Bountiful and beautiful Bougainville

I have for the past three years been travelling to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) which formerly was the North Solomons Province of Papua New Guinea. The people of the ARB, that now number approximately 200,000, suffered immensely during the decade-long conflict that commenced in November 1988 and was brought to an end after the peace agreement signed in August 2001. They are now slowly rebuilding from the ashes of the conflict.

‘Cooked’, the local lingo for the setting of fire, were infrastructure, houses, hospitals, warehouses, schools, and much of the townships of Panguna, Toniva and Kieta. Thousands of people were killed as the police and subsequently the PNG Defense Force tried to muscle in the combatants. The killing and destruction that ensued is a major blemish on the history of PNG, and the Pacific more generally. Bougainville has remained peaceful for the past decade and a half. Schools, hospitals, and townships are being rebuilt. Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are helping rebuild roads, bridges, schools, health facilities and police posts. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors without Borders) is doing a marvellous job providing health services in South Bougainville.

Discussions are ongoing on the reopening of the Panguna copper mine that halted production in May 1989. When exactly will the mine reopen remains to be resolved, however. Rio Tinto, the majority owner, makes no secret of its “focus on finding, mining and processing the Earth’s mineral resources in order to maximise value for [its] shareholders”.

The people of Bougainville remain deeply divided on the desirability of reopening a mine that triggered the conflict and has been dormant for the past four years. Some of the folks I spoke to were eagerly awaiting the reconstruction of the mine, in the hope that it will bring income, taxes, employment, social services, and the like of the good days gone by. Arawa, Kieta and Panguna at the height of mining were bustling towns. A former Miss PNG told me that those were the days when women shopped in high heels pushing trolleys in large supermarkets in Arawa. Others that I spoke to were just as cautious, warning of the environmental damages caused by BCL (Bougainville Copper Limited), the effects of which remain to this day. Most outsiders think of Bougainville as a giant ruined mine that once produced mega dollars worth of copper, gold and silver. Others think of the mainland of Bougainville as a large heap of precious minerals and little else.

These perceptions are wrong. Mainland Bougainville is rich in resources. The problem with Bougainville is that it has too many resources. And the poverty in contemporary Bougainville can be attributed to the bountiful resources.

The largest resource Bougainville has is its people. Friendly, fullsome and funny people all the way from Buka in the north to Buin far down south. Bougainvilleans are big and beautiful people. Many have a wicked sense of humour, pointing out to me that the missionaries who went there from Fiji one hundred years ago tasted good.

Late last month while on my way to Arawa, I stopped to collect some bananas and kulao (green coconuts) at a roadside market. The old market vendor with teeth and gums stained to the lips with betel nut handed me a heap of green-skinned bananas and cut open a fresh green coconut—all for Kina 3 (approximately A$0.30). The bananas were the best I have had for a long while. I commented (in Tok Pisin), while munching a mouthful, that these were really sweet. This old lady retorted, in English, that “this is the sweetest bananas in the Pacific region”. I corrected her by stating that ‘they were the second sweetest bananas in the Pacific’. I got the expected reaction from her: “what do you mean?” I told her, in a cool and collected voice: ‘Fiji has the sweetest bananas’. The stained gums and teeth stuck out behind a beaming smile. Pointing her finger straight at me, she shouted out that I was from Fiji. I pretended to be an Indian, but to no avail as she just laughed it off, telling me that I was a Fiji Indian! We talked for a while after that when she relayed her stories of having visited Nadi and Suva, though some several years ago. And best of all, she had some extremely fond memories of a nation that I still call home.

Tourism, untapped potential

The economy of Bougainville remains battered and broken. But a lot is changing. Bougainville still boasts the best war relics from the Second World War. Memories of General Yamamoto, who was shot down and killed in South Bougainville, remain in the form of a primary school there. Old Japanese tanks, many unexploded mines, ‘dead’ and the few live guns that are constantly being dug out from the dumps, and a lot more await the keen eye. Torokina, which once was a thriving American military base and now a land-locked district located on the Empress Augusta Bay on the west coast of the mainland, is perhaps the best kept tourist secret within the entire South West Pacific. Some five hours ride on a banana boat from Buka, and that is possible only on a good day, would get the most determined traveller seasick. But once there, it is a spot worth all the trouble. Guesthouses, albeit with very basic facilities, are there for the thrill-seeker. Realising the tourism potential of Bougainville requires better transportation links around the autonomous region. Given the rough terrain, a ring road around the mainland is difficult but a shipping service as a substitute requires just a few jetties—most of them already in place except one in Torokina. The above together with improved law and order could entice a shipping company into providing a round-the-island daily shipping service. Communications is less of an issue as my Digicel phone worked fine, allowing me to talk to my son in Canberra from nearly all over the autonomous region.

And bringing light

Bougainville is emerging from the dark past of its violent crisis. Electricity generated from diesel powered generators is now supplied to residents in Buka, Arawa, and Buin. A small home-made hydro-electric plant supplies electricity to parts of Panguna. More home-made hydro-electric plants light up villages in the surrounding hills too. Bougainville has a lot more potential to generate hydro-electricity. Fresh water is one of the many things that the people of the mainland have in plenty. The large mountain range that runs as a spine on the centre of the mainland has fed large and fast flowing rivers, each of them surrounded by dense forest. One community has partnered with PNG Sustainable Development Program Ltd (PNGSDP) to build a turbine with a capacity of generating 0.2 megawatts in Togarau, a community located in the mountains of North Bougainville. Paul Akaoitai (pictured), the resident (bare-chested) chief who showed me around the site, explained that they had plans to build more catchments with bigger turbines downstream to light up all of north Bougainville. His community is drawing up plans to build a piggery, a poultry farm, and a potato chips venture so as to provide a sustainable source of income for the many smallholders engaged in growing fresh garden produce. Just as well, given that cocoa, the backbone of the economy, has suffered a heavy blow from cocoa pod borer. Bougainville is beautiful and its bountiful resources have the potential to provide for the needs of the majority of its people. A large mine could help but only if the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
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