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Bougainville Explained: How the world’s newest country might bloom out of protests against a copper mine

The conflict in Bougainville and the desire of Bougainvillean people for independence is rooted in the historic plunder of the resource-rich island that has large deposits of copper and the unequal distribution of wealth that followed.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
November 22, 2019 6:42:01 pm
Map Credit: Australian Government; Department of Veterans’ Affairs

Approximately 30 years after a decade-long brutal civil war in Bougainville, a tiny island in the Pacific, is going to the polls Saturday to vote on its independence from Papua New Guinea. If Bougainville’s people vote for its independence in the historic referendum, the world will get its newest and possibly smallest nation.

What is the Bougainvillean referendum about?

Between 1988-1998, political factions in Bougainville were involved in an armed conflict with the government of Papua New Guinea, in an attempt to force Papua New Guinea to divest control of the resource-rich island. According to Edward P. Wolfers, Foundation Professor Emeritus of Politics, University of Wollongong, Australia, who has conducted long-term research on Bougainville politics and history, the civil war was the “most destructive and deadly conflict in the Pacific since World War II,” says Wolfers in an interview with

This historic referendum is a result of one of the three provisions of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed in 2001 and enacted through an amendment of the Papua New Guinea Constitution, the other two provisions being weapons disposal and autonomy, says Wolfers. The peace agreement of 2001 brought an end to the violent conflict between the people of Bougainville and the government of Papua New Guinea.

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Voters in Bougainville get to choose between ‘greater autonomy’—a greater degree of autonomy than current arrangements within the framework of the Papua New Guinea Constitution—or independence for Bougainville from Papua New Guinea control, explains Wolfers. However, the referendum is not binding and would still have to be passed by the Government and the Parliament of Papua New Guinea, in consultation with the Autonomous Bougainville Government, before a final decision is made.

Why is Bougainville an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea?

To understand Bougainville’s links with Papua New Guinea, some historical context is required. Although the island’s indigenous population had inhabited it for centuries, it got its name after French colonizer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, a scientist who undertook sea voyages, particularly to the Pacific in 1776, to colonise new territory for France. Interestingly, despite having the island named after him, Bougainville never actually set foot upon it. According to some resources that deal with Bougainville’s history, the nomenclature for the tropical flower Bougainvillea can also be attributed to Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

In 1885, during Germany’s period of colonisation, the island of Bougainville came under the German protectorate of German New Guinea. The outbreak of WWI changed the power structure in the Pacific and in 1914, Bougainville and other islands nearby, including what is now Papua New Guinea, fell under the control of Australian forces. The League of Nations controlled the island till 1942 when during WWII, American, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese military forces battled for its control. The battle resulted in the Japanese withdrawing from the island and Australia taking over its administration.

According to captions provided for this photo by the Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs, “soldiers of the 42nd Battalion negotiate a deep section of swamp during a patrol towards enemy territory in January 1945.” (Photo credit: Australian Government; Department of Veterans’ Affairs)

This arrangement lasted till 1975, ending with Papua New Guinea gaining independence. “There have been previous attempts to declare Bougainville independent—when Papua New Guinea became an independent country in 1975, and again in 1990,” says Wolfers.

In the late 1970s, a decentralised system of provincial government was introduced in Bougainville and the current autonomy arrangements were implemented following the constitutional enactment of the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001.

Why does Bougainville want complete independence from Papua New Guinea?


“There has subsequently been dissatisfaction among Bougainvilleans over implementation of the agreed arrangements for Bougainville autonomy, particularly in regard to the constitutionally guaranteed financial grants to which the Autonomy Bougainville Government (ABG) is legally entitled, but which the (Papua New Guinea) National Government has not provided in accordance with the ABG’s calculations,” explains Wolfers.

The Panguna mine is seen in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, in this Planet Labs satellite photo received by Reuters September 26, 2017. (Reuters)

The conflict in Bougainville and the desire of Bougainvillean people for independence is rooted in the historic plunder of the resource-rich island that has large deposits of copper and the unequal distribution of wealth that followed. After the discovery of copper during the 1960s deep in the Crown Prince Ranges in the center of the island, mining conglomerate Rio Tinto’s Australia subsidiary, Conzinc Rio Tinto, set up the Panguna mine, also known as the Bougainville Copper Mine, that holds some of the world’s largest reserves of copper and is the world’s largest open cut copper mine. Extraction of the resource in the Panguna mine began in 1972 under the management of the Bougainville Copper Limited, controlled by Conzinc Rio Tinto that lasted till 1989. The Bougainville Copper Limited was partly owned by Conzinc Rio Tinto that controlled 56 per cent of stake while the Papua New Guinea government owned 20 per cent, till Conzinc Rio Tinto divested its control in 1989.

According to various data sources, the export of copper extracted from the Panguna mine contributed significantly to Papua New Guinea’s economy, with some figures estimating its contribution upto 45 per cent of the country’s export revenue.

Researchers say the protests that later inflated into a civil war were started by a local leader named Francis Ona who had witnessed foreign interests engage in wide-scale plunder of indigenous lands. Ona went on to become the leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, a secessionist group that waged war against the Papuan New Guinea Defence Forces during the civil war. The mine created job opportunities for people from Papua New Guinea and Australia seeking their own fortunes, leading to conflicts with Bougainvillean locals who also reported discrimination and racism at the hands of foreigner mine workers. Mining activities over the years also caused environmental degradation of Bougainville’s lands and water.

A supplied image shows local residents holding banners and placards during a protest at the former Bougainville Copper Limited’s (BCL) Panguna mining operation located on the Pacific Ocean island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, May 3, 2017. Picture taken May 3, 2017. (Reuters)

The bloody civil war that followed, resulted in the deaths of thousands of people along with displacement, disease and starvation. In the aftermath of the civil war, the Panguna mine was closed in May 1989, with the total withdrawal of Bougainville Copper Limited employees by the following year.


The long-drawn civil war in Bougainville was brought to a halt only due to the Bougainville Peace Agreement. “In short, the referendum was not prompted by (dis)satisfaction with current autonomy arrangements, though the choices on offer in the referendum and the way that Bougainvilleans vote have obviously been influenced by experience of current autonomy arrangements,” Wolfers explains.

What is most likely to happen in the referendum?

Papua Guinea has much to lose if Bougainville gains independence, especially in terms of access to Bougainville’s natural resources. However, a lesser known consequences of Bougainville gaining independence would be the impact it may have on Papua New Guinea’s territories. “Another sensitive issue is the implications that the eventual outcome of the referendum process might have for other provinces in Papua New Guinea—particularly, but not only, in the Islands Region—where support for greater autonomy, in particular, and possible a separate independence is quite strong,” explains Wolfers.


According to Wolfers, there is a consensus among observers of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea that full independence will receive very strong majority support. “Though in this regard it is important to note that the previous conflict included armed conflict between Bougainvilleans who preferred to remain with Papua New Guinea and supporters of secession,” adds Wolfers.

A supplied image shows a dilapidated building at the former Bougainville Copper Limited’s (BCL) Panguna mining operation located on the Pacific Ocean island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, February 2, 2014. (Reuters)

What is Papua New Guinea’s stance on the independence referendum?


“The current National Government is committed to holding the referendum. Prime Minister James Marape has said publicly that he believes that Papua New Guinea will be stronger if Bougainville remains part of Papua New Guinea,” says Wolfers. Prime Minister Marape’s comments, Wolfers believes, is less about Bougainville’s contribution to the national economy and is more about Bougainvilleans who have formed part of Papua New Guinea’s educated elite, administration, and have contributed to other aspects of public life.

“While the current (Papua New Guinea) government can be expected to respect the process and the result of the vote, it seems unlikely that a separate independence will receive overwhelming public support elsewhere in Papua New Guinea and that the National Parliament will simply agree,” says Wolfers. What will possibly follow, according to Wolfers, are multi-level discussions about ongoing areas of co-operation. “Such as are common in relations between former colonial powers and neighbouring countries on the one hand and independent countries on the other. For example, New Zealand with Cook Islands and Niue.”

A supplied image shows the former Bougainville Copper Limited’s (BCL) Panguna mining operation including buildings that were a former police station, mess hall and miner’s accommodation located on the Pacific Ocean island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, April 2, 2017. Picture take February 2, 2017. BCL/Handout via REUTERS

What happens if Bougainville does not gain independence?

According to Wolfers, the precise scope of the option of greater autonomy has still to be defined. “Clear arrangements would need to be negotiated to provide adequate funds, administrative support and policy-making capacity for the Bougainville Government. So further negotiations and arrangements for ongoing cooperation would need to be defined, agreed, and put in place,” he explains.

What is at stake for Australia, China, the United States?

Due to shifting powers, diplomacy and developing military and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific, the Bougainville referendum is going to have consequences not just for immediate neighbours. “The stability of the region of which Bougainville is part is clearly important to Australia – and by virtue of the relationship with other ANZUS members (Australia, New Zealand), with the USA,” explains Wolfers. “There are certainly prominent Bougainvilleans who see a great deal of unrealised potential in developing relations with China.”

The voting in the Bougainville referendum that begins on November 23 will proceed over the next two weeks, due to “the challenging nature of the terrain,” says Wolfers. The result of the referendum, likely to become known later in December, will either give the world its newest nation or will present a new challenge for Bougainvillea’s leaders who will have to ensure that their homeland doesn’t fall prey to conflict once more. It isn’t immediately clear whether the results of the referendum will lead to the reopening of the Panguna copper mine that started it all. It would be however, in the best interests of Bougainvilleans, if this time around, they get to have a say in their own future.

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First published on: 22-11-2019 at 06:42:01 pm
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