Background Information

In Oceania, the islands of Bougainville and Buka (together making the Autonomous Region of Bougainville) are geographically and linguistically a member of the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea; however, they are not politically recognized as having affiliation.  There are about 200,000 inhabitants, or a little over 3 percent of Papua New Guinea’s total population. As is a characteristic trait of PNG, the people of Bougainville have vast diversity in language, cultural traditions, and identities. While the people of PNG speak about 840 different recognized languages, Bougainville holds about 25, on an island of 9,438 square kilometers (A. Regan 2008). A common trait among Bougainvilleans that tends to be shared is the strength of the Christian faith mixed in with indigenous spirituality, as a result of Catholic missionaries. Another common trait that most Bougainvilleans share is a very dark skin color in comparison with the majority of people in Papua New Guinea. While distinguishing populations by skin color has historically led to extreme racism and marginalization of millions of people, different skin color has aided in helping Bougainvilleans see themselves as a unified group separate from PNG, from which they desire to be independent.

Global Framework of the Bougainville Conflict

Coconut RevolutionThe nature of the Bougainville ethnic conflicts themselves demonstrate to us the most common and destructive of all forms of war that exist in modern times. In more recent years, the world is witness to more and more conflicts between indigenous populations and nation-states, as they battle over access to and management of natural resources (Castro and Nielsen 2001). These debilitating conflicts are not the traditional form of state versus state conflicts that most international relations fields are trained to address. Instead, conflicts such as Bougainville’s may be understood in the context of the “new wars” in a hybrid-political state. The Bougainville conflicts demonstrate an overlapping of interests and actors from both modern and indigenous spheres, adding a diverse factor to the perceptions, values and motives of those involve in the conflict (Boege 2010).

The new wars are new due to their nature of combining both western modern and traditional indigenous factors into the conflicts. Hybrid political states exemplify an overlapping of ideologies and social organization based on what is typically defined as the “modern” and the “indigenous”. Western forms of social organization and land tenure tend to dominate the ideology in the world in correlation with the expanse of globalization. Globalizing forces increase interactions between industrial and non-industrial, individualistic and communalistic, capitalistic versus subsistence-based cultures. The indigenous populations in the world today are not isolated from the world market economy, as demonstrated by the Bougainville struggle over land between the mining company and the native people. This global framework of understanding globalization’s positive and negative impacts, the formation of hybrid political orders, and the new wars’ conditions is important in understanding today’s most virulent conflicts, many of which are occurring in Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania.

Short History of the Bougainville Conflict

Bougainville was host to the most severe and chronic case of violence and conflict in Oceania witnessed since WWII. From 1988 to 1998, a decade of guerilla warfare, political struggles, and famine plagued the people of Bougainville. Hundreds of soldiers died, along with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians, from the costs of deprivation, disease, or fighting (Parliament of Australia, 2010). The war wasn’t a clear cut case of the secessionists versus the state of Papua New Guinea, as many intra-Bougainvillean ethnic conflicts commenced at the same time, creating a complex array and diverse levels of violent conflict and insecurity in the region (A. Regan 2008).

Violence originated from the social uproars against the negative social and environmental impacts of the Panguna mine.  The Panguna copper mine was dug in the land of Bougainville, and through the ’70s and ’80s was one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. The project brought enormous profits to Britain and Australia, along with high revenues for the government of Papua New Guinea, producing 44 percent of Papua New Guinea’s exports. The Panguna mine was dug by Bougainville Copper Limited, which was owned by an Australian subsidiary of the British mining giant, Rio Tinto Zinc. The mine had many negative consequences to both the natural environment and the Bougainvillean natives. As the indigenous viewed themselves as part of nature, their environmental concerns were deeply tied to their socio-cultural concerns.

A billion tons of pollutant runoff from the mining activities has destroyed entire river systems, killing the animals and plants. The mine pollution into the rivers included copper, mercury, lead and arsenic, leaving the water unsuitable to drink (Rotheroe 2001). The mining company had removed over a billion tons of land, and 99 percent of that land was turned into waste.

Bougainvilleans felt that their voice had not been respected and that external forces were taking the wealth out of their land, while they were being booted into what were effectively reservations on their own land. Under traditional land tenure of the Nasioi community, whose homeland was where Panguna was installed, land ownership is passed through matrilineal family lines. These methods of land tenure were not properly recognized by Bougainville Copper Limited, leading to the failure to sufficiently compensate the rightful land owners (Parliament of Australia, 2010). The mine appeared to have very high costs to the indigenous people and very limited financial returns to the land owners. Resentment of the mine spurred a collective desire to separate from Papua New Guinea and a Bougainvillean identity began to strengthen (A. Regan 2008).

Former employee of the company Bougainville Copper Limited and Bougainville native, Francis Ona, came to lead the resistance against the Panguna mine, and in turn the resistance for independence from Papua New Guinea. Ona stated that his people fight for: 1) land and the culture, 2) land and the environment, and 3) independence (Rotheroe 2001). Ona, after making a plea to the Panguna administration that was ignored, stole 50 kilos of explosives, and with the help of other concerned people, sabotaged the mine. Papua New Guinea sent in riot police that burnt down homes and created a backlash of unified guerilla forces under Ona’s command. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed, and would now face the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF), Australian forces, and opposing Bougainvillean forces. Because militaristic stale-mating occurred, in 1990 the forces of PNG formed a blockade around Bougainville, prohibiting the flow of goods. Extreme stressors on the health of the natives occurred, as they became malnourished and lacked medicine against malaria and other diseases. Something had to be done, so the Bougainvilleans turned inward.

The coconut revolution, as it has been coined, was created out of indigenous innovation to the isolation they experienced due to the blockade. Theirs was a war over the land of which they valued and respected, so it was to the land’s bounty that they turned. In the absence of diesel, Bougainvilleans learned how to extract oil from coconuts to run vehicles. Herbal remedies to disease and infection were discovered using plants. The rich fertile soils of the land supplied them with bountiful amounts of food once they strengthened their cultivation techniques. Bougainvilleans even were innovative enough to utilize rivers for hydroelectricity to light their towns. They were resourceful, going back to the closed down Panguna mine, taking anything and everything that they could use to create something useful. They were coming a long way from beginning the war fighting with bows and arrows. By turning back to a subsistence-based livelihood using indigenous knowledge of the environment, the Bougainvilleans were surviving, and proving much about indigenous identity to the world.

In 1990, the national government forces withdrew from Bougainville. The BRA was left alone, yet it lacked administrative capabilities to ensue political authority. It was a time in which Papua New Guinea fled from Bougainville, unable to break through the stalemate, and Bougainville still lacked autonomous political identity. The absence of formal state structures re-opened the possibility for traditional indigenous leadership to arise. The Bougainville conflicts did not exist in simple means of secessionists versus PNG, but many intra-Bougainvillean violent conflicts were occurring as well and a new method of providing security was needed. The potential of a council of indigenous chiefs to provide a level of sustainability was being recognized. Traditional authority had been largely disintegrated due to the history of colonial and imperial forces, and so much effort and dialogue was needed to strengthen indigenous identity and forms of conflict management.  Working from the bottom-up, a representative system arose, including clan-councils of chiefs (CCC), village-councils of chiefs (VCC), and area-councils of chiefs (ACC) (A. J. Regan 1999). A successful blend of indigenous and modern mechanisms of providing sustainability and peace seemed to be working.