IN 1989 A GROUP OF DISGRUNTLED LANDOWNERS from Panguna hosting the giant Bougainville Copper Mine embarked on a violent sabotage of mine infrastructure.
Many reasoned that the violence was a failure on the part of the company and the government of Papua New Guinea to address outstanding landowner grievances.
Chief among these grievances was the view that the original agreement that gave effect to the establishment of the Panguna Copper Mine project was due for review. This agreement was made while PNG was still a colony of Australia.
But, just as plans of the need to renegotiate and review the agreement were being swivelled through the political and bureaucratic machinery of the government and the company, an undercurrent of inter-landowner tensions was swirling on the horizon.
And before any amicable solution could be reached to defuse the situation the disagreements flared into a violent conflict between the landowners themselves and the company.
It is widely accepted within post-conflict discourse that the tension and conflict was perpetuated by a combination of intergenerational differences between the elderly and young landowners and a range of different factors perceived by the locals to be the source of their exploitation and marginalisation.
This paper analyses these perceived causalities and how aspects of local cosmological reasoning can help us to understand the tensions that culminated in the violence….
An encompassing and detailed investigation of these tensions would require an extensive ethnographic investigation. Only such an investigation would adequately map the often divergent and conflicting sources of tension in the group dynamics of the landowners that eventually led to what became a full scale civil conflict.
The main aim of the paper is therefore to analyse the different causal explanations of the conflict. The analysis is centred on a dichotomy between post-conflict causal analyses and the existential experience of everyday life in the mine-impacted communities of Nagovisi and Nasioi.
I argue that the concept and value of 'post-conflict' in the subsequent proliferation of academic literature canvassing the conflict and its array of perceived causes is based on little substantive ethnographic data.
While it is not easy to discretely separate the historical continuity of events into 'post-conflict causalities' and 'pre-mine existential experience of social life', an attempt will be made here in spite of the complications rather than in ignorance of them.
This paper is an analysis of the post-conflict explanations of indigenous dissent that are primarily viewed as the object or catalyst for the mining-related conflict on Bougainville…. The four major explanations are presented through an analytic discussion of the different views about the social origins of the conflict as posited by various commentators and academics and my own interpretations of indigenous cosmology as a person from Nagovisi, and partly as an insider who lived on the island during the conflict.
It looks at the different theories about the origins of the Bougainville conflict and explores divergences in notions of indigenous dissent – as informed by post-conflict literature and the ethnographic conditions of social life before the mine.
The paper also looks at aspects of sociality among local communities within the Panguna mine area and the nature of their extended relations with other adjacent communities in Nasioi and Nagovisi.
It is not my intention to discredit any of these past interpretations. But I hope the analysis clearly suggests how interpretations inclusive of, and informed by, indigenous modes of thinking could be more effective, persuasive, and encompassing in describing the complex origins of the conflict.
My intentions are to provide an analytic description of the numerous, but sometimes conflicting causalities of the same phenomenon – the Bougainville Crisis. These have become mutually constitutive, in deploying core notions of resource development, political activism, mineral resource extraction and human rights, and indigenous dissent and conflict within the Panguna Copper Mine Project.
Simon continues in his paper to consider five possible causal phenomena: which he terms the environmental destruction paradigm, the mine-induced social disruption paradigm, the unequal benefit distribution paradigm, inventing the economic landowner and the political secession paradigm. He concludes:
Throughout this paper I argued that the conflict between Panguna landowners and the mining company (Bougainville Copper Limited) is immensely complicated. I have emphasised continuously that reducing the locus of indigenous tensions to an a priori set of mine-generated grievances does not adequately account for the reasons for the conflict.
I have also argued that an encompassing analysis of the conflict is one that draws on insights from local cosmology. The primary question the analysis has tried to address is how can the sources of indigenous disaffection be theorised without generating a reductive analysis that unnecessarily privileges some causes over others?
Clearly the paper is about how the conflict had multiple causes. They were not just multiple in the sense that the conflict had complex origins but also in the sense that different people tended to offer different explanations. This paper is no exception. Moreover, I hope my analysis does not yield a view that we must 'choose' one explanation as 'the explanation'.
The juxtaposition between causal explanations that trace their origin to the existence of the mine and its negative impacts illustrates how imported concepts like landownership can be easily misunderstood where there is a lack of conceptual equivalence in local experience.
What I have also tried to argue is that the life-world of mine-impacted regions operates according to pre-existing systems of cultural logic. We cannot fully comprehend how and why the conflict eventuated without understanding such local logics.
Simon Kenema, ‘An analysis of post-conflict explanations of indigenous dissent relating to the Bougainville copper mining conflict, Papua New Guinea’, Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies, Issues 1.2 and 2.1, April 2010
Simon Kenema is a PhD student in the Department of Social Anthropology at St Andrews University, UK. His first degree was in using communication for development, from the Papua New Guinea University of Technology. He is now studying mineral resource development and the nature of economic, social and political relations between host communities, governance institutions and other special interest groups in PNG. Simon has five years experience of working with communities in the oil, gas and mining industries in PNG. He is interested in seeking how the 'actors' in the industry pursue and attempt to establish sustainable relations