Digging the Mines in Melanesia


A cross the island of New Guinea three of the world's largest open-cut gold and copper mines have intruded on the lands and resources of Fourth World Melanesians: the Ok Tedi and Panguna mines in Papua New Guinea and the Freeport mine in West Papua (see Map 5). (The "fourth World" are peoples who have a special, nontechnical, non-Western relationship to the lands in which they live and have been disenfranchised within the imposed state boundaries in which they live [Manuel and Posluns 1974:5]. Indigenous Melanesian peoples are better characterized as Fourth World nation peoples [Nietschmann 1987] rather than "ethnic" or "cultural minorities"; after all, they are the original inhabitants of an area whose lands and resources have been expropriated and they find themselves encapsulated within states of the Third [e.g., Bougainvilleans in Papua New Guinea, West Papuans in Indonesia] and First [e.g., Kanaks in France] worlds.) Indigenous nation peoples in the vicinity of the mining projects experienced ecocide and ethnocide, and responded with social protest movements (May 1982; Hyndman 1988). The volatile articulation of Fourth World nations, colonizers, states, and transnationals on the mining resource frontier in New Guinea has recently erupted into a Fourth World war on Bougainville (Hyndman, in press).

Panguna: Mining Invasion of Bougainville

Settled in the foothills and mountains that surround the Panguna mine on Bougainville are some 14,000 Nasioi (Wurm 1982:237); the region has been their homeland since 911 (Ogan 1972:13). Cash-cropping - of coconuts and cocoa among the men and market vegetables among the women - became the important economic innovation following World War II. Cash-cropping by the Nasioi (Ogan 1972:122,183) and the neighboring Nagovisi (Mitchell 1976:1) was disastrous, creating serious land shortages at the expense of subsistence production and providing low returns for labor input. "Big-men" (local political leaders) exchange among the Nasioi is conducted among kin or facilitated by putative kinship relations, and is primarily a social activity; after cash-cropping, big-men started competing for prestige in bisnis (Melanesian Tok Pisin for almost any cash-earning activity other than wage earner).

Cash-cropping and bisnis presented and acute crisis to established kinship modes of production among the indigenous peoples of southern Bougainville. They responded to the crisis with kago (Melanesian Tok Pisin for the cargo-cult belief that spiritual and material benefits can be obtained through ritual activity). Kago competed with bisnis and was used as a form of social protest. The German and Australian colonizers grew rich off paying cheap wages to indigenous laborers and expropriating indigenous land; kago became a social protest to redistribute the wealth.

Copper mineralization on Nasioi land was confirmed in 1960 by a geologist of the colonial Australian administration. The transnational Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), an amalgamation of the Australia-based companies Conzinc Rio Tinto and Broken Hill Corporation began prospecting in 1963. When BCL started test drilling in 1964, the Nasioi treated the prospectors as trespassers (Bedford and Mamak 1977:7-10). From 1969 to 1972 the colonial Australian administration granted BCL leases over 12,500 hectares for a mine site, access roads, and wasted disposal (Bedford and Mamak 1977:27). The Nasioi and their neighbors vigorously opposed all land acquisitions. (See Map 6.)

No environmental impact study h ad been required or carried out at the time the Panguna mine commenced production (Hughes and Sullivan 1989). The environmental destruction caused by mining seriously disrupts subsistence and cash-cropping; expanding cash-cropping became feasible only at the expense of subsistence production (Mitchell 1971:1; Moulik 1977:44-45; Ogan 1972:122-183; Ward 1975:97-101), placing an every greater reliance on bisnis for cash earnings. Although compensation, too, provides cash, it remains a very contentious issue: land appropriation and environmental degradation have severe consequences. The Australian colonial administration decision in 1970 to flush all waste rock, silt, and chemical residue down the Karewong and Jaba rivers continues to be socially and ecologically disastrous. Up until 1989 BCL was dumping about 135,000 metric tons of tailings daily into the Jaba River; the 35-km-long valley is covered 30 meters deep and one kilometer wide, and a 700-hectare delta has accumulated in Empress Augusta Bay (Hughes and Sullivan 1989:37-38). Tailings are chemically contaminated with 800-1000 parts per billion of copper, killing all aquatic life; remobilizing heavy metals ensures that such ecocide will continue long after the mining is completed (Chambers 1985:180).

In interviewing BCL chairman Don Carruthers (Griffin and Carruthers 1990:59), Professor Jim Griffin stated that Bougainvilleans had every reason to be resentful because "in 1966 the then Minister for External Territories, Charles Barnes, visited Bougainville and told astonished villagers that, while their traditional land would yield astronomical riches, they themselves would have to be content with damage compensation and spin-off benefits. Minerals belonged to the State." BCL pushed for a fast-track development of the mine, with landowners receiving substantial compensation, in order to catch a predicated up-turn in copper prices. The Australian colonial administration, however, was determined that landowners would receive only occupancy fees, even though land "occupied" by mining would be totally destroyed. Compensation was not standardized until 1980, with the Panguna Landowners' Association (PLA), and a Road Mine Tailings (RMTL) Trust Fund was created Actual compensation money wad distributed very unevenly over a wide number of people, and the sums made only a limited impact on people's lives (Connell 1991).

Bougainvilleans Mobilize Against Mining

Because their rights as landowners were ignored, the Nasioi gave hostile and active resistance to the state and to the BCL exploration, construction, and operation phases:

Land is our life. Land is our physical life-food and sustenance. Land is our social life; it is marriage; it is status; it is security; it is politics; in fact, it is our only world. When you take our land, you cut away the very heart of our existence. We have little or no experience of social survival detached from the land. For us to be completely landless is an nightmare which no dollar in the pocket or dollar in the bank will allay; we are a threatened people. (Dove, Miriuna, and Togolo 1974:182)

Although 55 percent of the work force were Papua New Guineans when the construction phase peaked 10-500 workers, among the landowners only 8 percent of the adult Nasioi men worked at the mine (Moulik 1977:47). The Nasioi and their neighbors largely refused to accept mining employment (Bedford and Mamak 1977:8-11; Stent 1970:7-8).

Bougainvilleans despised the rapid urbanization of their homeland. Arawa reached 15,000 and Panguna, 3,500 by 1988. Leo Hannett, a former provincial premier, articulated Bougainvillean feelings toward the rapid urbanization created by BCL:

Arawa, in more ways then one, is everything else except a Bougainvillean town. Arawa is to most Bougainvilleans a strange town... [which] was born of an unholy wedlock between a multinational corporation and a government that sacrificed Bougainvillean rights and well-being in the names of expediency and the almighty dollar. Arawa is therefore seen as the single towering monument to the twin exploiters of Bougainville: copper and the Papua New Guinea Government. (Mamak and Ali 1979:73)

Bougainvilleans rejected personal financial gain in favor of self-determination and autonomous control over lane and resources (Moulik 1977:83). The competition that had taken place among cash-cropping, bisnis, and kago was replicated when dissatisfaction with mining led to another major social protest movement. Napidokae Navitu, the Nasioi social protest movement for autonomy and identity, was born a a meeting to protest the resumption of the Arawa plantation in 1969. A militant protest movement for autonomy in land and resources, by 1972 Napidokae Navitu had attracted 8,000 followers and had become the social action focus for Bougainvillean secession and nationalism (Bedford and Mamak 1977:22; Griffin 1982; Mamak et al. 1974:9).

The payback killing of two Bougainvillean civil servants in a car accident in the highlands in 1973 (Griffin 1982:135) accelerated Bougainvillean calls for secession and repatriation of mainlanders (Hannett 1975:290). Labor unrest and interethnic hostilities culminated in a violent strike against BCL in 1975 in which infrastructure and production facilities were damaged. The self-governing Papua New Guinea administration then punitively withheld Bougainville investment royalties, and Bougainville officially seceded only days before Papua New Guinea became a new state. Bougainvillean affiliation to the state was accomplished when its royalties were restored, and it was granted status as the North Solomons Province (not to be confused with Solomon Islands) (Bedford and Mamak 1977:88-89, 1979:74-85). During these developments Napidokae Navitu continued as a Bougainvillean focus for development, education, and autonomy (Griffin 1982; Oliver 1973:172-176).

The Bougainville Revolutionary Army

Throughout the 1980s Bougainvilleans, realizing that they were economically neglected (Connell 1991), began to develop a distinctive Bougainvillean identity (Nash and Ogan 1990). There is continuity in these people's lives: they live close to their ancestral homelands, speak Bougainvillean languages, and place great importance in their values, ceremonies, and kinship mode of production.

The same period saw the BCL compensation money, which the Panguna Landowners' Association had received for family heads and for the RMTL Trust Fund, as a growing source of dispute among landowners. In August 1987 a new PLA emerged, led by younger, more educated Nasioi men and women who opposed the BCL mining operation. Perpetua Serero, leader of the new PLA, claimed:

We don't grow healthy crops any more, our traditional customs and values have been disrupted and we have become mere spectators as our earth is being dug up, taken away and sold for million. Our land was taken from us by force: we were blind then, but we have finally grown to understand what's going on. (Hiambohn 1989:18)

The PLA immediately placed demands on BCL. In March 1988 500 PLA-organized landowners marched on BCL with a petition of demands for increased basic services, localization of employment, and greater control of environmental degradation and pollution (see May 1990). Receiving no response, they closed the mine during a one-day sit-down protest two months later. BCL brought in Applied Geology Associates as consultants, and in a public meeting in November of that year they used their report to refute Bougainvillean claims that the mine was responsible for loss of wildlife, declining agricultural production, and a range of human illnesses. Francis Ona, a vocal PLA leader, declared BCL's environmental inquiry to be a "whitewash" and stormed out of the meeting, and landowners present at the meeting disagreed violently with BCL's conclusion (Connell 1991).

Serero commented that from Richard West's book River of Tears: The Rise of the Rio Tinto Zinc Corporation, Ltd. (1972), "we knew we could expect the worst." A few days after the "whitewash" public meeting, armed Bougainvilleans took a large quantity of explosives from the BCL arsenal. That December BCL shut down the Panguna mine as fires and explosions destroyed mine installations valued at 850,000 kina (Papua New Guinea unit of currency; roughly the same in US dollars). In a formal communication to North Solomons Provincial Premier Joseph Kabui, Ona, the landowners' spokesperson, said that the people meant business and were prepared to die for their cause. The BCL chairman responded with investment threats, indicating the company might pull out of its two new gold mining operations at Hidden Valley and Mt. Kare.

In the following weeks Panguna mining installations were professionally blown up with the assistance of Bougainvillean Sam Kauona, an explosives expert trained in Australia who had left the Papua New Guinea Defense Forces (PNGDF) to join the armed struggle with Ona. Early in 1989 the armed Bougainvilleans began referring to themselves as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). In radio broadcasts on 3 and 25 November 1988, and in letters to the Papua New Guinea Post Courier on 28 April and to the North Solomons Province Peace and Justice Committee on 29 April 1989, Ona outlined the BRA demands:

Dear Bart Kigina:

What I see there is that our human race is under threat with the existence of BCL through these major factors:

(1) The use of dangerous chemicals in its production line.

(2) The environmental damage caused by the Panguna mine and [the impact] that mine Prospecting Authorities would bring about when mining continued ahead.

(3) A fifth of our total area of Bougainville is already damaged. No creature will ever exist on it again. Another four-fifths when covered will completely restrict our people from subsistence farming which in return will mean the life of [the] entire province.

(4) Social unrest is continuing to increase with the presence of outside influence.

With this in mind, I am deeply concerned for the lives of our future generations.

These concerns have never been addressed to the world community. That's why they don't know what we are fighting for.

To members of the Panguna Landowners' Association.

I am writing to you in regard to the demands to both BCL and the national government. The original issues were:

(1) 10 kina billion environmental compensation payment.

(2) BCL to be closed.

(3) Break away from PNG [Papua New Guinea].

There was no answer to all these demands by BCL or the National Government.

Our only option now is (3): break away from PNG. Only then we will be able to save the lives of our people in Bougainville.

According to Moses Havini (1990:25), who designed Bougainville's first secession flag in 1975 and went on to act as North Solomons Province executive officer, Ona was hailed by Bougainvilleans as their new hero; his broadcasts were recorded and played constantly in homes, shops, and villages:

There is widespread support throughout Bougainville for Ona's three demands, namely: a better deal for the landowners affected by the mind (including compensation for environmental damage); a better deal for Bougainville (that is, the profits from the mine staying in Bougainville rather than going to the PNG Government); and secession. In my experience, everywhere you go, people will express support for Ona. People say that the only way to solve the problems with Papua New Guinea is to give North Solomons its independence.

After two decades of having their natural resources converted into national resources, the Bougainvilleans were profoundly dissatisfied, and the BRA proceeded to mount a very successful Fourth World resistance movement against the state and BCL. Media and academic focus on Ona and on state-controlled notions of legally defined conflict has ignored what the BRA is fighting for and the fact that the Bougainvilleans are united as a people. This is a nation-vs.-state armed conflict over autonomous control of land and resources, not an insurgency to overthrow the Papua New Guinea national government.

Police commissioner Paul Tohian issued shoot-to-kill orders against "saboteurs." BRA fighters succeeded in closing the Panguna mine in May 1989; it had immediate economic implications for Papua New Guinea. Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu ordered PNGDF troops into the conflict, announcing to the Papua New Guinea parliament:

The priorities of the Government are clear. First, we will rid Bougainville of this terrorist scourge. Second, we will restore peace to the island. Third, and vital, for the whole nation, we will reopen the Bougainville copper mine. (Senge 1990:12)

September 1989 a leaked cabinet document was published which said, "Cabinet is now firmly of the view that a state of insurgency exists" (Niugini Nius 9/22/89). In unleashing its counterinsurgency reprisals (code-named Operation Footloose) against the BRA, the Papua New Guinea national government failed to meet any of its priorities (Bougainville Information Service 1990). Operation Footloose further drained Papua New Guinea's economy, and the PNGDF failed to defeat the BRA and succeeded only in becoming an army of occupation against Bougainvillean civilians.

The PNGDF lost the Fourth World war, and Operation Footloose claimed more than 200 casualties (Pacific Islands Monthly 2/91). In early March 1990 the PNGDF withdrew from Bougainville and BRA Supreme Commander Ona declared an independent Republic of Bougainville that May. The BRA took control of every district in Bougainville, set up its headquarters at the Panguna mine site, and established an interim government. No states have recognized the Republic of Bougainville, and Papua New Guinea blockaded the island to cut off all essential services in May 1990. There is, however widespread Melanesian nationalism support, especially from adjacent Solomon Islands, for the Bougainvillean struggle for self-determination.

The PNGDF counterinsurgency tactics used in Operation Footloose served to generate even greater Bougainvillean support for the BRA. During the campaign, the PNGDF forcefully "relocated" civilians from their homelands to coastal camps in strategic "hamlet-ing" tactics to cut BRA supply lines (Bougainville Information Service 1990:2; Robie 1989:16). Several suspected BRA members, including a Uniting Church pastor, reportedly were murdered by PNGDF troops, their bodies dropped into the sea from a helicopter (Sydney Morning Herald 3/8/90). According to Callick (1991:19), PNGDF troops "have carried guns - and fired them - while drunk, they have stripped and beaten villagers at checkpoints, they have destroyed more than 1000 houses, and several young Bougainvilleans, not provably rebels, have died after military questioning. "An Amnesty International report confirmed claims of human rights violations and Papua New Guinea police and army brutality (May 1990:176).

Papua New Guinea police and PNGDF reputations have been seriously damaged, and national government authority and control over its security forces is seen now to be very limited. In an effort to create dialogue and trust, Papua New Guinea and the BRA signed the Endeavor Accord aboard a New Zealand warship on 5 August 1990. Within weeks of signing the accord, however, Papua New Guinea launched Operation Cleric and sent troops into Buka. The main BRA force held back from engaging the PNGDF. The second phase of Operation Cleric was intended to secure Buin, at the extreme southern end of Bougainville, back for Papua New Guinea. By cutting Bougainvilleans off from external assistance, the PNGDF hoped to woo residents back to Papua New Guinea by resuming the essential services that had been shut off in May (Bougainville Information Service 1990:3).

Operation Cleric never reached Buin, however, and Papua New Guinea did not succeed in reinvading Bougainville. Instead, the Republic of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea signed the Honiara Declaration of Peace, Reconciliation, and Rehabilitation on Bougainville in the capital city of Solomon Islands on 24 January 1991; Bougainvilleans were represented by Joseph Kabui, previously the North Solomons Province Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Michael Somare, who stated, "We have signed a very important historical document which will go down in the history of our country" (The Daily Globe 1/24/91).

"Social Time Bombs"

Feiler (1990:5) argues that "landowning communities" developed a "social time-bomb" relationship to the Panguna mining project, and that this and all other mining company - community relationships in Papua New Guinea are misunderstood because of the myths of "Bougainvillean nationalism" and "Melanesian communism." The alternative to Melanesian nationalism is a narrow economic explanation that focuses on the compensation package, to which Feiler (1990:26-27) attributes a

process of social disintegration engendered by the economic relationship between the company, the government and the community. The trouble is that there may be no economic relationship between the landowners and the developers which will curtail the process... Panguna landowners seem to have experienced a loss of social harmony and relationship of economic dependency as a result of the compensation package accepted by their predecessors.

It is the fragmentation of states and nations and the clash between modes of production in the Four Worlds of experience and action - not selfish individuals competing over mining compensation packages - that turn mining projects into social time bombs in New Guinea. Anthropologists have long acknowledged the links among descent, land, and peoples in New Guinea. Indigenous nation peoples in Melanesia are not expansionist like states, group boundaries, and territorial limits are thought of as coterminous. Increasingly in Melanesia, the Fourth World is realizing its commonality - as nation peoples with kinship modes of production attached to specific homelands. On the volatile mining frontier in New Guinea, the Fourth World is developing this commonality in order to resist transnational and state encapsulation.

Where Feiler (1990) only finds a myth, Nash and Ogan (1990:9-13) assert that dealing with the Panguna mining project, in fact, created Bougainvillean identity and nationalism:

Bougainvilleans have had to contend for years with very real violence to themselves and their way of life, committed by colonizers, by a multinational mining firm, and presently by other Papua New Guineans, including riot police whose brutality under the guise of pacification is being investigated by the PNG [Papua New Guinea] government. Their creation of a Bougainvillean ethnic identity has precisely sustained "collective cooperative efforts" in self-defense against forces that might otherwise overwhelm them. (Nash and Ogan 1990:13)

Kastom, the widespread rallying cry for Melanesian nationalism (Keesing and Tonkinson 1982), has not been used by Bougainvilleans. Skin color, however became a focal symbol of their identity as a people; in using it they symbolically inverted the ideological fiction of colonialism to their own political ends. Boundaries were further enhanced by contrasting Bougainvillean peacefulness with the violence of other New Guineans; as explained by one 16-year-old Bougainvillean girl, "I think all Niuginians are bad because they want to make trouble between themselves... Bougainvilleans are like brothers and sisters" (quoted in Nash and Ogan 1990:11). In dismissing symbolic inversion and boundary maintenance as creative processes in the formation of Bougainvillean nationalism, Feiler (1990) fails to appreciate that identity as a people has been integral in the Bougainvillean armed struggled for self-determination.

Mining requirements for capital, labor, and food for workers, as well as the physical output of the mines, integrates surrounding regions into a single ecological/economic sphere (Godoy 1985:207). Not just the immediate "landowning communities" but entire socio-ecological regions have become the target of the social time bombs triggered by mining expansion in New Guinea. In the Freeport, Ok Tedi, and Panguna socio-ecological regions, Fourth World Melanesians have not been stone-age primitives nor passive recipients of social and ecological change. Melanesian nationalism and communism are expressed in the collective Fourth World movements of social protest against grave ecocide and ethnocide problems caused by transnational mining projects.

According to Feiler (190:9),

One upon a time there was a community whose members lived in complete harmony with each other and with their natural environment, who jointly owned the land to which they had a mystical attachment, who chose their leaders by consensus, settled their arguments by compromise, and redistributed the products of their labor to ensure that everyone enjoyed the same condition of subsistence affluence.

This "village which exists everywhere and nowhere" has "always been on the verge of disintegration"; it is nothing more than the "Melanesian village in the sky" that "Europeans had invented long before they came to Melanesia" (Feiler 1990:9). By substituting instability for communism, diverse societies can be "encapsulated in a national identity which cannot be distinguished from a hundred other national identities created by the same colonial experience" (Feiler 1990:9).

Fourth World wars are not fought over myths. Making Melanesian communism a myth denies the land-based aspirations and clash of modes of production that occur between nations and states on New Guinea's mining frontier. The Fourth World's assertion of people's right to control their own lives within their own territories is as significant a social movement in our time as was post-World War II decolonization. Global conflict, once embodied by massive armies of states fighting one another, has become the "Third World War" (Nietschmann 1987) - insurgencies fight states created by decolonization, and states invade and annex Fourth World nations externally and internally. Of the 120 wars in the world today, 98 percent are in the Third World and the majority - 72 percent - are between states and Fourth World nations (Nietschmann 1987). Fourth World wars are, above all, fought over land and resources, and autonomy is the umbrella term for territorial-political solutions.

Polomka (1990:3) judges that "the future of Bougainvilleans would be best secured through working out a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with Port Moresby within the framework of the Papua New Guinea nation-state," and is optimistic about the future of mining in Papua New Guinea nation-state," and is optimistic about the future of mining in Papua New Guinea because, "as in all societies, a declining role for land as a livelihood for the majority is an unavoidable price of rising living standards and a flourishing nation-state." Polomka would like to pronounce Papua New Guinea safe for the penetration of transnational capital; unfortunately, as noted by Feiler (1990:16), "if we keep our eyes focused on the mining industry, we can see that the government and the mining companies are still proceeding on the assumption or in the hope that other mining projects will continue to sustain the national economy, even if Panguna is closed for a long time." Papua New Guinea cannot afford to ignore that its future is land-based and that nation peoples on the mining frontier are already empowering themselves and demanding sustainable development; to continue transnational mining based on Polomka's optimism would set off a succession of social time bombs in New Guinea.

Sustainable development for threatened peoples, habitats, and resources is at the top of the political agenda in all Four Worlds today. Mining projects in New Guinea need to meet the challenge of sustainable development from the perspective of indigenous resource managers practicing kinship modes of production. Sustainable development is not "nice" rhetoric that the state can afford to ignore; nation peoples are already demanding it on New Guinea's volatile mining frontier.

The only way indigenous and Western resource management can be incorporated into state policy in Melanesia is by requiring that development be based on how people are already using the environment. Papua New Guinea has responsibilities other than profits; the state must also consider quality of life so that Melanesian nation peoples can control their future through sustainable development.

Togolo (1982) made it abundantly clear a decade ago that the transnational Panguna project cannot accommodate the needs of the Bougainvillean people; the conflict can only be resolved through equity and distributive justice (Morauta, Pernetta, and Heaney 1982). It is possible to generate equity through people-centered sustainable development, an argument similarly shared by Bulmer (1982). Emphasizing human needs and development rather than sustainability is nothing more than an apology for having lost the ability to live with nature.

Papua New Guinea assumes that its resumption of commodities will win out over communities in the struggle for the Bougainvillean people's loyalty. Meanwhile, Bougainvilleans feel they have won their independence with or without Papua New Guinea's recognition, yet they see no contradiction in expecting health, education, and communication services to be restored (Bougainville Information Service 1990:6). The negotiations that resumed under tight security in Honiara last January will have long-term consequences for Bougainvilleans, for Papua New Guinea, and for the future of Melanesia's volatile mining frontier.


Only portions of text are presented here, without editing or paraphrasing, to convey an indigenous voice from the Bougainvillean people. For the full letter of 29 April 1989 to the Justice and Peace Committee, Kieta, North Solomons Province, see Ona 1990:10-12; for the full text as it first appeared in the Post Courier on 28 April 1989, see Ona 1990:7-10.


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