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Out of Pandora’s box: the Panguna paradox

When Bougainville people sense a threat, or get the notion they might be dispossessed of land, they will fight and protect it with their lives if they have to

Pentanu pic
"Let us ensure our agreements hold because if we do the same thing over and over and expect a different result, our hopes will collapse like the benches around the mine pit"

| Bougainville News

KIETA - The benches that wound around the Panguna mine were a conspicuous feature of the humungous pit are still visible but either collapsing because of erosion by slow-seeping water or perhaps just tired of lying around with no purpose.

The pit is a massive ‘dingkung’ (hole) on Bougainville’s landscape; it is also a massive statement that people are capable of gutting the Earth’s resources and leaving the land wasted and torn when the riches have been extracted and shipped away.

Creepers and dwarf alpine tree roots have held together the land around the rim of the open-cut mine but numerous crevices allow rainwater to seep into the pit.

The water turns into a turquoise-green when it comes into contact with copper traces in the rock it passes through and over.

The giant Euclid trucks and electric shovels, that were torched at the height of the Bougainville crisis and sat in neat rows like lifeless ducks looking down from the top of the pit, are no longer there.

Anything – big or small - that was worth salvaging to sell as scrap has gone.

So there is not much to find, cut or sell from Panguna anymore.

It would be a completely desolate place if not for the resilience of women, who – despite the land, creeks and jungle fauna and flora they have lost – go about their traditional chores related to the land.

Just about every activity that maintains a semblance of normal life here involves women.

They have especially returned to gardening - growing vegetables on any arable land spared of mining at this place where copper, gold and silver was found in the Crown Prince Range.

There are no commercial tree crops like cocoa and coconut grown in Panguna.

The people’s source of income is limited and comes from selling fruit and vegetables at the markets at Morgan Junction and Arawa.

The more you look at Panguna and the few remnants from its mining days over 30 years ago, the more it looks as if some gigantic monster landed here and trampled on everything with its huge feet.

It is unimaginable how a whole area of rainforest could disappear from this once beautiful place.

Yes, humans – at our very best and our very worst – are capable of many unbelievable things.

Panguna is a paradox – and a Pandora’s box. Once opened, its contents spewed out and could not be easily contained.

There is still a huge mineral deposit beneath the ground. There is no doubt it holds the potential to largely, perhaps singly, drive Bougainville’s economy in the same way it did before and after Papua New Guinea’s independence.

The Autonomous Bougainville Government and the Bougainville people are very aware that matters to do with mining and the concerns of landowner must be handled much better.

The lessons from Panguna provide an almanac of social, political, economic and environmental issues and concerns that must not be ignored.

Much of the problem is that we tend to start thinking about how much money the mining promises to provide. We imagine how that will transform everything for the better.

We do not think otherwise. We tend not to turn our minds to the human feelings, the societal issues, the injustices and the environmental harms that arise when huge projects of the magnitude of Panguna are given the green light.

Yet human views, feelings and sensitivities are much more powerful than what money may achieve in trying to reopen Panguna.

Just consider how many millions - a figure close to K20 million, if you include hidden costs, of our good money has been thrown over the years on discussing re-opening Panguna.

A lot of this isn’t necessarily governments, landowners fault or anybody’s fault.

When a mammoth mining project like Panguna is shut down amidst underlying conflicts and competing interests in a complex land tenure system, it is very difficult to get traction with anybody unless you satisfy everybody.

In a society where land is not owned individually, where its use and tenure are shared, it is impossible to satisfy everybody regardless of how many understandings, agreements or similar pledges are signed. Or for that matter, how many reconciliations there are.

There are tried and tested ways to resolve land claims, land feuds and land grabs in traditional societies.

These involve methods where settling a dispute doesn’t benefit one group, one party, one clan or a single family, while disadvantaging others.

Any resolution reached cannot have adverse impacts for some and benefits to others if it is to be widely accepted and shared.

This is one of the many ways in which traditional Melanesian society is highly egalitarian.

It does not necessarily fit with a system where land is regarded as a commodity – a resource that can be bought and sold, used and disposed of.

Paying heed to heartfelt feelings is critical when dealing with resource issues, as the late President Joseph Kabui reminded us:

“The Panguna mine did a massive damage to the environment of Bougainville,” he told a journalist.

“Damage that affected the river system in the immediate vicinity of the mine and of course all the way down to the sea.

“The river that I once swam in as a young boy spearing prawns and fish, eels, whatever, the normal life of the river disappeared right in front of my eyes.

“It is still dead, it will never come back to what it was before.”

Land is not only the stuff we walk on, are buried in, make gardens with, go walkabout on and hunt in.

Land is also the rivers and creeks, shrubs, trees and forests, insects, birds, lizards and marsupials. The same land supports this and us.

When people sense a threat or get the notion they might be dispossessed of land, they will fight and protect it with their lives if they have to.

No wonder Panguna continues to be a difficult problem to resolve, where good money has been thrown after dubious decisions.

It is always better to start a complex equation well than to go in boots and all, make a mess then try to fix the issues later.

Let us hope the Tunuru Agreement, which is openly representative and inclusive of the main custodial clans of traditional land in Panguna and its upper and lower tailings areas, has done things differently and is given a chance to succeed in ways other agreements did not.

Because if we continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, our hopes will collapse like the benches around the mine pit.


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Bernard Corden

Cut and Run - How Britain's top two mining companies have wrecked ecosystems without being held to account:


Bernard Corden

An economy is not a society. Here are several additional links from the London Mining Network that offers plenty of alternative information to the the indoctrinating science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and sinister economic worldview:




Nihon Vida

This is beautifully and sensitively written.

I first learned about Panguna and Bougainville when I lived in PNG from 2016-18.

Nowadays I see people on the internet talking about investing in mining stocks and recommending Rio.

They probably have no idea of what happened, but still it is frustrating how everything is a money game and people in far flung places are speculating on mining stocks.

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