BY LEONARD FONG ROKA
THE BOUGAINVILLE COPPER AGREEMENT was a concurrence reached in 1967 between the Australian colonial government and the rapacious and parasitic Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA).
The Agreement oversaw the exploitation of the island of Bougainville for the betterment of the geographically and culturally foreign Papua New Guinea and its people - known to Bougainvilleans as ‘redskins’.
Terra nullius, according to Wikipedia, is an old Roman law that considered any land that was not subject to the sovereignty of an independent state as automatically a ‘land belonging to no one’.
It was applied extensively worldwide after the European industrial revolution as a tool for robbing indigenous people of their land and resources in the various colonies.
Looking back on the suffering my people endured before the Bougainville conflict and during the crisis, I can see an association with this law and the BCA in terms of the concept being executed at different times and in different settings in Bougainville.
Thus, in the light of terra nullius, I want to outline my perceptions of the developments and impacts of the agreement on the people of the Panguna District, especially the landowners, which eventually led to the armed Bougainville crisis starting in 1988.
Striving alongside my people during the peak years of the Bougainville conflict, I came across the concept that my people often talked about in the refugee camps of the Crown Prince Range - Crown Law. The English law that destroyed Bougainville.
Wikipedia says that, from the sixteenth century, the common law dictated that all gold and silver was owned by the Crown (the British Monarchy).
So, my people lamented, ‘we only own the top six metres of our island; below that is something for the Queen of England, Australia and Papua New Guinea (who is now fighting us for it).
It was with this notion that a CRA geologist infiltrated the Panguna Valley in the early 1960s and gave birth to the Panguna mine and its operator, Bougainville Copper Limited.
From my people’s view, the Panguna mine was developed for the New Guineans and their government which was working towards independence and had a need for finance. It was not for the benefit of Bougainvilleans, who are traditionally Solomon Islanders.
Bougainville was suitable for this sort of development because it was an island on the periphery of the larger island of New Guinea and was culturally different. They were a minority and so it was less costly to suppress them.
Bougainvilleans, under the Australian Administration in New Guinea, were a minority and apparently powerless. Thus the use of colonial riot police against what foreigners perceived as senseless protests against the developing mine in the 1960s and the 1970s was right under the rule of law.
Belittlement was a colonial strategy used on my Bougainville people to ensure resource development and land grabbing for Papua New Guinean development. Watching the documentary, Bougainville, Our Island, Our Fight, I shed tears hearing the Australian Minister for Territories, the Hon Mr Barnes, in 1970 happily stating that ‘a few more of these mines and New Guinea will be self-sufficient’.
And where were these other mines? The 1980’s airborne surveys of Bougainville show, according to the late rebel leader, Francis Ona, that all these potential new mines were in Bougainville.
So, in the era of the unpredictable Cold War, the Australian Administration, apparently with a traditional motto ‘time is money’, wasted no time in fast-tracking the creation of a self-reliant buffer state around itself at the cost of the people of Bougainville.
As Bougainville Copper progressed day-by-day in its mining operations at Panguna, the concept of terra nullius, under the new name of the Bougainville Copper Agreement, was developed to push aside international laws on human rights and then suppress and exploit Bougainvilleans. Panguna, being a virgin jungle, was a ‘no man’s land’ owned by a Crown on the other side of the world.
Sometimes, thinking about my homeland, I often wonder why my people were treated like animals. Obviously, we were a minority under the still-fragile political roof of Papua New Guinea.
In this context, we needed and should have got legal protection from domination by outsiders like the New Guineans under the conventions developed by the United Nations for protecting the rights of minorities during and after decolonisation.
In the Bougainville Copper Agreement, CRA was given 53% of the share in the mine and its ‘best friend’ the government of Papua New Guinea was offered a golden plate of 19.1% while the rest went to BCL.
The belittled people of Bougainville were not included in the agreement but were offered the ‘leftovers’ in the form of royalties to compensate them for the nightmare of watching their land and culture being tortured by machinery and the influx of strangers.
Anti-mining protests were quelled by New Guinean police while the impression of local interest in the mining was fabricated with Australian dollars. The spirit of Bougainvillean nationalism was eradicated by the Vagrancy Act, much later deemed as undemocratic by parliament.
These strategies had at their core the concept and doctrine of terra nullius. This is now obvious to educated landowners who were there in those cruel days on Bougainville.
In the final analysis, Bougainville Island and its people were nobodies under the terms of the Bougainville Copper Agreement.
In the guise of the agreement, the old Roman law of terra nullius that ruined the European colonies in Africa, America and Australia also destroyed the Bougainvilleans and their culture.
Right before their eyes their land was conquered by redskins and employment opportunities were robbed by foreigners.
Bougainvillean harmony was stormed and psychologically attacked through external domination. Thus my suppressed people did not have a voice in their own land.
Leonard - with respect I beg to disagree. 'Terra Nullius' was never applied in PNG or even attempted to be applied.
Your statement "It was applied extensively worldwide after the European industrial revolution as a tool for robbing indigenous people of their land and resources in the various colonies" is just plain wrong. Can you give any examples (apart from those mentioned below)?
It was meant to refer to 'unoccupied land' like Antarctica, or the Guano Islands or Greenland. To apply in law any case had to show that there were no prior occupants with an established relationship to land that they regarded as theirs, and no system of local authority with whom negotiations could be held.
Neither conditions applied in Bougainville - or indeed anywhere in PNG. Extensive negotiations were held with local landowners in Bougainville (admittedly flawed) and are still required for development projects in PNG.
Indeed social mapping, anthropological research and identification of rightful landowners is a major task for any developer. Check Marengo Mining's activities in upper Madang and Simbu for an example. They have employed a social anthropologist for two years to help sort out some of these issues. Also check the Wikipedia entry which you reference. It does not support your claim.
It was notoriously applied in Australia, and was reversed by the famous Mabo decision which established that there was prior 'native title'. It was also used to a limited extent in New Zealand's south island, and parts of British Columbia, Canada - in both examples subsequently overturned in law. Currently its main relevance is to Antarctica and Outer Space.
To claim this was part of the Bougainville crisis is misleading. There were I've no doubt many mistakes, patronising colonial judgements and ignorant decisions taken, but the legal doctrine of Terra Nullius was never part of it.
- Peter Kranz