CATHERINE WILSON | Mongabay | Edited extracts
PANGUNA - Ahead of next year’s referendum on independence from Papua New Guinea, the government of the autonomous region of Bougainville believes reopening the Panguna copper mine is the key to gaining economic self-sufficiency.
In January, traditional landholders rejected a bid by Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) — now majority owned by the Bougainville and Papua New Guinea governments — to renew exploration at the mine.
The dispute highlights the ways in which traditional communal landownership in Melanesian states complicates both public and private development projects — and the role landowner groups can play in environmental stewardship.
Traditional landowners in Bougainville exerted their power of veto under the autonomous region’s new mining laws and rejected a corporate bid by BCL to embark on renewed exploration at the war-ravaged Panguna copper mine, which has been dormant for 28 years.
New legislation introduced in 2015 gives them ownership of any mineral resources on their land, as well as rights in key decisions about their exploitation.
At the core of concerns by many indigenous landowners is the company’s record on environmental and social responsibility. BCL, a former Rio Tinto subsidiary, operated the mine at the time civil war broke out in the late 1980s — a conflict sparked by claims of extensive environmental damage and inequities connected with its operations.
Two years ago, the global mining multinational abandoned its stake in the mine and, at the same time, dismissed any obligation to clean up or rehabilitate land and rivers contaminated with mine waste.
The landowner vote in January was not, however, unanimous, with evidence of opposition from some landowning groups and support from others.
Bougainville’s president, John Momis, then imposed an indefinite moratorium on mining in Panguna. He expressed concerns that the depth of local division on the issue could trigger tensions, even unrest, and undermine the region’s progress toward a referendum on independence set to be held on 15 June next year.
Although the Bougainville government has a 36.4% stake in BCL, Momis told Australia’s ABC News in January that “if we went ahead now, you could be causing a total explosion of the situation again,” referring to the devastating war on the island from 1989 to 1998 that left an estimated 20,000 people dead.
Nevertheless, debate about reopening the Panguna mine is unlikely to dissipate, as mineral extraction is believed by local leaders to be the only feasible economic option for driving the region’s fiscal self-reliance alongside ambitions of self-determination.
Other companies with rival bids to redevelop the Panguna mine are also waiting in the wings, including Australia-based RTG Mining, which has forged an alliance with local Mekamui tribal leaders.
Obtaining rights to customary land to build infrastructure and improve much-needed public services in Pacific island states, such as water, power, communications and transport, can also involve lengthy negotiations with traditional owners.
And delays, work stoppages and disruptions to projects easily follow when there are disagreements about the activities involved, the social and environmental impacts, or the nature and amount of compensation to be paid to landowners.
Yet, at the same time, the culturally entrenched role that customary landowners perform as “custodians of the land” could be seen as aiding environmental protection. In Panguna, it was the landowners who called for action on deforestation, soil erosion, crop degradation and the pollution of rivers and streams.
Panguna landowners Phillip Takaung and Lynette Ona believe the campaign they waged in the 1990s put them at the forefront of the then-burgeoning era of global environmental activism. “This is the first island in the world where we fought for the life of the people and for the environment,” Takaung said during an interview at the mine in 2016.
There is an increasing call by governments in the region for greater mobilisation of land as part of their larger aim to boost human development and standards of living. But there remains little will for land reform at the local level. Many clans and families still view land as vital for their economic and social survival, now and in the future.
And the long connection between local governance and landownership means that many chiefs and local leaders see external government and political control as unwanted interference and, in some instances, motivated by intentions to wrongly “steal” their land and its wealth.