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Video clip synopsis – The story of how long-standing local opposition to a copper mine in Bougainville erupted into full-scale civil war.
Year of production - 2000
Duration - 4min 3sec
Tags - Australian History, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, capitalism, colonisation, nationalism, self-determination, terrorism, see all tags

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Origins of the Bougainville Conflict

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About the Video Clip

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Origins of the Bougainville Conflict is an excerpt from the two-part documentary Paradise Imperfect made in 2000.

Paradise Imperfect
In 2000 the ABC’s Pacific Correspondent Sean Dorney travelled to the war zones of Bougainville to look at the impact of the nine year secessionist conflict and the fragile peace process.
An Australian Broadcasting Corporation production.

Background Information

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The islands of Bougainville were part of German New Guinea from the 1880s until World War I, when they became annexed to Australia’s New Guinea territories. Later, in 1975 they became part of independent Papua New Guinea.

The people of Bougainville lived off their land largely from subsistence gardening, hunting and fishing, in a matrilineal system where each person was identified by membership of their mother’s clan.

Discovery of copper deposits in the 1960s led to the establishment of a huge copper mine on the island of Bougainville by Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA). The Panguna open cut mine was at that time the largest in the world. The company registered various traditional landowners of the Nasioi language group, but excluded women despite their position as traditional custodians of the land under the matrilineal system.

The mine started production in 1972 under management of Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) with the Papua New Guinea government as a 20% shareholder. The Papua New Guinea Independence Constitution had stated land ownership was to just below the surface of the soil; this meant that all mineral rights would belong to the State. Bougainvillians had a different concept of land, seeing it as their lifeblood in political, emotional and social terms. As mining operations continued and provided 45% of Papua New Guinea’s national export revenue, some groups in Bougainville felt resentment at substantial payouts going to certain landowner groups and not to others.

Anger over the non-payment of royalties, the pollution of the rivers by the tailings from the mine and a belief that the mining land would never be restored to its natural state, made many landowners resentful that their traditional lives would be lost forever to the mining operation. There was also conflict between some native Bougainvilleans and others (mainly workers from the main island of Papua New Guinea) brought in to work on the mine. Tensions exploded in 1988 when disgruntled landowner (and later secessionist campaigner) Francis Ona led sabotage attacks on the mine. By 1989 he had forced the mine’s closure.

The nine year civil war that followed saw thousands of people killed.

Classroom Activities

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  1. The people of Bougainville opposed the mine for various reasons –- what were the main reasons for opposition to the mine both initially and then later when growing resentment led to its closure in 1989?
  2. Research the role of Australia and Australians in the conflict –- from the Australian Minister for Territories Charles Barnes, to those involved in the mining company.
  3. In the video clip, the granting of the 10,000 acre mining lease is discussed with the comment that the people of Bougainville did not want to be part of Papua New Guinea let alone sell their land to the state.
    1. Why did many Bougainvilleans not want to be part of Papua New Guinea?
    2. What could have been done differently to perhaps get the landowners on side with the mining project?
  4. Sean Dorney describes the conflict as starting with a few Bougainvilleans who fought the company and who then went on to fight the Papua New Guinea Army and then after forcing the army out fought each other.
    1. How was the company ‘fought’?
    2. Identify the two factions of Bougainvilleans who were in conflict with each other.
  5. The desired outcome of you completing this course is that you be able to identify forces and ideas and explain their significance in contributing to change and continuity.
    From colonialism onwards, identify the relevant forces and ideas behind this conflict and then reflect on what you consider their impact has been on change and continuity on Bougainville.

Further Resources

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Go to Pacific Stories Learning for Interactive Compass Map with facts about the Pacific region.

For interview transcripts, books and references for this Digital Resource go to Pacific Stories, choose My Valley is Changing, select INDEX, and go to MORE INFORMATION.