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BCL compensation payments trigger disputes in Bougainville

Mt Bagana, BougainvilleLEONARD FONG ROKA

LAST Saturday morning at around 10 o’clock two vehicles passed my hamlet at the entrance of the Panguna mine’s pit drainage tunnel.

On them were faces I knew from Konnuku Village, downstream from the Panguna tailings carried along in the Kabarong River. All the faces were angry and showed there was a purpose to their run.

That purpose became clear on Monday. An entire family homestead was torched. The victims lost all their property and valuables, including money, to the fire.

The reason for the raid was that the father of the family was said to have received K50,000 in compensation from Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) for land blocks owned by his matrilineal family and he was not sharing it with his matrilineal uncles and nieces.

Such anti-social quakes are now rocking the entire Panguna mine affected areas as they receive outstanding compensation owed to them by BCL since 1990 when the Bougainville conflict interrupted mining operations.

During the heyday of BCL on Bougainville, landowners with legal title to land affected by company operations received monthly royalties. My grandmother said she received about K170 a month.

After almost 25 years she will get K7,000. This is because some of the blocks of land were under her name and legal ownership devolved to her children and grandchildren but not my mother, who did not want us to have title to any piece of land belonging to our extended family.

My mother claims too many Bougainvilleans have suffered as a result of the Panguna mine thus, for her, this is blood money. We do not want to benefit from blood money.

My mother’s stand is not an isolated one. Within the benefiting communities people’s social bonds are being axed by this process.

Not all people within the mine affected areas are customary landowners. Not all people are successful in money-making ventures. Not all are attending tertiary institutions and successfully graduating and getting jobs.

These differences are playing a catalytic role in mine affected communities.

For example, in my extended family, it is claimed that I and my siblings are well educated and earning ‘huge’ money so we must allow the unfortunate to benefit. We are not bothered by their attitude but, for other families, it is causing conflict.

So disputes are occurring in those areas (lower tailings, mid-tailings and the road lease) that had their monies released last month. On the Moratona coast of the Bana District, two adult brothers torched each other’s stores. Further upstream on the Kabarong River around Kuneka, a son nearly beheaded his mother with a grass knife. Some people are robbed by opportunists claiming that all of Bougainville suffered for the money.

But there is a less tragic side for landowners. People unconsciously wail when they see a huge pile of banknotes at a bank; some faint.

These developments threaten the peace and progress of our district, even across Bougainville.

After such experiences, the Special Mining Lease and the Upper Tailings leadership is being cautious in sorting potential conflict issues as it prepares to welcome BCL staff who are on verification tours in their communities this week and next week.

On the streets of Arawa, the word is that Panguna people are getting rich while those who suffered through the crisis are being sidelined. Threats are flying around between individuals from Panguna and non-Panguna people.

But for us, the few Panguna people who are not interested in compensation, this money is all about the physical destruction of the land around Panguna mine.

What belongs to the landowners of the mine affected areas belongs to them. It is their business with BCL. But maintaining a harmonious co-existence within our community is paramount for Bougainville as a whole.

This BCL money was not feeding us before and it will not feed us into the future. And it is not a ticket to re-open the Panguna mine.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

This sounds suspiciously like what started the civil war in the first place.

What short memories people have.

Peter Sandery

I, too would like to congratulate you, Leonard, on this report. To me, it indicates that the words of high profile Bougainvillean leaders of yesteryear, Dove et al (that Bougainvilleans left to their own resources could resolve conflicts themselves), has not yet eventuated.

My take on this and similar issues is that inept government will always breed a disaffected society which will eventually show how disaffected it is by resorting to various forms of anti-social behaviour; no matter how much the practitioners of inept, that is, non accountable, non transparent government, try to link their authoritarianism to "traditional values".

Chris Overland

From what Leonard is saying, it seems that for many Bougainvilleans the equality of poverty is to be preferred over the inequality of wealth.

This is going to be a huge problem for Bougainville to manage, as it is every where else in the world.

Basically, it is the same old human story: the have nots resent the haves and, eventually, when the distribution of wealth gets far enough out of balance, trouble begins to brew up.

Virtually all revolutions in history have included promises by one or both sides to correct imbalances in the distribution of wealth and power.

Naturally, this almost never happens or, if it does, it does not persist for long. A new elite always emerges because humans have an instinctive desire to accumulate wealth and power to their and their family's enduring advantage.

The economic theory underlying capitalism is an attempt to explain and justify this process. In order to avoid producing huge social divisions and revolutionary responses to capitalism's inherent inequities, successive governments have attempted to "civilise" it by introducing such things as free or heavily subsidised medical care and various forms of social welfare.

Right now, of course, the current version of "civilised" capitalism is under tremendous strain once more, as both wealth and people are moving in ways that are increasingly causing problems across the world.

In the western world, our politicians are evidently still not able to fully understand the existential threat that lies beneath all these tectonic shifts. They prefer to believe that revolution and large scale warfare over resources can't happen again. But it can and will if, to paraphrase Lenin, something is not done.

For Leonard and those who think like him, a huge task in an independent Bougainville will be the management of expectations about how the new state will share whatever wealth it generates.

Leonard's vision of an essentially agrarian, communalist future will not be shared by many. They will want to acquire wealth and power and a few will do whatever it takes to achieve this ambition.

I have somewhat belatedly come to understand that what is sometimes called the politics of resentment is always prevalent amongst humans as soon large imbalances in wealth appear.

Traditional Melanesian societies were, mostly, too poor to be much affected by this insidious tendency, so their systems of managing social tensions kept things more or less in equilibrium.

However, recent history has revealed all too clearly that PNG is no more or less susceptible to the siren call of money and all the ills that ensure from its relentless pursuit.

So, Bougainville has the same task ahead of it as everyone one else and those of us who wish Bougainvilleans well can only hope that they can manage this better than we have.

Barbara Short

Thank you for this story. It is good to know what is going on in Bougainville at the grassroots level. It is very sad but there is an important lesson in it. Helps me to know how to pray for the people of Bougainville.

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