Australia's war for mining company profits

February 9, 1994

By Frank Enright

Australia is at war. In fact, it has been for five years, only it hasn't been declared to the people of Australia. The "enemy" are the indigenous people on the small island of Bougainville, just to the north of the Solomon Islands. Hundreds certainly, and possibly thousands, of islanders have been massacred, and the loss of life continues to this day. But living in Australia, you'd hardly know about it. This is Australia's secret, dirty war.

Previously part of the Solomon Islands, just eight kilometres away, Bougainville was incorporated into Papua New Guinea in deals between British and German colonialism. The people were not consulted over this or any of the changes to their lives since. When the Whitlam Labor government granted formal independence to PNG in 1975, Bougainville was included, despite pleas for independence by the people.

The Melanesian people of Bougainville want to determine their own future — that is their crime. Tired of being ignored and exploited, in 1989, led by a traditional landowner, Francis Ona, the Bougainvilleans declared their independence.

Foreign minister Gareth Evans made clear the Australian government's position: "From a purely self-interested Australian regional security perspective, the fragmentisation of PNG is something we see as being a very unhappy development in regional security and stability and one which we would like to see avoided at all costs." At all costs includes the lives of the indigenous people and the destruction of their island's ecology.

It is hardly plausible that independence for Bougainville is going to affect regional security. The real reason for the Australian and PNG governments' hostility lies underground, literally. In the centre of the island, at Panguna, Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA) "owns" an enormously profitable copper mine. The mine, begun in 1966, provided 11% of PNG's gross domestic product.

It was said at a shareholders' meeting of RTZ (of which CRA is the major subsidiary) that the right to land depends on the ability to defend it. Australia, the Papua New Guinea administration and CRA, in league, stole the land from the people. Women resisting the theft of their land to create a port facility were clubbed by riot police sent in by the Australian government.

The rainforest, which provided the local people with their subsistence, was destroyed to make way for the Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) mine, which CRA controls with a 52.56% shareholding. It described the highly profitable mine as "the jewel in our crown".

Land taken at the point of a gun, and whole villages were destroyed to make way for what was then the largest human-made hole. The mine is now half a kilometre deep and 7 kilometres in circumference, with a wall of waste which is dumped into the river, killing all life in and around the water. Much later the people received token compensation. The subsequent environmental destruction is beyond monetary compensation.


Ona's group, later to become the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), forced the closure of the mine in early 1989. The PNG government responded by sending extra troops to the island with "shoot to kill" orders. Australia provided PNG with four attack helicopters, used as gunships. A bitter fight ensued, with the poorly armed BRA eventually forcing the withdrawal of PNG forces. A popular interim government with Ona as its head was formed and independence declared.

A blockade was imposed on the island in 1990, which has had a devastating effect on the people. The lack of medicines has spread dysentery and whooping cough. Rosemarie Gillespie, an Australian human rights activist, claims that more than 5000 have died, many of these young children, through the lack of medicines. This barbaric blockade, condemned by the UN Human Rights Commission, is supported by the Australian government and enforced by military craft supplied for the purpose by Australia.

At the beginning of 1992, PNG forces returned to Bougainville and a brutal repression followed. Australia's defence minister, Robert Ray, admitted last year that Australian military advisers are serving on the island. PNG occupies parts of Bougainville, including the capital, Arawa.

PNG Prime Minister Paias Wingti boasted in July 1993, "On Bougainville we gave the security forces a free hand to deal with the problem without much interference".

The blockade and "free hand" policy prompted Amnesty International to report in 1993: "Government and military restrictions on access to the island have also meant that the security forces have been virtually free of public scrutiny ... the government has created a climate in which human rights violations have been almost inevitable."

The Bougainville interim government's representative to the United Nations, Mike Forster, says, "I believe that the Australian government is now cognisant of the fact that PNG is misusing Australian military support to commit human rights violations on Bougainville".

Australia currently gives PNG almost $30 million a year in military aid; it trains, feeds, clothes, advises and provides the ammunition of the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF). Australian and New Zealand pilots fly the helicopters that regularly strafe the villages. The helicopters have also been used to dump at sea the victims of torture and murder by PNG forces.

The Australian government, as with East Timor, tries desperately to cover up the war and atrocities, portraying it as an internal PNG matter.

Who benefits?

Who benefits from this barbarous and iniquitous war? Not the Australian taxpayers who are financing it. Not the Bougainvillean people who are the victims of it. Not the people of PNG whose political system is corrupt through and through, and who receive little or none of the revenue from the mine, but who provide the foot soldiers.

The only winner is CRA, possibly the most exploitative company in an industry which prospers on exploitation. By any standard, CRA's involvement is immoral; thousands of lives are being lost, many more are suffering terribly, and 40,000 people are now refugees of the war.

Lillian Crofts, a member of one of the landowning clans, who was recently granted refugee status in Australia, says her people don't want the mine ever to reopen. It has cost too many lives already. "I've got every right to say that the copper mine will not reopen.

"Bougainville is a beautiful island, but the copper mine has destroyed all the habitat. The waste from the mine goes down the Java River, and all the vegetation along the banks is dead."

Crofts says the war has developed into a fight to maintain their unique culture, in which equity exists between men, women and the environment. Their culture is being gradually diminished by the combined effects of the mine, missionaries and now the war. Bougainville is not dependent on the mine: the people can survive without it, Crofts insists.

"Australia has put a veil over Bougainville" which hides the effects of the war, the blockade and the human rights violations. It is appalling, says Crofts, that Australia supplies helicopters which are used to strafe villages, killing many children.

A CRA spokesperson recently conceded the obvious environmental destruction, but claimed that the company has been sensitive to the population!

Shares jump

The Financial Review reported that the value of CRA's mine on Bougainville sharply increased, by $48 million, on January 20. "Speculators on the Australian stock exchange now value the hole [mine], which would probably engulf the entire Sydney or Melbourne CBD, at $441 million."

Since December the value of the mine has jumped 83.33%, partly due to an expected increase in the price of base metals, but also due to a heightened expectation of the retaking of the mine site. Even so, the Financial Review columnist concedes, "It will be the very late 1990s before anything moves at Panguna, other than perhaps the worth of its hole".

Wingti is in Australia from February 8 doing the bidding of the mining giant. He is reportedly seeking finances for a mining venture on the Pacific island of Lihir, where CRA has discovered gold.

"The Australian people need to send a clear message to Mr Keating and Paias Wingti that they do not support the Australian involvement in Bougainville or PNG's genocidal program", appeals Mike Forster, from Geneva.

The Bougainville interim government has made it clear it wants a negotiated settlement. But the island's terrain is ideal for guerilla warfare, and the people have made known their preparedness to continue the war as long as they are forced to.

Speaking to Green Left Weekly, Max Lane, an Asia-Pacific activist and a leading member of the Democratic Socialist Party, commented: "The Australian government should recognise Bougainville's independence, halt all military aid to PNG while they occupy Bougainville and insist on the ending of the blockade. Furthermore, CRA should be pressured into transferring ownership of the Panguna mine to the Bougainvillean people from whom the land was stolen."

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