Bougainville Resists Toxic Imperialism

On Gogol Boulevard section


Fifth Estate # 343, Fall-Winter, 1993

Bougainville is a small island in the South Pacific, northeast of Australia, whose residents are currently waging a struggle against imperialism and ecological destruction.

Before imperial domination the island had no formal government. It was first invaded by imperialists in 1898 when Germany took control of the island. The Australian military took over the island from 1914 until 1942, when the Japanese forced them out. After the war Australia again administered the island.

During this period massive deposits of copper and other minerals were discovered. Prior to 1965, women controlled the island’s land; the 1964 discovery of copper and Australia’s parceling out of land to select male inhabitants changed all that. and created a local ruling class.

The richest member of this neo-colonial clique, Matthew Cove, was killed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The aspiring imperialists of Papau New Guinea (PNG) were given control over the island in 1974, a year before their own official independence from Australia.

Copper mining on the main island of Papau and on Bougainville became the mainstay of the PNG economy. In the early 1980’s, PNG was the second largest producer of copper in the world. Much of the copper came from the Panguna open pit copper mine on Bougainville (the largest open pit copper mine in the world which accounts for 1/3 of the GNP of PNG). A small mountain now has a hole 2.5 miles wide, 1.5 miles long and 0.3 mile deep.

Since production began in 1972, the mining operation has been opposed by the islanders. Women, rightful owners of the land, fearing the destruction of their agrarian permaculture, have played an important role in this struggle. The accommodating mine owners have graciously offered to turn the pit into a lake approximately 25 years from now, when the deposit is exhausted. Unfortunately strip-mining has already decimated the ecology of the island.

The Bougainvilian people declared their independence in 1975. Inhabitants formed the BRA out of local militias. Early on this was to oppose police repression under auspices of the Australian government and later the PNG military. In 1989 many parts of the island were taken by the BRA, and in May of that year, the mine was shut down. The immense digging machines used at Panguna were sabotaged.

Mountainous conditions and popular support for the BRA forced the PNG to withdraw its military from the island although it controls some coastal areas. Bougainville is now subject to a naval blockade imposed by PNG with the help of Australia. Liberated areas on the island are self-sufficient in food production.

Comprised mostly of members of the Nasioi ethnic group, the BRA professes no Western-identified ideology. It is led by a man named Francis Anna. Support for the people of Bougainville is growing in Australia, in spite of a near news blackout. Hopefully, support for the Bougainvillians will spread to the U.S. and elsewhere.