A NASA space shuttle image of Bougainville Island

A NASA space shuttle image of Bougainville Island

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Introducing the Bougainville Crisis within its Global Context

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville, which includes the islands of Bougainville, Buka, and an array of smaller atolls, is located in Oceania just east of mainland Papua New Guinea, from which it is not yet fully independent. Geographically, Bougainville is a part of the Solomon Islands and Bougainvilleans share more cultural and linguistic traits with the Solomon Islanders than they do with the people of Papua New Guinea. Despite these facts, through colonization Papua New Guinea and Bougainville were administered together under the same colonial territory. So when Papua New Guinea gained its independence in 1975, Bougainville continued to remain politically connected to the country. Home to an estimated 200,000 inhabitants, the island’s population is far from being culturally homogenous. Similar to mainland Papua New Guinea, Bougainville is host to an impressive array of distinct languages (about 25, in fact), traditions, and cultural identities—all within the 9,438 square kilometers of the island.[1]  Amidst such high levels of diversity, some common traits among Bougainvilleans include their skin color, which is darker than that of most mainland Papua New Guineans, and a generally strong Christian faith, which has blended with indigenous spirituality as a result of interaction with Catholic missionaries. The igniting point that led many Bougainvilleans to come together to fight for independence from Papua New Guinea came from collective dissatisfaction with the management of the Panguna mine on the island (at one point the world’s largest open-cut mine), which created many significant costs for Bougainvilleans while providing very few benefits. The Bougainville crisis began in 1988.

The Bougainville crisis was the most severe and chronic case of violence that had occurred in the Pacific since World War II. A decade of guerilla warfare, political struggles over identity, famine, and insecurity plagued the people of Bougainville from 1988 until 1997. Beyond the hundreds of soldiers who lost their lives, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians died either by direct fighting, disease, or deprivation of basic needs.[2] One false perception of the Bougainville crisis is that it was a case of warfare between the secessionists of Bougainville and the state of Papua New Guinea. This would lead observers to believe that the Bougainville crisis was a form of conventionally-understood civil war; however, the reality was that the violence was much more complex, as many intra-Bougainvillean conflicts commenced at the same time as the Bougainville-Papua New Guinea violence.

In terms of addressing violent conflict in the world today, the state and its formal judicial process (retributive forms of justice) is generally legitimized as the main provider of conflict prevention, management, and resolution (CPMR). That is because violent conflict and warfare have traditionally been understood by policymakers and state-leaders as an activity that takes place between two or more state entities, pitting their militaries against each other in order to achieve some form of political gain and/or increased power. Unlike the conventional model for understanding warfare, the actors involved in the Bougainville hybrid conflict were not limited to states’ militaries; non-state private military companies, indigenous groups, and multinational corporations were also involved. In these forms of warfare, the presence of violent non-state actors (VNSAs), including terrorist groups, traffickers, and warlords, complicates our understanding of conflict since they are borderless threats.[3] In Bougainville, familial ties rather than political ideologies united groups together to compete for their own security.[4] It is this form of violent conflict that is now considered to be the largest security concern in the agendas of the world’s leading countries.[5] Some would consider these “new wars”[6] as a sort of reversion in conflict—where violence breaks out over historically consistent issues such as access to resources, recognition of identity, and the assurance of basic needs. The reality is that violent conflict in the world today has taken a hybrid form: blending state and non-state issues and actors together and combining both old (the conventionally understood) and new characteristics of warfare.

Hybrid political orders are defined by Volker Boege of the Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management as those states (often labeled as “weak”) in which diverse institutions (including non-governmental organizations, VNSAs, and multinational corporations) compete with state institutions, forming a country with a governing structure that does not match the conventional image of what a territorialized, Westphalian state looks like[7]. Boege notes that today’s violent conflicts are often “hybrid socio-political exchanges in which modern state-centric as well as pre-modern traditional and post-modern factors mix and overlap. The state has lost its central position in violent conflicts of this kind….”[8] Further addressing the prevalence of hybridity, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that future threats were most likely to consist of a hybrid blend of conventional and irregular warfare, and the Department of Defense (DoD) uses hybridity as a term to describe the current complexity of violent conflicts and the requirement for an “adaptable and resilient response”.[9] What should this adaptable response entail? After nearly a decade of warfare, the Bougainville peace-building process was largely successful due to the fact that indigenous customs and norms were integrated with conventional state procedures—a hybrid conflict resolution approach that was well suited for the complex array of state and non-state issues present in the crisis.

The story of the Bougainville crisis provides many lessons for understanding other violent conflicts that occur in the world today, especially those involving the struggles of indigenous populations. It’s a story that demonstrates the inherent interconnection between three key forms of security: the security of the natural environment, the security of human beings, and the security of the structure of the state. Unfortunately the security of the state too often takes utmost priority in a manner that makes the other two key forms of security vulnerable—a clearly unsustainable condition as people will eventually revolt against the structures that create inequality within their governments. For sustainable peace and stability to be achieved, all three forms of security must be addressed. The Bougainville crisis was sparked because the needs of the indigenous Bougainvilleans, as well as those of the natural environment upon which they were dependent, were placed to the side in order for the government of Papua New Guinea to acquire highest profits from the Panguna mine in Bougainville. An ensuing period of warfare passed with human rights abuses occurring on all sides, as well as recurring failures to resolve the conflicts. Despite such virulent violence, the Bougainville story is ever more important due to the successes in peace-building that eventually emerged. These are successes that should shine as examples that demonstrate the potential for protracted conflicts to be resolved, as well as to demonstrate the potential for communities to become self-sufficient and ecologically sustainable. Maybe most importantly, the Bougainville story should be taken into consideration in order to preemptively avoid the outbreak of other violent conflicts, especially those involving minority populations, declining resources, and desires for autonomy. Where the Bougainville crisis began due to an unstable focus on national gain over human rights and environmental sustainability, the situation today is one in which the political governance of Bougainville is better designed to address the needs of the community and their environment.

Short History of the Bougainville Conflict

Social uprising began intensifying in Bougainville due to the negative social and environmental impacts caused by the Panguna mine. The Panguna copper mine was operated by Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), owned by Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA), an Australian subsidiary of the British mining company Rio Tinto-Zinc. Drilling began at the Panguna site in 1972 in accordance with agreements made between the government of Papua New Guinea and BCL, despite opposition from indigenous Bougainvilleans. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Panguna copper mine remained one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, bringing profits to Britain and Australia, and making up 44 percent of Papua New Guinea’s exports, as well as 17 percent of the country’s state-generated revenue.[10]

Despite such profit generation, Bougainvilleans received very few benefits from BCL, and the costs to the society were readily apparent. PNG and the mining company failed to respect or understand Bougainvillean customs or methods of land ownership. Panguna was located on the Nasioi community’s land—the ownership of which is passed down through matrilineal family lines. Without taking the initiative to understand the norms of the matrilineal society, Bougainville Copper Ltd failed to sufficiently or correctly compensate the rightful land owners.[11] Many Bougainvilleans were forced to be relocated and they also faced immense environmental and social damages that were directly caused by the Panguna mine.  Pollutant runoff, including poisonous copper, mercury, lead, and arsenic, destroyed entire river systems, leaving the water unlivable for plants and animals and unsuitable for human consumption.[12] According to Australia Parliament records, 99.4 percent of the 1.215 billion tons of land that was removed by the mining company was effectively turned to waste.[13] While communities on Bougainville had many differences and old conflicts between each other, continued resentment for the mine spurred collective desires which further strengthened a sense of a more unified Bougainvillean identity.[14]