An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
BETWEEN the years 1963 and 1970, the Australian colonial administration under the directives of the United Nations was recklessly rushing to build a new country in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea.
To the Australian authorities the Solomon Island of Bougainville and its people were the sources of financing this new country - a country that their myths never knew existed – through a new copper and gold mine at Panguna.
The colonial administration, from its offices in Port Moresby, bulldozed the wishes of the people of Bougainville with the motto, ‘Masta i tok; tok i dai ‘(‘when the white man speaks; the talking finishes’).
Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Bougainvilleans in Panguna, the site of the mine, protested as their land was destroyed and infiltrated by aliens at a speed and intensity they had never seen previously in history.
A young men from Simpore village in the Tumpusiong Valley, Bonabenza Bikiri, saw all this after escaping from school to work with small companies supplying the Panguna mine in the 1970s.
Bikiri, alongside elders and youths of the Tumpusiong Valley, also participated in the protests against the Conzinc Riotinto operations in Panguna that were defacing their valley with massive siltation and deforestation.
“In those days,” Bikiri told me, “it was us, the Tumpusiong people - made up of Onove, Enamira, Darenai and a few Damara people - who came to help us protest and face BCL. We removed surveyors’ pegs, fought the police and held protest marches in Panguna.
“The villages in the mine area like Guava, Moroni and the Dapera did not help us since more money was pumped in to win their hearts. They often laughed at us.
“But we did not give in for we were suffering from bad siltation and were the ones resettled to high ground.”
The Dapera and Moroni villagers only realised later that their land was subject to destruction when bulldozers uprooted them and the company officers ordered them to be resettled.
“I grew up with the pain,” Bikiri recalled. “I watched my old mother crying over our gardens being lost to deep siltation in the entire Tumpusiong Valley. And that is why, when the late Francis Ona started inviting us to his cause, I volunteered for he was talking about our rights.”
Bonabenza Bikiri together with many other elders and youths attended meetings chaired by the Ona, whose militant leadership attracted him.
Ona did not want the Panguna Landowners Association that was run mostly by his blood relatives and wanted the mine to shut immediately and re-open on Bougainville terms. Bikiri saw there was now a possibility of change for the better. The Guava people also joined the anti-BCL movement.
I can now reveal Bonabenza Bikiri’s part in the events of November and December 1988 when explosives were stolen from the Panguna mine magazine ’ and a power pylon blown up at Policeman Corner on the Panguna Road.
Shortly before then, Francis Ona had called a meeting at the Panguna Catholic Church.
Ona, seeing his opposition being swept under the mat by BCL and the then Panguna Landowners Association, called on his supporters and followers to act.
Bikiri told me, “He was infuriated about a series of meetings with BCL and the old Panguna landowners association executives thus all he wanted now was action to show them that his words were not just words but he was willing to follow them with action.”
Bikiri sat on a back pew lost in the tide of proposals to shut the mine with action that had minimum of risks to participants.
“The meeting,” Bikiri recalled, “was coming to one resolution and that was for the whole of the Panguna mine landowner villages to leave their homes—mothers, youths, children and domesticated animals—and camp in and outside the Panguna mine pit’s access tunnels.
“With all our families and things we would camp there blocking all access to the pit, the primary crusher and workshops.”
Bikiri was dissatisfied with that resolution since all such protests he had participated in never brought about change, so he interrupted the meeting.
“You Guava people are new in this anti-mining protest issue,” Bikiri told the meeting. “You laugh at us, the Oune (a dying language that was spoken in most of Tumpusiong Valley) people.
“I have only one comment: who will feed our wives, children and supporters down there as they go hungry under the heat of the sun? We do not have the money to support and BCL once again will do nothing to save us and our land.
“Leave our families safe at home and cut the power supply of this destructive mine and let’s see if it stops work. What do you think?”
Looking up, Bikiri saw Francis Ona’s pointer firmly place on his lips indicating all to calm down and that the meeting was over. The new strategy was accepted.
Francis Ona shook hands with Bikiri and the meeting broke up, leaving the exercise to Ona and his close team.
Bikiri sat back in Tumpusiong waiting for the results and on the night of 22 November 1988 news spread that BCL explosives were looted.
“I was so happy with the news,” Bikiri said. “Ona was really up to his word. He had men steal the explosives. They waited for the first power pylon to come down and, when it did, I was so excited that BCL was now tasting its medicine.”
Bonabenza Bikiri today works as a alluvial gold miner in the Tumpusiong Valley and helps with local level government activities.