Trust and patience are the keys to Bougainville
4 Dec 2013|

I’m grateful to Peter Jennings and Karl Claxton for providing a superb example of the Phase Zero planning in their proposal for Bougainville. Their nine-point recommendation incorporates many of the features of a good Phase Zero plan, especially its paramount aim of forestalling the subsequent phases of a(nother) military intervention. In return, I’d like to respond to their appeal for ideas to help the process.

As Peter and Karl stress, one reason for attempting such a scheme is to save Australia the expense of another peacekeeping effort: spend now to avoid higher costs and risks later. But Bougainville’s mineral wealth offers an opportunity to save some money in the short term as well, by engaging mining interests creatively to fund at least one of their proposals.

Paradoxically, mineral extraction from the fabulous Panguna copper, gold and silver deposit was the catalyst for Bougainville’s troubles going back to 1989. Recognising this, some utopian voices have advocated excluding the mine from Bougainville’s economic future lest the same problems recur. And as Joanne Wallis and others point out, the Autonomous Bougainville Government has achieved some gains with limited resources that don’t include mining revenues. But a good slice of the funds it does have are from sources such as Australian aid that can’t (and shouldn’t) be guaranteed indefinitely. And we shouldn’t forget the economic benefits that Bougainville enjoyed pre-1989 from only a portion of the mine’s revenues. It’d be a tragedy to deny Bougainvilleans these benefits into the future for want of creative solutions to the old problems. As Dame Carol Kidu has said, it’s possible to learn from the past.

Human development arguments aside, the economic potential of Panguna is energising domestic and commercial forces that won’t be denied. Pressure to reopen the mine is growing: the department formerly known as AusAID is apparently funding research with that objective and the ABG has been grappling with the necessary legislative framework for some time. Recommencement of mining seems inevitable—and desirable. However, doing it right isn’t assured.

As multiple scholars have pointed out, there’s still considerable mistrust of the external forces—Australia and the miners among them—seen as contributing to the civil war. Regaining that trust will be essential to a happy mining industry. But it will take time and must begin now. The third of Peter and Karl’s recommended measures offers a way to offset the cost of that trust building to Australia, to our mutual benefit with the mining industry.

It’s possible for Panguna to be reopened and start new mining operations without repeating previous mistakes. Mining companies, AusAID and others involved shouldn’t talk about mining until they’ve established a solid relationship with all stakeholders. These include Sam Kauona, Ishmael Toroama and Chris Uma. This’ll involve curbing enthusiasm to start turning a profit and instead investing in training facilities and youth training programs that will provide a short-term win in reducing youth unemployment (one of Bougainville’s biggest problems) while demonstrating a long-term commitment to the island. By providing the bulk of the necessary funds, the miners could put their face on this investment, winning a trust dividend when the time comes to talk mining. This will also offset the costs in Australian aid, allowing us to either save money or spread existing allocations further and get us out of Bougainville quicker. Sticking to traditional approaches that marginalise or ignore local interests—especially in ways that show disrespect or don’t encourage trust—may be a way to guarantee failure.

Andrew Smith is an independent researcher.