Papua New Guinea: Background - From Tragedy to Hope

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands were the sites of some of the most important battles between the Imperial Japanese Army and the combined forces of the US and Australian Armies during World War II. Even today, and especially on the Island of Bougainville, it is not unusual to drive down the road and find a burned out Japanese tank from this period.

Following its liberation from the Japanese, PNG was a trustee of the United Nations, being administered by Australia, up until its independence on 16th September 1975

The strong relationship with Australia continues today, as outlined in PNG - Australia Development Cooperation Treaty (Reviewed 2010), whereby PNG is one of the largest recipients of AusAID both financially and through technical assistance from Australian personnel.

In 1964, Geologists discovered major Copper and Gold deposits on the Island of Bougainville, and the Colonial Administration eventually awarded mining licenses to Bougainville Copper, majority owned by Australia’s Rio Tinto Zinc (LSE:RIO). The resulting Panguna mine was the world’s largest open-caste mine, and the largest revenue earner for the PNG Government.

“Basically, they sliced the top off a mountain, and built an open-cut mine six by four kilometres in area, affecting tens of thousands of hectares in total: villages were moved, people were displaced, and the environmental effects over time were quite devastating, with mine effluent discharged into rivers used by thousands of people downstream.” A lecture delivered to the Australian Defense Force Academy September 1999

Shortly after Independence in 1975, a secessionist movement broke out on the Island of Bougainville. Long standing resentments over the sharing of resource profits, some dating back to the Japanese Occupation build into a major crisis that resulted in thousands of deaths, the isolation of the Island, and some of the worst Human Rights abuses documented by Amnesty International.

In 1989, the mine at Panguna was shuttered, and has never reopened.

The long conflict ended in a peace deal brokered by the Government of New Zealand in 1997. Much of Bougainville’s basic infrastructure that was destroyed during the crisis remains unusable, often having no other value than scrap.

Recently, the Japanese build a series of bridges over all the rivers along the highway, dramatically cutting the time it takes to drive from one end to the other. Cell phones and the Internet, although not universal, are growing strongly. BSP, a major PNG bank has opened a branch in Arawa, one of the principle towns on the Island, and people are returning from abroad believing that change is happening at home.

A number of village leaders have been pressing the Autonomous Bougainville Government to push for the enactment of legislation either by the ABG or PNG Government in a number of areas, including a new Mining Law. The message appears to be that they want their children to have a better life and that they are growing impatient with the perceived lack of progress. They see passage of the Mining Law as a necessary step to provide their children jobs and to pay for improved Government services.

The new Constitution of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville explicitly gives the mineral rights to the communities under whose lands the minerals lie. The village leaders clearly believe that they may finally be get their fair shares from their own mineral resources

Link to Wikipedia entry on PNG