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Panguna - we have not learnt enough

Hon Simon Pentanu
Hon Simon Pentanu is speaker of the Bougainville parliament and a former chief ombudsman of PNG

SIMON PENTANU
| Bougainville News

BUKA - Panguna and its landowners had a mix of these feelings during the time of mining but have not felt this way since the mine was forcibly shut at the end of 1989. That is 31 years ago now.

The ordinary folk up there still wake up to an altered landscape with their women – mothers of the land –still asking what they did to deserve this as they eke out their livelihood from their usable plots of land, mostly on hillsides.

Their biggest local hero, the late Francis Ona, came to prominence when he took a stand against his own extended family members and Bougainville Copper Ltd for what he saw as an unfair and unjust payment and distribution of royalty, lease, inconvenience and other payments.

Ona was incensed by what he saw as the vanguard of executives of the Road Mining Tailings Lease Trust Fund (RMTL) supported by BCL against the mounting dissatisfaction of younger landowners, who felt their grievances and fair share of the pie were not being given due consideration.

Their growing frustration culminated in an attempt to out-vote and replace the elderly and duly elected Panguna Land Owners Association (PLOA) whose numbers comprised the majority of the RMTL executive.

Rather defiantly, if not boisterously, a general meeting was convoked by Ona with this specific aim in mind.

Let us say the rest is a sad history in which BCL and the rest of Bougainville became embroiled.

Without any indication or warning, menace, armed conflict and mass exodus followed.

It is a history intertwined with irreverent behaviour, bloodletting and a descent into the abyss that we must never repeat.

The fallout from the voluntary withdrawal and disbursement of BCL shares by Rio Tinto has developed into arguments and differences between some of those same people that Ona took a hard line stance against.

Despite some progress, if time does heal, then up in Panguna the healing has been slow.

The reverberations are still audible and the fractures still visible. In the meantime everyone else is still trying to figure out what Panguna means now Rio has pulled the plug and cartwheeled out of Bougainville.

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 as well. What is most certain is Rio will never find any favour in Bougainville by landowners. Not in any obvious way anyway.

In the beginning everyone rushed into Panguna like honey bees taking to a new beehive.

To the mining investor at the time it was seen as a cash cow 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.

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 effluence that everyone from miner to landowner, hardliner to politician, as well as the environmentalists, would be mired in.

When the decision was made to mine in the late 1960s, the timing was ideal.

To the colonial administering authority, Panguna provided the perfect investment to finance the Territory of Papua and New Guinea which was emerging into political independence.

To Australia’s then prime minister John Gorton, his minister at the time Charles Barnes, and to those in Konedobu like David Hay, APJ (Tony) Newman and Tom Ellis, and many others, Panguna looked a very promising prospect for PNG’s economy when independence came.

It was not so long before the turnstile of history rotated. In 1972 that Gough Whitlam and his new Labor government gave the inevitable nod to independence.

The die was cast both for Panguna to go ahead as a realised mining proposition and for the 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. Perhaps not either.

With the landscape defaced and the booty and loot gone (for the moment at least), there isn’t much of the old Panguna face that is recognisable.

But for an insatiable world, hungry for minerals, there is not an iota of doubt that Panguna and its surroundings still hold copper, gold and silver worth many billions of kina below the people’s customary land.

So what else is left of Panguna? The land owners they are pitted at different ends of the same table - seeking the same outcomes but in different ways with different foreign interests.

The remnants of the old may not be visible but some of the land owners who bore much of the brunt of Ona’s spite and antagonism continue to differ in their demands and approach.

They disagree even on the modus operandi of how the last of the spoils from the damage might be shared or divided and how the mine might be regurgitated in the future.

What has never been more uncertain or more confusing in the land owning family and extended family are their differing arguments and claims about who has the greater right to entice investors or negotiate with the Bougainville government or deal with anybody for that matter.

The alliances and dalliances landowners have formed with foreign interests has added to the divisions and doubts as to who has more rights and claims to the special mining lease and other leases in those mountains.

In this regard, Bougainville mining law is being tested to determine whether it adequately covers the interests of land owners as espoused and intended in the preamble and opening provisions of the Bougainville constitution.

If we have all learnt anything from Panguna, it is this. We have not learnt enough.

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