The Lessons of Panguna

The construction, operation and closure of the Panguna copper mine on the island of Bougainville, in the period from 1967 to 1989, provides a clear illustration of the process of modernisation and its political repercussions. But, in this case, the illustration also served to inform the new model of stakeholder politics that was applied to the large-scale mining industry at a global scale.

The Panguna mine exemplified the technical innovations that were typical of the new generation of open-cut mining projects. However, because it was commissioned at the very start of the process of modernisation, no environmental conditions were attached to the licences granted by the Australian colonial administration, so the mine was designed to discharge its waste material directly into the Jaba River. The construction of this most modern mine was also accompanied by the construction of a modern mining town to accommodate the families of a workforce with multiple technical skills. Long-distance commuting was not yet thought to be an economic option for the employment of this type of workforce.

In the short period of time between self-government in 1973 and full independence from Australia in 1975, representatives of the new nation state renegotiated the Bougainville Copper Agreement that it inherited from the colonial administration and, in so doing, made PNG look like a very smart young Third World country. But the resulting increase in the national share of the incomes generated by the new mining project was just one aspect of a longer policy process that also established a set of rules to govern the distribution of these incomes between different groups of national stakeholders. These groups included national members of the mining workforce, the customary owners of land leased to the mining company and the people of Bougainville (or North Solomons) Province. Representatives of the national government and the mining company thought that this process had been completed by 1980.

The outbreak of the Bougainville rebellion in 1989 was the start of an entirely new policy process that was not confined by national borders. It was the first in a sequence of ‘bad events’ that eventually forced the captains of the global mining industry to articulate new standards of corporate social responsibility. But the lessons of the rebellion were not easy to learn, since it was not clear whether and how it might have been caused by the negligence of Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL). Some observers blamed the Australian colonial administration for approving the development of the mine without regard for what Bougainvilleans wanted. Others blamed the national government for failing to share enough of the benefits of the renegotiated mining agreement with the provincial government or local landowners. Since the first phase of the rebellion was organised by a local landowner association, much attention was paid to the grievances that its leaders held against the mine itself. Were they upset about the influx of outsiders taking jobs or doing business with the mine; about the damage being caused to their own land or physical environment; or about the inability of their own social institutions to cope with a rapid process of social, economic and environmental change?

The reason that these questions are so hard to answer, even with the benefit of hindsight, is that the rebellion was not a single ‘event’ with a discrete set of causes. It was a local and provincial political process with deep historical roots that continued to evolve for years after it had triggered a set of national and global policy responses within the mining sector. If all the local and provincial actors who were involved in this process at one time or another had shared a common set of interests and motivations, then the process would not have lasted for as long as it did.

So what lessons were to be drawn from the events that forced the closure of the mine if the allocation of responsibility or blame is still contestable? The first lesson was that a disaffected mine-affected community had the power to close down a large-scale mining project if government forces were too weak to stop this from happening. The second was that a mining company could not always rely on a Third World government to police and enforce the compensation and benefit-sharing agreements under which it operated. From which followed a third lesson, that mining companies operating in fragile or chaotic political environments had to develop new strategies to manage relationships between all three groups of stakeholders in the triangle.

There may have been a fourth lesson, but it was not quite so obvious to external observers. It could be drawn from the fact that Francis Ona, the rebel leader, emerged from the ranks of BCL’s own workforce. He and some of his fellow mineworkers were not only members of the landowner association that demanded huge amounts of monetary compensation from the company in 1988; they were also responsible for escalating acts of sabotage against the infrastructure of the mine that culminated in the outbreak of armed conflict at the end of that year. In this respect, the first phase of the rebellion was an ‘inside job’. In the second phase, the company was forced to close the mine because it could not guarantee the safety of its workforce; however, by that time, the rebellious landowners in the workforce were already on the other side of the fence. Nearly all of the workers who lost their jobs in 1989, including many Bougainvilleans, left Bougainville to look for work elsewhere. The rebellion did not serve their economic interests at all, but nor was it inspired by rational economic calculations on the part of the rebels, and that is one reason why the government and the company were unable to contain it. So the lesson would be that recruitment of more workers from a mine-affected community is not necessarily sufficient to compensate for the negative impact of a mining project on their society and their environment.