The world’s-newest country-in-waiting possesses the raw ingredients of paradise. French Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who named its main island after himself while collecting territories off eastern New Guinea in 1768, would surely have appreciated this astonishing natural beauty – if he’d bothered to set foot ashore. As I stood on the coast, I imagined his skin prickling with sweat rising from the florets of dark volcanic hills that punctuate the rainforest. And I pictured his eyes squinting at luminous turquoise-blue lagoons, beyond which coral reefs thwart the surging Solomon Sea.
If he were alive today, too, the admiral would likely have pooh-poohed any notion that one day Bougainville might be independent. He would probably have pointed to the unrest and other challenges that plagued South Sudan and Timor-Leste, the most recent recipients of statehood, and scoffed.
Now, however, it’s Bougainville’s turn. I visited not long after December 2019’s referendum, in which 97.7% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from Papua New Guinea. And I arrived not aboard a wooden galleon but by a two-hour flight from Port Moresby, across teal-blue ocean in which coral atolls are scattered like bleached-white lifebuoys.
The referendum was a proviso of a 2001 peace accord granting Bougainville greater autonomy, although the result is non-binding so independence will come only after approval by the national parliament. The peace accord had ended a long civil war that began in 1989 and escalated into the deadliest conflict seen in Oceania since Japan’s Second World War invasions, costing an estimated 20,000 lives.
That conflict had been sparked by mining. Back then, Panguna was the largest copper and gold mine in the southern hemisphere, generating billions of dollars for the then Australian-owned Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) and the Papua New Guinean economy. Little of this wealth stayed on the island – so, as local resentment rose, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) mobilised and shut down Panguna by sabotage. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force arrived to restore order, and civil war erupted.
Steven Tamiung, an ex-BRA veteran, waited for me at the airport on Buka Island, in the archipelago comprising the autonomous region of which Bougainville is the largest island, roughly the size of Cyprus. We boarded a boat across the gushing tidal strait separating Buka from Bougainville and commenced a four-hour drive south by public minivan to Arawa, hub for a week-long exploration. With greater curiosity than Admiral de Bougainville could muster, I aimed to discover whether the scars of the past were healing, and if a brighter future not tainted by copper and conflict awaited what might be the world’s newest country.
RECLAIMING THE PAST
From the start, Bougainville’s extravagant beauty held me in its moist grasp, breathing warmth upon the senses. We slipped beneath coconut-palm canopies interlinked overhead like a Gothic cathedral’s vaulting, while the intense Melanesian sunshine permeated a rainforest that’s hybridised with jackfruit, citruses and breadfruit. The forest is scalloped by vegetable gardens so overwhelmed by jungle that it’s a wonder farmers ever find their crops of taro and sweet potato.
Unbridled nature and conflict were never far away. We soon passed a track-less Japanese tank corroding where it was destroyed back in 1942. Steven recounted how the pressure cooker of nationalism had simmered away through successive occupations. Germany annexed Bougainville in the 1880s, then Japan invaded in 1942. After the Second World War, Australia administered Bougainville before handing it to newly independent Papua New Guinea in 1975. Yet the catalyst for conflict was Panguna.
“Panguna awoke us,” Steven told me. “We became tired of foreigners taking our wealth and polluting our land.” Bougainvilleans feel closer cultural affinity to neighbouring Solomon Islanders, he said. Signs of emergent nationalism are visible throughout: ubiquitous Bougainvillean flags (featuring a tribal headdress resembling a chef’s toque blanche) and tee-shirts emblazoned ‘Kawas pawa’.
“It means ‘black power’,” said Steven. “We’re the blackest skinned people in the Pacific region, and proud of this.”
Thunder rumbled over the knife-edged mountains that loom over Arawa, which will be Bougainville’s post-independence capital, as a downpour hammered rat-a-tat-tat on the corrugated roofs of wooden stilted houses. The scent of damp earth and a heightened greenness reinforced a feeling that Arawa is being subsumed by nature.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. When BCL ran Panguna, Arawa thrived. A cosmopolitan town of largely Australian mineworkers and their families, it had a tennis club, a marina, an international school, supermarkets and neat suburbs of bungalows. When the mineworkers fled, Arawa’s bright lights dimmed, and today blackouts blight the forlorn infrastructure of this tranquil little backwater.
From my simple 12-room guesthouse – where former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stayed while overseeing the referendum – I strolled to one of Arawa’s few restaurants, the Gold Dust Inn, where the evening special was mud-crabs. The town centre is essentially a grassy field; the 2001 Peace Accord was signed near a huge tree that the locals jokingly call the ‘world trade centre’ because vendors sell betel-nut beneath its spidery shade.
A further source of local amusement is the ‘Irishman’s tank’ I found listing by a riverbed – fashioned from a JCB for the rebels by an Irishman, this Frankensteinian contraption broke down on its first assault. He raised funds to buy it a cannon but fled overseas with the cash and was never seen again.
To truly comprehend Bougainville, though, I needed to visit Panguna.
MINING FOR HOPE
Near a ripening banana plantation on the road to Panguna, Bosco Miriona, the island’s sole tour operator, slammed on his brakes and made a startling revelation. “I was nearly shot here,” he said.
“We were setting a roadside ambush when a Papuan patrol surprised us and began shooting, so we crawled away on our bellies. I smelled burning. My dreadlocks caught fire,” he laughed, revealing the red decaying gums of a habitual betel nut chewer. “We were young at the time,” he qualified. “The war felt like a big adventure, like a game.”
No longer dreadlocked, Bosco drove me the hour or so inland from Arawa into the Crown Prince Range, ‘California Dreaming’ pummelling his stereo. We passed mangled electricity pylons blown up by the BRA to cut power to Panguna, then a torched workers’ bus and a fallen crane.
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