| Australian National University | Edited
CANBERRA - The foundations of Ishmael Toroama’s success in a range of business activities almost certainly flowed from his lucrative involvement in an ‘industry’ that developed after the Bougainville crisis.
From about 2007–08 there was an intensive extraction of scrap metal from the ruins of the derelict Panguna copper mine that had closed in 1989.
In 1999 initial scrap metal dealing had been opposed by the mine licence holder, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), but from about 2008 BCL agreed to allow its commercial extraction.
The proviso was that the process be ‘regulated’ by the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and that it benefit landowner communities from mine-impacted areas.
Several investors, mainly from Korea, China and India, entered into arrangements with landowner groups.
They invested in the considerable amount of equipment needed to extract the scrap metal – including fork lifts, heavy trucks and metal cutting equipment, paid local landowner community members for their labour and shared profits with the landowners.
At least three landowner companies emerged: Komeri Holdings Ltd, Panguna Metals Ltd, and Doborubu Scrap Metal Group.
The then Panguna Landowners Association, representing mine-impacted landowner communities, attempted, with little success, to oversee regulation of scrap metal operators that was intended to ensure benefits flowed to landowners.
Toroama was reported to be involved in the scrap metal industry both through a role in Komeri Holdings and also through establishing a security company.
The security company – Islands Corp – provided security mainly to the many overseas companies and individuals involved in the scrap metal business, whose trucks and other equipment needed to get access to the so-called ‘no-go-zone’ that covered the Panguna mine lease areas.
At the time (2008–2014) access to these mountainous areas from Bougainville’s former capital, Arawa, on the east coast, was controlled by armed elements of the former Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
They were part of the Me’ekamui Defence Force associated with the Me’ekamui Government that had been declared by rebel leader Francis Ona when Toroama, Sam Kauona and Joseph Kabui and other BRA and Bougainville Interim Government leaders began to engage in the peace process from about 1995.
Toroama’s presence in the scrap metal industry and Komeri Holdings resulted in accusations that he was playing a predatory role.
He was alleged to be using weapons to keep rival groups at bay, the claim being that he and other so-called ‘gangs’ had “weapons and are ready to use them at the slightest of provocation” and that Toroama’s ‘gang’ was exercising “mafia-like authority”, in the words of one outside adviser.
His security company was also said to be offering a “protection service” to local businesses, helping them to “ward off competition”.
In my opinion, these observations were made by a short-term United Nations adviser who apparently did not understand the complex arrangements about the extensive scrap metal industry that existed between BCL, the ABG, the Panguna Landowners Association, landowner companies and foreign businesses.
Nor did the adviser appreciate the often difficult and confrontational relationships between Toroama and other former BRA leaders and members associated with him, on the one hand, and the armed Me’ekamui elements, on the other hand, who controlled access to the mine lease areas.
Interviews I conducted with Arawa residents between 2009 and 2014 indicated there was no basis to allegations about Islands Corp providing a ‘protection service’.
After the scrap metal industry petered out around 2012–13, Toroama continued to operate his security company, and in 2021 it continues to have contracts in several parts of Bougainville.
He has various other business interests. One includes buying gold produced by artisanal miners involved in the small-scale gold industry in Bougainville, which has a concentration of activity in the Panguna mine lease and neighbouring areas.
He also engages in heavy plant hire (at one stage hiring equipment to the Lihir gold mine in New Ireland) and operates an automotive/heavy equipment workshop.
From about 2015, Toroama concentrated much of his activity on the Amataa Sustainable Cocoa Project which develops cocoa blocks he owns in association with others near Aropa Airport, just south of Kieta.
In a 2017 report on Bougainville cocoa projects receiving Australian aid funding to improve production, Toroama was quoted as saying he was “restoring cocoa production in his area as a way of providing employment and teaching youths in the area the value of work for money”.
In October 2020, just weeks after Toroama was declared President, The Australian newspaper reported that he was ‘a major shareholder, director and secretary’ in an Australian company, Bougainville Sustainable Timber Resources Ltd, with three Australian directors.
The company was reported to be advertising its “political connections to the president” as it sought “millions from investors for a gold and logging venture” in Bougainville.
The company claimed its links to the president’s office put it “in a unique position to discuss copper mining, oil and gas licences, fisheries licences and other lucrative market segments in Bougainville”.
Toroama publicly defended his record, saying his dealings in the company had occurred when he was ‘a private citizen’, that the company had been established to seek investors for involvement in “sustainable logging as well as alluvial gold projects”.
He said that, after consultation with the PNG Ombudsman Commission and the PNG Investment Promotion Authority, his shares in the company had “been divested to a third party”.
Public discussion of the issues involved ceased after his statement was released.
Toroama’s various business interests have made him a leading businessman in Bougainville and his success has attracted jealousy and criticisms, including from former BRA comrades.
One 2013 complaint from a former BRA member, probably directed at least in part at Toroama, was that former BRA leaders “are recklessly running after money … after ordering us to contain our weapons” and have “forgotten us the soldiers who actually suffered to earn them the reputation they have as leaders”.
Toroama also has a long history as a musician, an involvement he maintained even during his years as a BRA fighter.
One journalist and writer who spent time with him in the ‘bush’ during the conflict found Toroama’s gym in his ‘jungle home’ as incongruous, but went on:
“Even more surreal are the guitars, amps and electronic organ in his “music studio”, a hut complete with disco lights and glitter-ball. Here Ishmael and some of his men sit at night composing tacky songs, usually about the conflict and always about Jesus.”
Since the conflict Toroama has expanded his music activities. In particular, he has played a central role in establishing a United Church music ministry and has conducted public ‘gospel music’ shows.
Even more prominently, he has been manager, song-writer and singer in a popular Bougainville reggae band, Offsprings. Its CD released early in 2015, entitled ‘One Nation’, contains a thoughtful collection of songs that are far from ‘tacky’.
They deal with the causes and impacts of the conflict, and on the need for reconciliation and unity amongst Bougainvilleans.
Offsprings played a prominent role in promoting referendum awareness in 2019, performing at public gatherings in many parts of Bougainville.
Although the songs on the One Nation CD are not religious, other Offsprings songs are. In May 2019 Toroama commented on the band’s involvement in referendum awareness saying that “through their music [they were] assuring the people that with God all is in safe hands”.
He also said that “their songs are mainly mind healing songs for people that are not sure what the future holds for Bougainville”.
In a July 2019 interview with Radio New Zealand he indicated that the band was raising awareness about both the referendum vote “and the need to dispose of weapons ahead of the referendum”. He went on:
“It is a way of getting the message to the former fighters and they understand and then we have discussions, and as a result they give up their weapons. But the process is still continuing. Now we are moving into the Me’ekamui areas – we have made contact with the Me’ekamui command.”
Next: The candidate
This is an edited version of ‘An Assessment of Bougainville’s President Toroama Part Two: Business and Music Activities’, published by the Department of Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University, at http://dpa.bellschool.anu.edu.au/experts-publications/publications/8007/ib-202113-assessment-bougainvilles-president-toroama-part-two
Anthony Regan writes with 40 years’ experience in matters connected to Bougainville’s governance and future. He advised the Bougainvillean parties during the peace process and the Autonomous Bougainville Government in relation to legal issues arising in the preparations for the referendum