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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Paupa New Guinea: Natural Resource Conflict Turns To War

Air Date: Week of April 4, 1997

On the island of Bougainville, a province of Papua New Guinea, fighting began 8 years ago over a copper mine operated by an Australian company. The Paguna mine desecrated sacred lands and destroyed the livelihoods of many local residents. The miners also unearthed long standing ethnic and political differences between Bougainvillans and the Papua New Guinea government and recently the conflict brought down Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Julius Chan. Steve Curwood spoke with two experts on the crisis.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the first 5 years of the 90s nearly 100 wars were fought all over the planet. Ethnic and religious differences, poverty, and greed all can start wars. So can conflict over natural resources. In the Pacific islands at least 5 armed struggles are linked to competing claims on timber, oil, and minerals. One that's been in the news lately is the civil war on the island of Bougainville, a province of Papua New Guinea. Fighting there began 8 years ago over a copper mine operated by an Australian company. The Paguna mine desecrated sacred lands in the middle of Bougainville, where a mountain once stood, and also destroyed the livelihoods of many local residents. The miners dug up more than copper. They also unearthed longstanding ethnic and political differences between Bougainvillians and the Papua New Guinea government. Displaced landowners blew up the mine's electric generator, forcing it to close, and launched a war of independence. Recently, the conflict brought down Papua New Guinea's prime minister, Julius Chan. The army forced him out when it learned he had hired foreign mercenaries to fight the rebellion while Papua New Guinea's own army remained underpaid. Bruce Beehler works in the US State Department's Office of Ecology and Terrestrial Conservation. He studies birds in Papua New Guinea, and describes Bougainville as a magnificent island with huge volcanoes rising out of the rainforest.

BEEHLER: I've camped up just above the mine and it's really quite spectacular -- everything festooned with moss and beautiful gnarled trees, and all sorts of fantastic bird sounds and the like. It's -- it's quite a spectacular place.

CURWOOD: Mr. Beehler says that while the people of Bougainville are poor, their island is rich in minerals. Like the rest of the country, it's also home to an enormous variety of plants and animals. After years of colonial domination, these are resources that Bougainvillians want to keep.

BEEHLER: You can understand that the people who have lived on Bougainville for hundreds of generations revere this land, consider their forests and mountains and watersheds sacred, and you can understand how they find the compensation in dollars inadequate to satisfy their future needs. The needs of the generations to come.

CURWOOD: Bougainville is a case study of what can go wrong when the people who bear the environmental and social costs of resource extraction don't fully share in its benefits. That's the view of Eugene Ogun, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Ogun has studied Bougainville for 30 years and has close ties to the Nasioi people whose land was taken for the mine.

OGUN: Initially, the mine, mining company assured everyone that, you know, when the mine was played out there would be action taken that would restore it so it could be used for subsistence agriculture. And now the mining company itself admits no, it's impossible. That land will never be good for anything at all. One of the worst and most obvious environmental effects was to pollute the Yaba River, because a mine produces, you know, junk. And the tailings were sent down the Yaba River, which completely polluted that river system all the way down to the ocean.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, this was a bad deal for the people of Bougainville.

OGUN: Oh it was a terrible deal! The original mining agreement of 1968 was so bad that when the Harvard Business School, which is hardly a left-wing organization I think, the Harvard Business School wrote it up as a case study, their conclusion was this is the kind of agreement that countries make when they have no experience making mining agreements with multinational corporations. The original deal was the Nasioi were going to get nothing, just that simple. But the Bougainvillian who was in the first house of assembly in New Guinea fought very hard and got what was widely trumpeted as a 5% royalty. Well, nobody asked 5% of what. Well, the 5% royalty was 5% of the 1-1/2% royalty that the central government got. That works out to, like 6 cents per $100 of value of the minerals produced. That's not a good deal.

CURWOOD: Now, Bougainville isn't the only place in New Guinea that's rich in natural resources, I mean --

OGUN: Oh, no. I've read a number of predictions that said if you could ever get all the potential on-line in mining, that Papua New Guinea would replace South Africa as largest producer of gold in the world.

CURWOOD: And there's timber and of course there's oil, right?


CURWOOD: But how is it that the mining and timber extraction companies are operating in other parts of Papua New Guinea without a civil war?

OGUN: Well, the main thing I think is that they've all learned from Bougainville. I mean, they saw that not enough thought had gone into the planning, getting the local people, getting them on side to a certain degree. That doesn't mean that they're doing a great job, but at least there's been more attention paid to, you know, setting up some kind of at least apparently equitable arrangement with the local people. It was never considered in Bougainville.

CURWOOD: So, how many of these issues have been resolved? The unfair distribution of profits, the environmental devastation, the social dislocation?

OGUN: Nothing. Nothing's been resolved at all that I -- well, I shouldn't say that. The mining company, to it's credit, I guess I have to say, realized that they were better off dealing directly with the local people and just stepping around, making an end run around the government of Papua New Guinea. So they did work out separate compensation agreements for different kinds of environmental damage, different kinds of land use and so forth. So as a result the landowners did start getting a better deal. When independence came in 1975 there was kind of an outpouring of secessionist sentiment in Bougainville. And the government of Papua New Guinea did give its 1-1/4% royalty to what had then become the North Solomon's Province, which is what Bougainville is. So that was a better deal for Bougainville, but it didn't necessarily have any trickle down effect to the Nacioi, the local people.

CURWOOD: You know, I understand the mine really is not the only thing at stake now in this war. What else would you say is driving the Bougainvillians away from the government of Papua New Guinea?

OGUN: Well, it's -- it's the sense of, you know, a continuing raw deal. It's the sense that we never belonged with you in the first place; we didn't ask to be part of Papua New Guinea. The Germans did this to us a long time ago. And then the Papua New Guinea defense force has angered everybody. But now, you see, you've got the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the Bougainville resistance forces, which are those non-Nacioi who are cooperating with the government of Papua New Guinea. You have a whole lot of weaponry they didn't have before, some of which has been captured from the Papua New Guinea defense force. So you've got undoubtedly a lot of young hotheads running around just settling old scores, all this kind of stuff. Because there's so much resentment now, and so much division, I think, within Bougainville, that it's going to take a long time for any of these wounds to heal.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking all this time with us today. Dr. Eugene Ogun is Professor Emeritus in Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He spoke to us from Hawaii Public Radio. Thank you, sir.

OGUN: You're welcome.



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