Jun 30, 2001

Bougainville: towards a new autonomy status

Since the signing of the Bougainville Peace Accord in January 2001, negotiations between the parties have been focussing on the details and implementation of its articles. It has already been agreed upon that all government functions should be transferred to Bougainville, except for defence, foreign affairs, international shipping and aviation, and the supreme court, furthermore the Panguna copper mine, that sparked the violent conflict in Bougainville will not be reopened. Bougainville Copper Limited, the owner of the Panguna mine, is leaving Bougainville and will sell all its assets.

Avei said the Papua New Guinea government would now draft a Bougainville autonomy bill for parliament, which will be reviewed in July 2001. However he did not reveal a timeframe for Bougainville's autonomy. Several crucial points are still to be finalised, such as disarmament of militant factions. An agreement has been signed stating that the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the Bougainville Resistance Force (BRF), numbering approximately 2500-3000 armed soldiers, must turn in their guns to their own commanders who will safeguard them until the government forces have been withdrawn from the island. The soldiers will be replaced by a Bougainville police force that will guarantee law and order on the island. A Chief of Police will be appointed who will report directly to the new autonomous government.

The Peace Monitoring Group (PMG) has been facilitating ongoing meetings. The PMG is financed and commanded by Australia, and consists of about 200 unarmed soldiers, policemen and advisors. Part of its mandate is to supervise the cease-fire. It maintains four helicopters in the service of the negotiating parties. The former colonial ruler pays around 20 million Australian dollars a year to sustain the PMG. Australia is also the biggest donor of development funds for the reconstruction of Bougainville's devastated infrastructure. Joseph Kabui, the political leader of the BRA, has mixed feelings towards Australia. Without Australia, he says, the war would never have happened, but he also concedes that without Australia, the peace process would never have started.

BCL leaves Bougainville

Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) has decided to pull out of its Panguna copper mine project in Bougainville and will sell all its assets. BCL is owned by: Rio Tinto (53.9%), the PNG government (19,1%) and public shareholders (27.3%).

On May 1, 2001, the mother company Rio Tinto based in Australia, announced the end of an era. It is putting the already closed copper mine up for sale. The copper and gold mine dominated PNG's exports and government revenues until it closed on May 15, 1989, following a rebel attack on a bus taking local staff to work at the mountainous mining site.

During its 17 years of operation, the giant mining facility produced 3 million tons of copper, 306 tons of gold and 784 tons of silver- the equivalent of a full 44 percent of Papua New Guinea's total exports during that period. The leaders of Bougainville such as Joseph Kabui, the political leader of the BRA, have said the mine would never be reopened.

The company has set aside $14.5 million for compensation to Bougainville landowners, but Rio Tinto faces a class action in San Francisco claiming billions of dollars over its conduct in Bougainville. In relation to landowner issues, BCL chairman Barry Cusack said that the exit process would be hindered by the current court action against Rio Tinto filed in the US by certain groups of landowners.