Former employee of Bougainville Copper Ltd and Bougainville native, Francis Ona, came to lead a strong resistance against the Panguna mine and to further fight for independence from Papua New Guinea. Ona stated that his people fight for their land, their culture, and their independence. After his demands to the Panguna administration were not met, Ona stole 50 kilos of explosives and sabotaged the mine, destroying a power-supplying transmission tower with the help of a few others in 1988. Papua New Guinea, out of defense for their main source of exports, sent in riot police who overzealously burned natives’ homes to the ground. This created an intensified backlash and under Ona’s command, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed. The BRA would face the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF), Australian assisting forces, and opposing Bougainvillean forces as well. Due to the island’s geographical challenges as well as the complex array of actors involved, a militaristic stalemate eventually occurred. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1990, one year after the mine stopped operating because of the conflicts, and PNG’s forces withdrew from the island. However, in this same year the government of Papua New Guinea formed an air and sea blockade around Bougainville and Buka, prohibiting the flow of goods.Bougainvilleans initially faced starvation and disease without the imported goods that are essential for life on an island, which includes food and medicine for infections like malaria. Bougainvilleans also lacked fuel and other items that would be necessary during wartime. At this point they had no choice, Bougainvilleans had to adapt or die, and so many turned their attention inward.
An acclaimed 2001 documentary by Dom Rotheroe titled, “The Coconut Revolution” helped spread awareness of the “world’s first eco-revolution” as it shed light on the self-sustaining efforts of the Bougainvilleans at this time in the conflicts. The coconut revolution was an example of innovation birthed out of necessity. With the blockade in place there was no supply of diesel, so the Bougainvilleans learned how to extract oil from coconuts to fuel their vehicles. Herbal remedies for diseases and infections were discovered from plants on the island. The soil of the land was rich and fertile, so when Bougainvilleans enhanced their cultivation techniques they were rewarded with bountiful amounts of food. Hydroelectricity even lighted their towns once rivers and streams were utilized for sustainable energy. The shut-down site of the Panguna mine even became a large resource, as Bougainvilleans used anything and everything they could to create something useful. By focusing back on a subsistence-based livelihood that had nearly been lost, and by utilizing and reinvigorating indigenous knowledge of the environment, Bougainvilleans were surviving. They largely owed their capability to survive off the natural environment to a higher power. Even through devastating times of war, a positive outlook was acquired through the act of thanking God for what blessings they were able to receive. Unlike countries in which the church and state are more clearly divided, spirituality in Bougainville is much more inseparable from the values and norms that provide the framework for the organization of their society. A lot was being proved about indigenous identity to the entire world.
It is important to be aware that the method of storytelling in the popular 2001 documentary may unintentionally paint an inaccurate and oversimplified picture in viewers’ minds that indigenous Bougainvilleans, through Ona’s command of the BRA, stood as unified secessionists against the mainland forces of Papua New Guinea. In reality, conflicts between communities on Bougainville also erupted and some Bougainvillean groups, including those on Buka, even received support from the PNGDF. While localized groups were organized in ways that the documentary demonstrates, no organized form of centralized Bougainville government was able to get off the ground due to the amount of intra-Bougainvillean conflicts that were occurring. Inspiring ecological revolutions were underway, yet conflict between the many actors at play in the crisis continued to remain unresolved at the time.
Francis Ona put forth a unilateral declaration of independence after Papua New Guinea’s forces left the island in 1990. The UDI received no international recognition at the time. While Ona was named president of the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG), support for the BRA and for the BIG declined among Bougainvilleans. Anthony Regan reports that with the threat of the PNGDF absent, and without any form of effective self-governance, many intra-Bougainvillean conflicts arose over issues such as land ownership. While the south of the island remained in support of the BRA, Bougainville Resistance Forces (BRF) formed in opposition to the BRA groups and some were even supported by the PNGDF.
Australia, home to BCL who had supplemented PNG’s forces, came to condemn the PNGDF due to many human rights violations that occurred. Yet the tipping point seemed to be after Julius Chan, the Prime Minister of PNG at the time, made agreements in 1997 with Sandline, an international military contractor, to enhance PNG’s military strength. After this, divisions grew in Papua New Guinea as General Singirok of the PNGDF led a rebellion that evicted the controversial contracted private military forces. Afterward, Bill Skate was elected as the new Prime Minister and opportunities for peace talks were seized.
The Path to Peace in Bougainville
The first rounds of peaceful negotiations were hosted in New Zealand beginning in 1997. Notably, peace between PNG and Bougainville would not be possible until the intra-Bougainvillean conflicts were resolved. In 1997, opposing Bougainvillean groups successfully signed the Burnham Declaration, which committed them to pursuing peaceful negotiations. Later in the same year, the government of Papua New Guinea joined the Bougainville factions to sign the Burnham Truce, agreeing to be monitored by an unarmed New Zealand peace monitoring group. A continued “roadmap” to peace was signed with the Lincoln Agreement in 1998, which provided a ceasefire, continued external monitoring under Australian military leadership, and further agreed for reconciliation to take place between Bougainvilleans and between PNG and Bougainville. Interesting to note is that Francis Ona, original leader of the BRA, stood as a roadblock for negotiations towards independence at this time due to the fact that he believed that his 1990 UDI was enough to solidify Bougainville’s independence. Finally, in 2001, the Bougainville Peace Agreement was ratified, providing autonomy for Bougainville, a position just short of full independence. PNG military forces were withdrawn, combatant Bougainvillean groups were disarmed, and a referendum was created so that the future political status of Bougainville may yet be decided. There were several key factors that led to the successful implementation of these agreements in Bougainville. These include the role that women played for resolving conflicts on Bougainville, the inclusion and integration of indigenous forms of governance with formal Westphalian state procedures, collective perceptions responsibility, an emphasis on restorative justice, strong external monitoring and mediation, and the fact that the process of healing was emphasized without rushing or pushing for immediate outcomes.
An inherent danger exists with the agreements made that a lack of enforcing or implementing mechanisms may mean that the sources of the conflict could go unaddressed and conflict may reemerge. The United Nations was aware of these complications and therefore aimed to design incentives for cooperation for all parties involved. Boege writes that the New Zealand negotiations were effective because the New Zealand hosts were focused on the process rather than on the outcome. With long years of intense conflict, ample time is needed for any kind of healing to occur. The 2001 peace agreement had built in mechanisms for ensuring that a long-term outlook was made, so that the final political status of Bougainville could be addressed down the road after a level of peace was restored. Emphasizing the process rather than immediate outcome ensured that political decisions were given the time they needed to best suit the community’s needs, which in turn prevents the reemergence of conflict.
Another significant reason that the negotiations in New Zealand were successful was because the parties present were constructing peace from an already established foundation. As early as seven years before the first rounds of mediated negotiations took place in New Zealand, Bougainvillean women, church leaders, and chiefs began taking advantage of indigenous customs designed for conflict prevention, management, and resolution. The fact that warring factions in Bougainville chose to begin building peace on their islands by utilizing traditional indigenous means of CPMR demonstrates the significance of keeping indigenous knowledge alive in the world today. Women, church leaders, and traditional chiefs aimed to restore damaged relationships between warring communities on the island.
Restorative forms of justice aim at restoring relationships to promote peace between entire communities, while retributive justice (conventional legal forms) aims to punish or reward the parties present. Restorative justice has been used to prevent conflict by indigenous populations throughout the world. In most cases the social foundations constructed by collective responsibility, restorative justice, and reciprocity were destroyed during colonization. It is here that the term “ethnic conflict” is often misleading. Conflict did not erupt because of the presence of different ethnic groups; conflict erupted in Bougainville due to the presence of political structures that perpetuated inequality. Many of the world’s ethnic conflicts have ignited after colonizing forces disrupted the indigenous social fabric that had once maintained order. One Bougainvillean chief emphasized the importance of restorative justice for the people on the island, stating that it is what “our ancestors used for thousands of years to resolve minor and major disputes, up until colonial times.” The BRA strongly supported the strengthening of indigenous customs in their fight for independence; however, the councils of chiefs still faced many roadblocks to peaceful relations. Adapting traditional indigenous customs to better suit the realities and challenges that Bougainville faced in the modern day, a system of councils of elders (COE) opened the door for elected church leaders and women to join the clan chiefs in their efforts to manage conflict.