What will Bougainville’s election outcome mean for mining, independence?

September 23, 2020
The future of the Panguna copper and gold mine was also a key issue in Bougainville's election.

Distribution of preferences in Bougainville’s election, which took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, ended on September 23 with the declaration that former Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) commander Ishmael Toroama had been elected president.

According to Melbourne University's Election Watch website, the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) poll was plagued by allegations of electoral misconduct, including ballot box tampering and reports of people being turned away from polling booths.

Toroama contested the 2015 election, coming second to outgoing president, John Momis. This time, he led his closest rival, former Papua New Guinea MP Father Simon Dumarinu, by more than 9000 votes under the ABG’s preferential voting system.

Toroama told Radio NZ his priorities are the restoration of law and order and a speedy resolution of the independence question. In regard to the re-opening of the Panguna Mine, Toroama said that was a decision entirely in the hands of the landowners.

ABC Radio’s Pacific Beat reported on September 17 that social worker and activist, Theonilla Roka Matbob won the seat of Ioro, home to the Panguna copper and gold mine, recently valued at $84 billion.

Matbob told Belinda Kora on ABC's Wantok that her priority is to pursue independence for Bougainville and deliver health and education to the people of Ioro.

In November–December last year, a referendum was held on independence, mandated under the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement.

Eighty-five percent of voters turned out during three weeks of voting, with 97.7% of voters choosing independence from Papua New Guinea over remaining part of PNG, but with greater autonomy.

The referendum was non-binding and the ultimate outcome will be decided by PNG’s National Parliament following negotiations with the ABG. The election outcome will determine who will take leading roles in these negotiations.

Another issue Matbob and other newly-elected MPs will face is whether to support the re-opening of the Panguna Mine.

As well as exporting the profits from Bougainville’s billion-dollar copper and gold reserves, the Panguna Mine has polluted communities downstream from its tailings dam.

The ABG has expressed support for reopening the mine, with the encouragement of Australian and other foreign interests.

The Panguna Mine was shut down in 1990 after a brutal battle against mostly indigenous landholders who received none of the huge profits generated by the mine. More than 20,000 people were killed during the almost 10 year civil war (1988-1997).

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in December that iron ore magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest is vying for access to Bougainville’s copper and gold deposits ahead of the independence referendum.

Matbob told Wantok: "For me as a spiritual being I cannot risk the lives of the future generation for economic benefits.

“But so long as people are empowered and they feel that they are ready for the issue of mines then the people can make their choice heard, then I can talk on their behalf (based on) what the people will say."

She told the ABC there are still plenty of legacy issues to do with the Panguna Mine that need to be dealt with, including damage to the environment.

Matbob is the second woman to be elected in an open seat. Bougainville’s 2004 constitution mandates three women's reserve seats, which have yet to be decided, and three seats are reserved for ex-combatants from the civil war.

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