A TEAM of four researchers - Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, Anthony Regan, Dennis Kikira and Simon Kenema - has published an initial report on small scale mining in Bougainville.
The report focuses on issues such as mining methods, economic motivations, safety and health risks and the possibility that small scale mining might foster tensions in a still fragile post-conflict Bougainville.
Prior to Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975, the Australian administration approved development by a subsidiary of the multinational mining company Rio Tinto of one of the world’s largest copper mines at Panguna in central Bougainville.
The development of Panguna encountered substantial resistance from local landowners. Bougainvilleans had no role in approving the project and received few benefits after it commenced operating in 1972.
The landowners also bore many of the mine’s costs, including environmental destruction caused in particular by riverine disposal of mine waste, social disruption triggered by village relocation, the influx of thousands of outsiders and unequal distribution of the limited benefits that did reach landowners.
This situation changed little after independence.
In 1988-89 these circumstances led to the destruction of infrastructure by Bougainvilleans seeking temporary mine closure to force a re-negotiation of the mining agreement. The national government, which relied heavily on Panguna for its revenues, tried to suppress by force what it saw as a serious law and order problem and a protracted civil conflict followed.
The violence rapidly escalated into a broad-based secessionist rebellion which resulted in thousands of deaths, led many educated Bougainvilleans to flee the island and resulted in the 1989 closure of Panguna and the destruction of much of Bougainville’s physical and social infrastructure.
The conflict ended in 2001 with the signing by PNG and Bougainville of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. But to this day Panguna remains closed, with little imminent prospect of re-opening.
Before the conflict began, although Bougainville’s economy was dominated by the mine and associated industries, there was significant small-holder cash crop production, mainly cocoa and copra.
Small scale mining of gold had been undertaken in the 1930s by Australian and other expatriate miners at Panguna and Kupei in the Crown Prince Mountains. The remains of equipment used by these miners, who left Bougainville before the war, can still be seen as can the tunnels they dug in pursuit of gold bearing ore.
In 1997-98, faced with the absence of income-earning opportunities in the wake of the Bougainville conflict, people started to engage in small scale mining.
As news spread about gold’s potential value as an income source, and as knowledge of mining methods was obtained from miners from Panguna and the tailings area, small scale mining started in Kanavitu, Atamo and Kopani, and then into other areas, mainly in central Bougainville.
Its spread accelerated in the mid-2000s when the pest cocoa pod borer devastated many recently re-established cocoa blocks, forcing cocoa farmers to find an alternative source of income.
Small scale mining now occurs at dozens of sites, all on land held under customary title, mainly by small and mostly matrilineal clan groups.
It provides a livelihood, or supplementary incomes, for thousands of Bougainvilleans, and constitutes at least the second largest sector of Bougainville’s cash economy after cocoa production.