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Photo taken on November 6, 2019 shows former Bougainville Revolutionary Army fighters hugging Papua New Guinea policemen at a Bougainville reconciliation ceremony ahead of independence referendum in Kokopo in East New Britain.

ELIZABETH VUVU/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Bolger is a retired international development project manager, consultant and former CUSO volunteer in Papua New Guinea.

On Saturday, the people of Bougainville, a small South Pacific island, will be launching a referendum which could put them on track to become the world’s newest independent country. Bougainville is currently part of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the most populous Pacific island state with 8.7 million citizens. It’s situated 900 kilometres to the east of PNG’s mainland and is part of the Solomon Islands archipelago. Bougainville has a population of 300,000 made up of 21 distinct language groups. Because of its relative isolation, as well as its history, it has been described by academics Yash Ghai and Anthony Regan as a “reluctant part” of PNG.

The reasons why the residents of Bougainville are voting on independence are complex and rooted in the region’s colonial history, as well as events that have unfolded on the island over the past 30-plus years, largely relating to a big copper mine.

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My connection to Bougainville dates back to the 1980s. I spent several years on the island working as a senior planner for what was then called the North Solomons Provincial Government. I had given up a nascent public-service career to go overseas with Cuso, a Canadian volunteer-sending agency, and ended up on this remote but beautiful island. What I learned about Bougainville early on was that it was the top performer among PNG’s provinces in terms of socio-economic indicators. I also came to learn that it had a relatively well-functioning provincial administration and significant natural wealth. Much of that wealth came from the Panguna mine, one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world at that time.

According to Mr. Regan, a well-regarded Bougainville expert, Panguna was “the first major mining project in PNG, its single most important economic asset [and] essential to the improved economic viability of PNG as a newly independent state.” In fact, during its 17 years of operation, the mine generated 44 per cent of PNG’s foreign-currency earnings. However, only 5.63 per cent of the mine’s earnings went to Bougainville, with 1.36 per cent ending up with local landowners.

The mine commenced operations in 1972, around the time that PNG was moving toward independence. However, many Bougainvilleans were reluctant to tie themselves politically to PNG, advocating instead for a self-governing, independent nation of their own. So in 1975, Bougainvilleans unilaterally declared independence for the “Independent Republic of the North Solomons.” A compromise was eventually reached, which included establishment of a provincial government system that yielded a modest degree of autonomy to Bougainville and the other 18 provinces in the newly independent PNG.

In 1987, my last year in Bougainville, local dissent against the mine began to bubble up once again. A new Panguna Landowners Association (PLA) was elected, headed by Francis Ona, a former mine employee. It called for US$11-billion in compensation and enhanced protection of the local environment, which had been damaged by mining wastes dumped into local rivers.

The PLA saw the government’s response to their demands as inadequate and Mr. Ona reacted by establishing the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), which proceeded to carry out acts of sabotage against the mine, including destruction of the mine’s power supply. This led eventually to the mine’s closure in 1989 and departure of thousands of people from the island.

Papua New Guinean police were brought in to respond to the escalating violence and PNG declared a state of emergency while moving to shut down the newly formed BRA. By 1990, PNG had declared war against the BRA and imposed a shipping, aviation and telephone blockade on the island, which remained in place for seven years.

Fighting on the island eventually wound down in 1997 and the ceasefire has substantially held since. In 2001, Bougainville and national government leaders signed the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which included a provision for “a referendum within 10‐15 years on Bougainville’s future political status.”

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Fast forward to 2019 and, after several delays, Bougainvilleans are now moving ahead with the referendum. Voting commences on Saturday and will take place over a two week period. The referendum question is simply: “Do you agree for Bougainville to have: (1) Greater Autonomy (2) Independence?” Most observers believe that Bougainvilleans will finally make their claim for independence, although the PNG Parliament must give its consent for the outcome to take effect. Whether that will be granted or not remains uncertain.

As Bougainvilleans cast their votes, they are all mindful of the profound effect the conflict has had on their society. As many as 20,000 people lost their lives due to the conflict, although most of those were a consequence of the embargo, which deprived citizens of basic supplies and medicines. Much of Bougainville’s infrastructure was also destroyed. More significantly, Bougainvilleans were subjected to attacks, forcible evictions and other human rights violations. And because Bougainvilleans fought each other during the conflict, they are now struggling to rebuild trust and a sense of community across the island. Against this backdrop, the people of Bougainville have a very important decision to make this week and next about their future.

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