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“Closing Down the Mine Brought Our Community Back Together”: How a Small Pacific Island Stood Up to a Transnational Company

Clive Porabou was born on the Pacific island of Bougainville. Transnational mining company Rio Tinto was beginning to dig the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, displacing native residents. Armed conflict started even before excavation began.
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This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Bougainville Mine photo by Madlemurs

Bougainville. Photo by Madlemurs.

Age: 45
Occupation: Musician, filmmaker

Birthplace: Mamung, Bougainville
Interviewed in: Australia and the Solomon Islands

Clive Porabou was born in 1969 on the Pacific island of Bougainville, just as transnational mining conglomerate Rio Tinto was beginning to dig the world’s largest open-pit copper mine on the island. He came of age in the years when Bougainvilleans without special education or skills were excluded from mine work. Instead, Rio Tinto brought in workers from Papua New Guinea (PNG) who set up sprawling worker camps, displacing native residents. Australia had granted Papua New Guinea administrative control of Bougainville in the 1970s, even though the islands are hundreds of miles apart and culturally distinct. Armed conflict over the mine’s presence started even before excavation began, though major conflict did not break out until the late eighties, when a small Bougainvillean military force attacked the mine’s power supply and shut down mine operations.

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From 1989 to 1993, Clive fought with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army against the PNG defense force. After getting shot in the arm in 1993, he sought medical treatment in the Solomon Islands, as many injured Bougainvilleans did after PNG imposed a total blockade of the island. In the Solomons, he fell in love with Rachel Caleb, a secretary at the Seventh-day Adventist hospital where he was treated, and they married in 1996. He also began to write and record music about the conflict. Clive soon returned to the front with a video camera to document the struggle—and with cassettes of Blood Generation, the album he had recorded in the Solomons. After the war ended in 1997, Clive returned to live with Rachel in the Solomons, and they had two children, Rosalie Matari, and Clive Tangaona. He has continued to film, record, and blog about the independence movement of his home island.

 

We interview Clive three times via Skype in 2011, twice when he is in Australia and once when he is in the village in the Solomons where he now lives with his family. More than anything, Clive wants word of Bougainville’s struggle to circulate around the world.


THEY DIDN’T WORRY MUCH ABOUT MONEY

Mekamui, or Bougainville, is an island of more than 3,500 square miles with a population of nearly two hundred thousand. It’s located at the northern end of the Solomon Island chain but is still administered by Papua New Guinea, an island nation four hundred miles to the west.

Mekamui is the traditional name for my island, but the island is also called Bougainville. Meka means “sacred” and mui means “island.” So it’s a sacred or holy island. Everything’s always green on Mekamui. Before the mining company came, people were living in peace and harmony. Most of our parents, and our grandparents, they just lived on subsistence farming, making food from the garden, growing coconut and cocoa and other food crops they could sell at the market, and earning a little extra through whatever jobs they could find. They didn’t worry much about money. They just lived on the land and everything the land provided—like food, housing materials, whatever.

Before the mine, the people lived by a barter system. For instance, people who lived along the coast went fishing, and when they caught fish, they exchanged them with the people from inland for taro or yams or other crops. Or the people down along the beach would boil seawater for salt and exchange it for food from inlanders who maintained gardens.

Bougainvilleans stayed in extended families. The older families—aunties, cousins, and whatnot, they stuck together. Families would cultivate big gardens together, working to clear brush and plant food crops. We’d grow yams, potatoes, taro, cassava, bananas, and greens too. One crop we grew was aibika, which in English is called “slippery cabbage,” because it gets a bit slippery when you boil it.

Arawa is the capital of Bougainville and was the administrative center of the copper mining operation. Before Rio Tinto developed the area as an administrative headquarters, it was a cocoa and coconut plantation.

Where I grew up was about an hour and fifteen minute walk up into the hills from Arawa. Our village, Mamung, had about two hundred people and all the houses were laid out in a long row in the hillside. Aside from my parents, I lived with three brothers and two sisters. I was the youngest. My brothers and I, we used to climb breadfruit trees, and we also went fishing in the river with many other kids from the village, and we went to school near the village. My brothers all liked to strum on the guitar and sing, and they taught me how to play when I was young. Music was in my blood. When I was a child, the village was safe.

"WHAT CAN WE DO?"

In early 1969, Australia granted land—owned by Bougainvillean villagers near the town of Rorovana—to Rio Tinto to build a shipping port. The land grant led to protests that included removing surveyor markers. The protest was quashed by over seventy police brought in from Papua New Guinea, which had some administrative control over the island of Bougainville granted by Australia.

Bougainville Copper Ltd. is an Australian-owned subsidiary of the British/Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto.

Bougainville Copper actually came in just a few years before I was born in 1969. The first thing they did was survey the land for the Panguna mine. Women on Bougainville, Mekamui, are the landowners, and they pass the land down to their daughters—land ownership is a very important tradition. The Australian government was set to hand over a parcel of land along the shore to Bougainville Copper, and there was resistance immediately. The story I’ve heard is that when the women protested, the police and the company’s security forces kicked the women and dragged them along the beach. The way we see it, the company came into Bougainville by force.

Since the nineteenth century, control of Bougainville has passed between Britain, Germany, Australia, Japan (during World War II), and independent Papua New Guinea. The White House was the headquarters of the prewar Bougainville provincial government.

For most of us Bougainvilleans, we grew up with the idea of becoming an independent island nation. It’s been passed down for generations. And that’s why in 1975 Bougainvilleans held a protest demonstration in Arawa. They stormed the White House, threw rocks through the windows.

I was just a kid at the time, but my brothers joined in. They threw stones through the White House windows and camped nearby for a few days. The prime minister of Papua New Guinea came to the island in early September 1975 and negotiated a provincial government structure for Bougainville. Then, on September 16, Australia granted independence to Papua New Guinea. All these changes happened at the same time. But independence from Australia didn’t solve our problems. We were now a part of Papua New Guinea and were still not free on our own land.

Most of our problems seemed to come from the development of the mining operations. People from the Papua New Guinea mainland came looking for jobs, they built squatter settlements, and it got worse for those of us who were born in Mekamui.

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I grew up seeing our mothers and sisters raped by the squatters. Old people getting kicked or punched. When I was a child of ten or twelve, I was walking with a cousin on a section of road down by the river where the squatters had their houses, and we witnessed a group of squatters, guys in their twenties, assault one of our female relatives. Three of them pushed her down, took off her clothes, her bra. She was screaming. We were just kids. We couldn’t do anything, but she was a big strong woman, so she put up a good fight with them. Luckily, two or three other guys came and chased off the attackers. When it happened, you know, we had pain in our hearts and in our minds. Me and the cousin, we said, “What can we do?” We decided that one day we must try to do something.

But soon after the incident I left the island for a few years. My siblings and I went to primary school right next to our village, and I was there through the sixth grade, but for high school, I went to Papua New Guinea. I grew up in the religion called Seventh-day Adventist, or SDA, so we had to go to the SDA school. At the time there was not any Seventh-day-run high school around Bougainville, so we went to Papua New Guinea. I was about fifteen when I left. I stayed in PNG for four years. I came back in late 1987, and in ’89 when I was home for a couple of years, the
uprising started.

WE STARTED FIGHTING WITH BOWS AND ARROWS

At its height of operation, the Panguna mine was the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, measuring more than four miles across and nearly a third of a mile deep. It produced more than one billion tons of waste, including heavy metal trailings that clogged the island’s fresh water streams and rivers.

Francis Ona was a landowner up near the Panguna mine, the major mine operated by Bougainville Copper at the time. He also worked for the company as a surveyor—he was one of the few Bougainvilleans who found work with Rio Tinto. Through his work, he realized there were seven other deposits on the island that would be mined after Panguna, and that the damage done to the land would destroy the island.

The rivers were already poisoned by waste from the mine—fish had disappeared, animals were disappearing, and the company was already tearing up tens of thousands of acres for the mine that used to be hunting and gardening grounds. Ona understood his people would have no future if things continued as planned. Ona called for a review of the mine, a review of the agreement between the PNG government, the mining company, and the landowners who received royalties from the company for use of the land. He just peacefully called for a review. And the Panguna Landowners Association, the mine owners, and the PNG government, they didn’t listen to him.

After protesting for years, in 1988, Ona just took off. He and some associates took up arms and formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the BRA. Over the next year, they started blowing up the pylons that carried electricity from the coast to the mine, and in May of 1989, the Panguna mine came to a standstill. Mining activity stopped completely, but the mine owners were not about to give up. It was the beginning of a civil war. When the mine closed down, the Papua New Guinea government sent in the police, the riot squad, the security forces, the defense forces. The company ordered PNG security forces to use every possible means to reopen the mine.

At the start of the uprising, I was just a couple of years back from high school, about nineteen, and I had a job at the Palm Store, one of three department stores in Arawa at the time.

I can’t remember the actual date I joined the BRA, but it was at the time the Papua New Guinean laborers in one of the cocoa or coconut plantations around Arawa killed a woman from the island. Some of the woman’s relatives were with the BRA in Ona’s camp, and those relatives came down to the PNG work camps and killed some men as payback.

PNG security responded by setting up roadblocks and stopping all Bougainvilleans from heading home to their villages. When all this was happening, I just left the shop and put the money in the safe at the Palm Store and left Arawa. And I rang the boss to tell him that the money was there. I realized that the area was not safe, and that anything could happen. Everyone fleeing the PNG crackdown drove up near our village, and put their trucks and cars and buses near there, and walked the bush track through the jungle up the mountain and back to their villages.

Microphone photo by Alexis Fam
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Me and one of my cousins, we decided to go into the bush to join the fighters. We said, “We’ll join the uprising, the boys, for what we believe, and for what we want the island to be.” It was very exciting during that time. I was in my late teens, with energy and all that. Most young guys, they loved it. When you shoot at an enemy, you’re going to feel proud. You killed someone who tried to come kill you, to steal your things.

We used to have only five or ten boys in each fighting unit on the BRA side, each led by a unit commander who was usually a little older. At first, we started fighting with bows and arrows or whatever stones and sticks we could find. We used what we call the foca in our language, which is a sort of slingshot. Soon we had a few homemade rifles. Then some of the boys captured enemy weapons. All the best weapons we had, we took from the PNG security forces.

Most of the time we would attack by setting up an ambush. We’d spy on PNG camps from the bush. The island itself is mountainous, and we took advantage of terrain that we knew well. We could see the enemy camps from the mountains and plan out our strikes. Our land really helped us.

In those times we had little sleep. We took turns: some would watch, others would sleep. Early in the morning, some of us would go down to check if any enemy soldiers had come in the night. In the day we would patrol the area to see if it was clear or not. During this time, the villagers in the highlands moved higher up in the mountains, to set up bush camps. Villagers would go down to the old village to get things they needed and then return to the safety of the hidden bush camps. We would patrol the villages before the villagers came down. We gave them certain designated days to come down, like Monday and Thursday, and we would go down with them to make sure they were safe.

That was most of the routine, unless boys from other areas asked for help. That’s when platoon commanders would select someone with a high-power gun and ask us to go help. The messages got around very fast. The boys ran from one place to another. At first there was no radio, but later on we got a few high-frequency radios.

That’s what we signed on for—rain, cold, whatever. We would tell people who wanted to join, “You may sleep in cold or rain at night, and you have to accept that. Sometimes when we have ongoing military operations, we will have no shelter. If you can’t do that, there are other ways you can help—communications or whatever.” But once the war started, it was impossible not to be involved in some way.

WE SURVIVED ON WHAT WE COULD GROW

From 1989 to ’97 we had a total blockade of our island imposed by Papua New Guinea. There weren’t any resources coming in. Rio Tinto and Papua New Guinea, they were saying, “We will make the Bougainvilleans suffer and make them come down from the mountains and say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to fight now. We surrender,’” so that they could reopen the mine.

The Red Cross estimates that the blockade killed two thousand children within the first two years. Geographically, Bougainville is the northernmost of the Solomon Islands, an archipelago off the east coast of Papua New Guinea. Bougainville ended up as part of PNG due to complex land swaps during the European colonial era. The closest islands in the independent Solomon chain are just a couple of miles off the southern coast of Bougainville.

During that time in the mountains, we survived on what we could grow in our gardens. We didn’t have much protein, and little salt, because before we used to gather salt and trade for fish from the people down at the beach and sea, along the coast. PNG forces controlled the coasts, and it was risky for those of us in the mountains to travel down around the shore.

We didn’t have medicine at the time, or new clothes, and in the bush high in the mountains it could get a bit cold. Many people died from this blockade because we had no medicine or doctors to treat them. Sometimes we could travel to the Solomons for medical assistance. But it was very dangerous, because of PNG boats and helicopters used to patrol the water. So if it was between life and death, you traveled across. If you had a way, you found someone who was going across to the Solomons, and you had to take a chance. On the side of the border on the Solomon Islands, the Red Cross and some other humanitarian groups, they used to help us.

“THIS IS THE GUY THAT NEARLY GOT US KILLED WHEN WE LISTENED TO HIS MUSIC”

In 1993, I was shot through my right arm in an ambush. Another Bougainvillean, he betrayed us. He told the PNG soldiers that my unit was going to be in a certain location, so the soldiers set up an ambush. After I was shot, I had to wait in some bush camps with relatives until it was safe to cross. Once in the Solomons, I was treated at a Seventh-day Adventist hospital where they successfully removed the bullet from my arm.

I stayed in the Solomons after my injury, and I began to focus on music. I recorded an album, which I called Blood Generation. It came out in ’95, during the time when the war was bitter on the ground. PNG tried every means to end the resistance and reopen the mine, with all these operations that they gave names like “High-Speed I” and “High-Speed II.” They’d send waves of helicopters and armored trucks into the bush to drive out the BRA. We put Blood Generation out, and the first copies went all over Bougainville. Many Bougainvilleans played it, and if the PNG security forces heard you playing it, they would smash your tape; they might kill you. I once met another Bougainvillean at the airport, and he said, “This is the guy that nearly got us killed when we listened to his music during the height of the war.”

Aside from pursuing music while recovering in the Solomons, I also met a Solomon Islander, the woman who would become my wife. Rachel was a secretary at one of the Seventh-day Adventist hospitals in the outer provinces of Solomon Islands—that’s where most of us from Bougainville went. I met her while I was recuperating, and we were married in 1996.

After my album made its way to Mekamui, I thought about other ways I could make a difference with the independence movement. I contacted some supporters in Australia and I sent Blood Generation around there too, because on the ground, most of the media that was coming out, it was crap. It was pro-government—journalists or TV crews who had been going out with the Papua New Guinea defense forces. They’d been telling one side of the story only.

The 2001 documentary The Coconut Revolution spotlighted the Bougainvilleans’ resistance to Rio Tinto and the PNG forces, and the ingenious ways they used their natural resources to survive during the blockade—running trucks on coconut oil, for example.

Then some journalists went to the Solomon Islands through the blockade, across the border, like Dom Rotheroe did to make The Coconut Revolution. They went across and they stayed with the people out in the jungle, out in the bushes. And they brought out the stories of what was really happening to the people of Mekamui. So people in Papua New Guinea, in Australia, they learned what bullshit was coming out from the pro-government media.

But I saw that Rotheroe’s TV crew made it in, and I thought, Why can’t we Bougainvilleans do the film shooting ourselves? So I borrowed a camera from one of the supporters on the Solomon Islands, went back to Bougainville, and we started shooting some film. I filmed the boys in action, fighting PNG defense forces. So it was dangerous. You had to look in two directions at once—one eye looked through the viewfinder, one eye looked out for bullets flying by. Trying to capture good, steady footage while bullets were flying was like a suicide mission.

IT'S A MIRACLE WHAT HAPPENED TO US

Unable to defeat the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the PNG government made a secretive and controversial decision to hire mercenaries from the British firm Sandline International in 1997. The governments of Australia and New Zealand, as well as PNG defense force commander Jerry Singirok, opposed the move when it became known. The government of then–Prime Minister Julius Chan went forward anyway. As soon as the forty-four mercenaries landed on Bougainville, Singirok had them arrested. Chan fired Singirok, but soldiers at the central barracks rebelled, students at the University of Papua New Guinea in the capital Port Moresby boycotted classes, and mass protests filled the streets. Chan remained intransigent. The government of Australia then threatened to withdraw financial aid, and that proved the decisive factor. All the mercenaries were withdrawn five days after the protests began.

In ’97, when the situation on Bougainville was getting hard, the government of Papua New Guinea brought in mercenaries—they spent a lot of money hiring them. The mercenaries came from as far as Port Moresby, but the Papua New Guinea defense force commander, Jerry Singirok, he opposed the use of mercenaries. He had the mercenaries arrested as soon as they showed up.

A court case brought against Rio Tinto in the United States, Sarei v. Rio Tinto, put this figure at fifteen thousand. Bougainville had a total population of about 154,000 in 1990, so this represented about 10 percent of the island’s residents.

Then Jerry Singirok went on air to one of the local radio stations, and he explained everything. And the people of Papua New Guinea were listening. And that’s why students and other PNG citizens walked with the soldiers along the road and protested. Many people were calling, “Don’t kill our brothers in Bougainville, don’t do that.”

We say it’s a miracle what happened to us. They killed twenty thousand–plus Bougainvilleans while trying to reopen that mine, and it took a PNG general to end it.

WE WANT INDEPENDENCE, SO LET’S GO NEGOTIATE FOR INDEPENDENCE

When the war ended in 1997, the BRA and other revolutionary forces signed a peace agreement with PNG, and negotiations began to grant the island more autonomy. In 2005, they granted a limited autonomous government to Bougainville.

Though the 1997 mercenary debacle made clear that the Bougainville uprising would not be quelled by force, the peace agreement was not signed until August 30, 2001. Deep divisions wracked Bougainvillean society as the conflict wore on, and the peace process needed to address these as well as the war with Papua New Guinea. The core provisions of the peace treaty included a higher level of autonomy for Bougainville, a deferred referendum on independence, and demilitarization.

I haven’t been involved in any real way myself with the negotiations, but I still do my part letting the world know about our struggle through my website, www.mekamui.org. And I work with a number of groups within Bougainville to try to make sure they never reopen the mine. And to push for full independence from PNG. I just got a text from the boys on the ground, they texted me this morning. They held a meeting yesterday and they said, “We don’t want to be controlled by directives from Port Moresby.” So, to be independent, it is like we will become separate. Not controlled by Papua New Guinea, or under Papua New Guinea.

The referendum on independence is scheduled for 2015, but it’s conditional. Roads and hospitals, all these must be built before the referendum is sealed. There’s not anything on the ground yet, so that’s why maybe the referendum will be later. Still, many of us are saying: Why bother with a referendum when we’ve lost twenty thousand fighting to close the mine and get full independence? Our sacrifice shows that we want independence, so let’s go negotiate for independence right away.

I’m very happy that now on the ground the people are free, girls can walk anytime in the day. Arawa is very safe now. Everywhere you go it’s only Bougainvilleans.

We have more autonomy, but even in the last couple of days there’s been a lot of talk again around the island on the mine issue in the Bougainville Autonomous Government. Our president in Bougainville, John Momis, he went to Moresby and talked with the prime minister and the Panguna Landowners Association, the landowners’ chairmen. They want to review the agreement because the actual landowners of the mine are still divided on the issue of independence and whether to reopen mining activities.

THE TREES HAVE STARTED BEARING FRUITS AGAIN

After the mine opened, life on the island seemed to stall. Now, everything has just started again. Fruit trees—they’ve started bearing fruits again. During the time of mining operations, fruit trees weren’t bearing any fruit. Like the breadfruit we used to eat when I was a small boy. It stopped when the mine was in operation, and now it has started bearing fruit again, so we think it was the chemicals or whatever poison they used in the mine that sickened the breadfruit trees.

Before the mining, the small streams from the highlands were free to flow down to the main Jaba River without anything blocking them. All the waste from the mine, the rocks and sediment, it spread out over the river and its tributaries, blocking the smaller streams so it causes big landslides. When it rains for a few days, there’s flooding and it causes a lot of damage to the soil and land. The river starts from the mine, and there’s nothing living around it for about fifty, sixty kilometers. Not any living thing. But it’s slowly getting better, life is coming back.

According to the Bougainvilleans’ lawsuit against Rio Tinto, the mine’s waste and runoff contaminated an area of nearly ten thousand acres of farms and gardens. Coastal lands near the Jaba river were turned toxic from heavy metal runoff.

Our group that followed the lead of Francis Ona, we don’t want the mine reopened. Other residents of the island, they want to reopen the mine and just want to renegotiate with the mining company. We are saying, “Why do you want the mine reopened? What are you gonna get from it? What are you gonna do? Where are your children going to live, and what will they think of you when they know you destroyed all this land?”

But the residents in favor of reopening the mine are saying that we are going to become economically independent, that more money will come directly to Bougainville instead of PNG. In the past, about 19 percent of the profits from the mine went to Papua New Guinea. Only a little amount of money, the peanuts that landowners got, came to Bougainville. So we’ve been saying that when we are independent, all of that money, 90 or 50 or whatever percent that the government of the day can agree on, will come to Bougainville and not be shared with the government of Papua New Guinea, which was the previous arrangement.

My group has been saying, how come very tiny Pacific island countries that don’t have any valuable resources like copper or gold manage independence? Like the Solomon Islands, Nauru, and Cook Islands and all these other little island nations—they are independent, even though they don’t have valuable resources. We can make cocoa or coconut plantations—we could do that instead of mining and destroying the land. We could plant food. We saw that mining will destroy our land, so we’ve been piping up to keep our land as it is: green, always green. We want the island to be green, so our future generations can live peacefully, live happily with things from the ground.

Before, when the mine was in operation, people were busy, you know, busy, busy. They nearly forgot their relatives, their neighbors. Because they were always struggling to make money, money, money. They seemed to forget our culture and our traditional ways, and now, people are learning that again. We need to hold on to our identity.

That’s what the war and the closing down of the mine brought to us. It brought us back together.


This article is excerpted from the book Invisible Hands: Voices From The Global Economy, an oral history collection by publisher Voice of Witness.

Click here to access free Voice of Witness educational curricula on this story.

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