owned by these immigrants and a large number have purchased land blocks in the east coast areas of Wakunai and Tinputz where they grow cocoa.
These successes since 1998 on land they do not own have been a source of resentment amongst the local landowners. So much so that, since the Panguna district was established in the midst of immigrants at Karona in Panguna, its operations have been continuously disrupted by conflict between the immigrants and the locals, such as people from Dapera and Moroni villages.
As a result, the Panguna district administration operates from Arawa despite the fact that at Karona it has the best building of the 12 other districts of Bougainville.
So, as talk of re-opening the Panguna mine floats in the air, we have a problem that needs treatment. BCL and the PNG government need to look for ways to accommodate these Panguna minesite immigrants.
The immigrants tell us as we travel through their areas, “You Tumpusiong people will be soon benefiting from the Panguna mine that is soon to be operating whilst we, your relatives, perish in this forgotten world.”
This is an issue crying out for resolution.
As landowners discuss future mining and walk in and out of offices, Panguna’s inland people, who now inhabit the minesite, are left feeling out in the cold. And they run nearly all the businesses in Panguna.
Last year one leader told a village meeting in Damara that: “We the inland people will not benefit from this fuckin’ mining talk; landowners must remember we lost our young men in their problem with BCL.”
Is BCL returning to Bougainville with a change of heart? Or is it returning with its old culture of belittling us, the indigenous people. Is the Autonomous Bougainville Government prepared to start thinking like a Bougainvillean?
At present, most meetings and talks are seemingly done to please BCL.