eJournal of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies
Issues 1.2 and 2.1, April 2010

An Analysis of Post-Conflict Explanations of Indigenous Dissent Relating to the Bougainville Copper Mining Conflict, Papua New Guinea

    In 1989 a group of disgruntled landowners from Panguna hosting the giant Bougainville Copper Mine embarked on a violent sabotage of mine infrastructure (May and Spriggs 1990, Connell 1991, Thompson 1992, Wesley-Smith and Ogan 1992). Many reasoned that the violence was a failure on the part of the company and the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to address outstanding landowner grievances. Chief among these grievances was the view that the original agreement that gave effect to the establishment of the Panguna Copper Mine project was due for review. This agreement was made while PNG was still a colony of Australia. But just as plans of the need to renegotiate and review the agreement were being swivelled through the political and bureaucratic machinery of the government and the company an undercurrent of inter-landowner tensions was swirling on the horizon. And before any amicable solution could be reached to defuse the situation the disagreements flared into a violent conflict between the landowners themselves and the company. It is widely accepted within post-conflict discourse that the tension and conflict was perpetuated by a combination of intergenerational differences between the elderly and young landowners and a range of different factors perceived by the locals to be the source of their exploitation and marginalisation (Okole 1990). This paper analyses these perceived causalities and how aspects of local cosmological reasoning can help us to understand the tensions that culminated in the violence.
    The politics of inter-landowner tensions is complicated and this analysis does not have the space nor the ethnographic data to reveal the detailed chronology of events leading up to the eventual fracture between the landowners themselves. An encompassing and detailed investigation of these tensions would definitely require an extensive ethnographic investigation. Only such an investigation would adequately map the often divergent and conflicting sources of tension in the group dynamics of the landowners that eventually led to what became a full scale civil conflict.
    The main aim of the paper is therefore to analyse the different causal explanations of the conflict. The analysis is centred on a dichotomy between post-conflict causal analyses and the existential experience of everyday life in the mine-impacted communities of Nagovisi and Nasioi. I argue that the concept and value of 'post-conflict' in the subsequent proliferation of academic literature canvassing the conflict and its array of perceived causes is based on little substantive ethnographic data. While it is not easy to discretely separate the historical continuity of events into 'post-conflict causalities' and 'pre-mine existential experience of social life', an attempt will be made here in spite of the complications rather than in ignorance of them.

  1. This paper is an analysis of the post-conflict explanations of indigenous dissent that are primarily viewed as
    Figure 1. Simon Kenema. Photographer, Fiona Hukula
    the object or catalyst for the mining-related conflict on Bougainville. I use the term 'indigenous' loosely here to denote the communities impacted by the Panguna mine. The four major explanations are presented through an analytic discussion of the different views about the social origins of the conflict as posited by various commentators and academics (Filer 1990, Ogan 1999, 2005, Havini 1990, Griffin 1990, 2005, Tanis 2005) and my own interpretations of indigenous cosmology as a person from Nagovisi, and partly as an insider who lived on the island during the conflict. It looks at the different theories about the origins of the Bougainville conflict and explores divergences in notions of indigenous dissent – as informed by post-conflict literature and the ethnographic conditions of social life before the mine.

  2. The paper also looks at aspects of sociality among local communities within the Panguna mine area and the nature of their extended relations with other adjacent communities in Nasioi and Nagovisi. It is not my intention to discredit any of these past interpretations. But I hope the analysis clearly suggests how interpretations inclusive of, and informed by, indigenous modes of thinking could be more effective, persuasive, and encompassing in describing the complex origins of the conflict. My intentions are to provide an analytic description of the numerous, but sometimes conflicting causalities of the same phenomenon – the Bougainville Crisis. These have become mutually constitutive, in deploying core notions of resource development, political activism, mineral resource extraction and human rights, and indigenous dissent and conflict within the Panguna Copper Mine Project.

    The environmental destruction paradigm
  3. One of the primary conceptual frameworks that have come to be accepted within the post-conflict discourse of the origins of indigenous dissent and the escalation of the Bougainville conflict into a bloody civil war is environmental destruction (Havini 1990, Tanis 2005). This paradigm attributes the origin of indigenous disaffection with the mining project to severe environmental destruction. Scientific notions of the 'environment' and 'ecological balance' are seen as the primary causal factors within this framework of thinking. This paradigm relies on notions of political ecology where politics and economics are construed as the primary factors in affecting environmental issues and is grounded in a conceptual separation between nature and culture. This interpretation eclipses any indigenous ideas of what constitutes the 'environment' socially and physically. In this framework the environment is equated with the concept of 'nature' which is seen as measurable through science and technology. The environmental destruction paradigm harbours a tacit expectation about how humans should act with regard to their ecological and social situation.
  4. During the civil conflict between 1988 and 2001 the dominant debate between activists and academics was largely defined by environmental destruction, economic injustice and social displacement. Those who saw the indigenous violence as outright militancy and lawlessness voiced their opposition to the conflict by emphasising that the positive effects of the mine outweighed the negative impacts. They argued that environmental destruction was at a generally acceptable level given the kind of environmental and social trade-offs that are expected in any mining enclave. However, environmental and social activists like Francis Ona, Moses Havini (Havini 1990) and others argued that the environmental degradation was so huge and so blatant that it bordered on gross human rights abuses. The conflict could thus only be explained and understood through recourse to a particular knowledge of the environment. It did not bother either academics or activists that their environmental and social concerns could have been somewhat misplaced, despite their good intentions.
  5. To begin with, the notion of the environment was virtually taken for granted as having a universal definition and a common value throughout all the communities impacted by the Panguna mine. It did not dawn on advocates of environmental stewardship and accountability that their explanations for the conflict might not have had the same cultural significations for those local communities impacted by the mining project. This is apparent in Applied Geology Associates' (1989) investigation into the environmental and social impacts of the mine. The notion of the 'environment' seems to be theorised as a given without ethnographic scrutiny of what the local cultural logic and the dynamics of the local disaffection might be. We might forget that the scientific notion of 'environment' and its commercial connotations are akin to its tangential cousin, the invented concept of the 'economic landowner' (see Filer 2005). Local conceptions of 'place' might have been too readily accepted as equivalent to scientific notions of ecosystems, ecological habitat and biodiversity. Even though advocates of the environmental paradigms might argue that this is not the case, their environmental arguments are framed in a way that eclipses how local communities might have thought about their surrounding environment before the mine started. The environment argument does not sufficiently account for the profound and interconnected cultural, economic, and spiritual values of 'place' within Nagovisi and Nasioi sociality.
  6. Moreover, the apparent dominance of environmental destruction as the primary causal factor for the violence became so obvious because the landowners themselves aired their grievances through that language. The language of the environment became the only language through which the Panguna Landowners Association (PLA) communicated their concerns to the company. Even more so, it could be argued that both the PLA and NPLA achieved their organisational and political effectiveness by essentially adopting non-indigenous political, legal and administrative forms. This is a pervasive phenomenon in mineral extraction localities throughout Papua New Guinea. Crook (2007) alludes to a similar experience among the West Ningerum people near the Ok Tedi Mine in the Western Province. When negotiations failed and the sabotage of mine infrastructure was started by disgruntled landowners the reasons for their wanton destruction were commented upon and justified using the languages of environmental destruction and social injustice (Okole 1990).
  7. When the causalities of the violence are primarily explained in terms of environmental destruction and social inequalities other possible reasons for the conflict become subjugated to these limited causal factors. For instance, there are many accounts of stiff resistance by landowners from Panguna during the commencement of the mine because the project site was connected to important local myths (as in other mining sites in PNG McIntyre and Foale 2007, Dundon 2002, Clark 1993, Biersack 1999). There are several versions of these myths. According to one, the project site where the initial overburden removal started had a huge stone which served as an abode for the spirits. Among these spirits was a revered tall spirit, playing a bamboo flute, who had powers which could enable him to take the form of living beings. The different tunes from the bamboo flute had significant cultural meanings. A particular sorrowful tune was an ill omen that something bad was approaching such as death while a blissful tune would indicate that something good would happen, such as a good day for a feast in which the spirits play a crucial role in stopping the rain that might otherwise interrupt and mar the occasion. Other versions of the myth have this stone as the home of a huge spirit snake.
  8. Clearly, the account of this myth illustrates how the notion of the 'environment' extends beyond the concept of 'nature', embracing the spiritual domain in Melanesian societies (Namunu 2001). It illustrates the analytical problem associated with the Western conceptual separation between nature and culture and between materiality and spirituality (see Strathern 1988). Such a separation overshadows culturally significant sources of tension which have the same generative capacity to engender indigenous disaffection with the mining company. The obsession with environmental pollution as the primary reason for the mine sabotage and its premature closure also fails to take into account what Joel Robbins calls 'linguistic ideology' (Robbins 2001:600). Terms, phrases or words cannot be understood or readily translated unless there are mutually intelligible meanings for such concepts, words or phrases. Environmental explanations for the conflict tend to assume that local communities have similar cosmological notions and concepts of the 'environment' as those who have written about the mine-related conflict. But there is reason to doubt that there is a universal understanding of the environment (Kirsch 2006), and to doubt the easy identification of foreign and Bougainvillean concepts.
  9. This is evident in the fact that while downstream communities experienced the worst effects of mine-discharged effluents into their land they were not as vocal about the pollution as the villages within the Special Mining Lease areas in the vicinity of the Panguna Copper Mine. In fact there is a substantial population of Nagovisi people along the Jaba River toward the Empress Augusta Bay in the South West coast of the island where the Jaba River finally releases the toxic tailings into the sea. There is no ethnographic evidence to suggest that Nagovisi and Nasioi people lamenting this deployed a notion of the 'environment' which depended on scientific conceptions of ecosystems, biodiversity, environmental protection and sustainability. This observation does not diminish the damage to the river system as a result of the mine's riverine waste-disposal system, but rather attends to how this was interpreted locally. Thus I highlight how limiting causal explanations of the conflict to scientific concerns and conceptions of the environment potentially occludes important indigenous cosmological, aesthetic and spiritual concerns as causes of local disaffection with the mining operations.
  10. The inverse logic of the environmental destruction argument could be interpreted as saying that if there had been strict environmental monitoring and controls the conflict would have never eventuated. Hence there would have been no demands for the ten billion kina compensation by Francis Ona and his band of disgruntled landowners. With a minimal and insignificant environmental footprint there would have been no reason for hostility towards the company from the landowners and thus the expression of such hostility would be irrational. The absence of such hostility and overt disaffection would entail that the local communities were happy with the mining operations and its derivative benefits.
  11. So, environmental causality unnecessarily privileges scientific and technological knowledge. It views the environment as mechanistic or having intrinsic machine-like properties which could be effectively operationalised through a conceptual understanding of the world on the model of a machine system (Crook 2007). This argument and mode of reasoning posits that it is perfectly acceptable to operate the mine so long as the environmental impacts can be minimised, managed and mitigated through technology. But this skewed reasoning places an unwarranted emphasis on environmental controls and corporate social responsibility while the real sources of local contention and disaffection get minimal to no attention. This reasoning represents the partial view of well-meaning outsiders (and probably insiders too) whose 'cultural blinkers' keep them from seeing that multinational corporations are not always altruistic and do not necessarily have the welfare of the local people at heart. Although the discourse of corporate social responsibility projects an image of sound and responsible business practice, in reality it is not, but rather an inherently political process in which inequality and power struggles are foundational.

    The mine-induced social disruption paradigm
  12. This erroneous proclivity to theorise about the environment as 'sui generis' is dispelled by Ogan (1999) who worked as an anthropologist among the Nasioi people well before the commencement of the Panguna mine. Ogan started his ethnographic fieldwork in 1962 in the Aropa valley among the Nasioi speakers of Kieta who are linguistically and culturally related in many ways to the Nasioi landowners of Panguna. Ogan stressed that during his fieldwork he noted resistance from local communities to any idea and mode of doing things deemed external. He substantiates this claim by alluding to the local disaffection with the colonial administration. The Nasioi were unhappy with the colonial administration's land-grabbing tactics which saw the clearance of large tracts of their land to establish coconut plantations in the area whilst concurrently relying on local labour for the plantation's productivity.

    Figure 2. Children from the author's village looking into the Panguna Mine pit. Photographer, Fiona Hukula.

  13. But Ogan does not attribute the local disenchantment to any particularities such as alterations to the environment or the landscape. He does not mention any laments about environmental destruction or concerns with how the huge coconut plantations altered the aesthetics of their surrounding landscape. It is however plausible that the reasons for the resistance to the colonial administration were due to concerns about the appropriation of large tracts of land and the disruption of kinship and customary exchange obligations through the introduction of new forms of labour. Those who worked in the plantations had to leave their hamlets to work in the plantation, often living away for protracted periods of time without returning home. Being absent from their village or hamlet for long periods would have been disruptive to social life because village life was where local practices apropos land tenure, exchange obligations and continuity were the strongest and most powerful.
  14. Unlike Ogan, academics like Filer (1990) attribute the origins of the conflict to an inevitable social fission that is somehow intrinsic to Melanesian sociality. Filer posits that any form of social conflict within Melanesian societies is an outward symptom of structurally embedded social norms. It posits that Melanesian societies are intrinsically conflictual or centrifugal and are always on the verge of disintegration. And so any social conflict, whether it be a small family or inter-tribal skirmish is not significantly different from a resource-related conflict as large and violent as the Bougainville conflict. Moreover, this view suggests that social disruption and conflict within Melanesia is an integral part of the regeneration and reproduction of social life. Filer (1990) argues that the Bougainville conflict was nothing less than a 'social time bomb' that was bound to explode given the appropriate time and circumstance. The problem with Filer's view is that it reifies Melanesian societies as bounded entities, albeit with social fission as the ordering mechanism of sociality at their core. His view not only neglects the permeability of cultural borders but glosses over the existence and deployment of local cultural resources to defuse internal tensions and settle conflicts.
  15. This explanation of 'social disruption' is intricately related to the existence of mining operations and their resultant environmental effects. They are posited as mutually constitutive or if not, articulated within a cause and effect framework. This is akin to saying that mining is intrinsically disruptive to social life and by its very nature has a natural proclivity to cause violence and conflict. This mode of reasoning again is reductive. It provides an artificial, monolithic characterisation of local social structures and relations by reducing a complex configuration to a single teleological origin. This view obscures the array of complex and multiple pre-mining social configurations and the culturally and cosmologically informed social relations and dynamics of the local communities. Where the 'social disruption' argument is not sufficiently convincing in its correlation with 'environmental destruction', 'social disruption' is presented as a combination of the dual effects of economic and environmental marginalisation. Therefore this view, like the 'environmental destruction' paradigm discussed earlier, fails to offer a sufficient account of causality from an indigenous cosmological worldview. Both these views reflect a questionable premise, a presumption that indigenous peoples' relation to the mine can only be explained in terms of 'environmental destruction' and/or 'social disruption' which are directly attributed to the mining project.
  16. Making a retrospective assessment of Filer's 'social time bomb' theory within the current framework of resource relations, one can now argue that Filer's view was perhaps too pessimistic. Despite his qualifications to his argument that this would only be plausible if all things were equal, the presumption of a direct causal correlation between extractive projects and indigenous dissent was evident in his views (Filer 1990: 76). In hindsight, his argument could be taken to be similar to the proposition that all extractive enclaves would end up with social disruptions similar to Bougainville somewhere through the project life cycle. Filer even suggested a possible timeframe of 15 to 20 years to predict the likelihood of potential social disruptions due to resource extraction occurring in other resource enclaves throughout the country. But assessing his assumption in light of recent developments and how local people use their cultural resource to negotiate the maze of complex resource relations around mineral development sites debunks his 'social time bomb' theory. The litigation against Ok Tedi mine by Yongom landowners is a case in point (Kirsch 2006). Indeed, no one has the predictive powers of what the future holds in terms of the economic and social relations between local communities and the various players in the mineral extraction industry.

    The unequal benefit distribution paradigm
  17. When it comes to the economic dimension of the causality of indigenous disenchantment with the Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), the inevitable time-worn cause imputed has always been the unequal distribution of benefits. In this case benefits refer to all forms of compensatory payments and the various infrastructure projects funded by the company under its different commitments. In fact the initial formation of the New Panguna Landowners Association (NPLA) headed by Pepetua Serero and Francis Ona was said to be a result of differences and disagreements over the existing benefit distribution system (Okole 1999: 20). The disagreement between the PLA and the NPLA is principally characterised by economic differences which trace their roots to the existence of the mine. Any pre-existing social differences, traceable in their origins to clan and lineage disaffection between members of the two entities (PLA and NPLA) would thus have been occluded or eclipsed by explanations about peoples' divergent relations to the mine and disputes about unequal benefit distribution.
  18. The issue of unequal benefit distribution is real. I do not contend that issues of unequal benefit distribution or environmental injustice are trivial. They are not. But as important as these factors are, assuming the unabated primacy of benefit distribution inequities and environmental degradation as causes subsumes alternative ways of analysing the origins of the conflict. A simplistic total attribution of compensatory disparities as the principle source of contention among the landowners themselves and with the company does not sufficiently account for the causality and chronology of the conflict. How would we know if there were longstanding kinship fractures and/or a more recent meltdown of kinship obligations if we solely attribute the disaffection in terms of the variables linked to the mine which have been discussed thus far? How would we know if there might have been differences among the people in indigenous conceptions of place if everything about the conflict is explained as due to the mine? Such explanations fail to ask questions or theorise pre-existing social structures and relations. How would we know if local social contentions might have originated in the failure in indigenous exchange systems and mechanisms as a result of the colonially reconfigured environment? For example, what happened when assets such as large sums of money and expensive consumer goods entered traditional exchange systems which were not configured to handle them? I believe these are valid questions, but questions to which we would not be able to find satisfactory answers by concentrating our analytic focus only on economic, environmental and political explanations which fail to capture indigenous cosmological conceptions of exchange, conflict, violence and fairness.
  19. The argument concerning economic disparities of benefit distribution is similar to the social disruption argument in that it overshadows local economic inequalities among the landowners themselves. Research conducted by numerous academics within communities impacted by mineral resource development has provided substantive evidence that mining-derived benefits hardly ever create social cohesion devoid of hierarchy (MacIntyre and Foale 2007, Filer and MacIntyre 2006). The Panguna experience is no exception. Even before the conflict began, there were already feelings of hostility and animosity as a result of the real and perceived disparities in income distribution (Okole 1990). The eventual fracture in kinship relations between landowners was vividly demonstrated when Mathew Kove, a vocal member of the PLA and a maternal uncle of Francis Ona, was murdered by members of the NPLA. This happened before any acts of serious sabotage of mine property by the disgruntled members of the NPLA.
  20. The issue of unequal benefit distribution is only a partial explanation of mining-related conflict. To fully understand the correlation between benefit distribution and community grievance it is important to understand the underlying principles of reciprocity. We cannot make sweeping generalisations about inequalities in benefit distribution without understanding local ideas of reciprocity and fairness. For example, communal ideas of sharing and kinship obligations to be mindful about the social situation of ones' kin rapidly changed with the introduction of cash – which suddenly meant everyone felt they did not have enough. Before the mine it was appropriate for people to kindly refuse a bag of taro or sweet potato if they felt they had sufficient supply. With the introduction of cash and new consumer goods the value people placed on sufficiency eroded. Suddenly cash in the form of royalty and compensation payments became an object at once desirable but always in short supply. Money as a medium of exchange became dissonant from the idea of local sufficiency because, unlike taro and sweet potatoes, even the wealthiest of landowners could not tell the company they had sufficient money. The general point here is that the introduction of cash and modern goods created a new form of tension between reciprocity and sufficiency that did not exist in the pre-mine days.
  21. At the core of the notion of 'benefits' is the underlying assumption that it would generate an alternative source of livelihood in place of the land that is lost due to mining operations. The problem with this conception is that the net effect of mining in rural areas of PNG extends beyond tangible aspects of livelihood. Ethnographic research into mining enclaves has demonstrated how large mineral resource development projects affect the intangible elements of social life such as indigenous belief systems and values. Such an economistic notion of benefits cannot rectify or redeem the reconfiguration and loss of these intangible beliefs and values.
  22. Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm of reasoning with respect to the different kinds of mining-related benefits has been primarily in terms of transactional exchanges modelled on business. These business-oriented transactional explanations rarely acknowledge pre- mine transactional relationships and the kind of cosmological values people might have attached to pre-mine systems and mechanisms of economic and social exchange. These forms of explanations are thus predisposed to a reductionist view of more complex social phenomena. In the book Resource Development and Politics in the Pacific Islands Jackson vividly articulates such complex problems (Jackson 1992: 79).
  23. The lack of equal benefit distribution is also almost always connected to the lack of appropriate governance systems and mechanisms. It is additionally blamed on the lack of capacity at the various levels of the state's administrative machinery, and the local leaders' inability to mobilise their constituents in ways that reflect the new economically and socially reconfigured environment. Jackson argues that a single basic cause that is predominantly evoked in this paradigm is that the 'underlying problem of mining in remote areas is assignable to the greed of mining corporations' (Jackson 1992: 79). At the core of this argument is the view that unequal benefit distribution is a result of corporate greed, arrogance, and the lack of sound corporate social responsibility policies and practices by mining corporations. There is some kind of expectation that all 'stakeholders' – whatever that word really means – must be consulted. As Subhabrata Bobby Banerjee argues, the consultation process is an area that needs much attention (Banerjee 2007: 33).
  24. To summarise, I find that unequal benefit distribution informed by economic theories of wealth redistribution does not have sufficient explanatory power. Perhaps the strongest reason is that, in the case of benefit distribution, the explanation fails because it does not account for how resource rents could have been redistributed through traditional exchange systems like mortuary feasts and other customary obligations.

    Inventing the economic landowner
  25. What is true for both Nagovisi and Nasioi is that the relationship between humans and land was never conceptualised in terms of the 'landowner', whereby ownership had economic and property connotations (Filer 2005). The notion of the landowner has proved a difficult and ambiguous concept to define in mineral resource relations because land ownership as a conceptual category does not have traction in the minds of those who occupy the economic and social sphere outside the benefit distribution scheme. In the case of Panguna the notional concept of the 'landowner' clearly does not predate nor pre-exist the mining operation. Nowhere is this so succinctly illustrated for the Nasioi and Nagovisi than in the example provide by James Tanis, the current President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, who before the conflict was a 'landowner' and a compensation recipient from BCL. In this particular case Tanis alludes to his experience when he first heard the word 'landowners' in the 1970s as a primary school student (Tanis 2005: 462). He humorously relates this to when he initially heard the word 'landowners' from his father when they were on their way to Panguna. The word does not have a semantic and conceptual category equivalent in the language of Nagovisi and James' father had difficulties pronouncing the word. This was similar for new words like 'lease'; many affected communities misconstrued it for the English words 'rich' or 'dish' thus drawing their own conclusions that they were all going to become rich or receive huge dishes stashed with cash from the mine.
  26. Another reason why the conceptual category of the 'landowner' is ambiguous and problematic is because it imposes an order that is foreign. The semantic ascription and definition of the word does not fit the lived experience of the people in question. What brings about this conceptual conundrum is the fact that companies often see a situation framed in terms of rigid scientific facts and concepts whereas the social realities of communities in which these companies operate are characteristically in flux and fluid. However, I would extend Jenkins' emphasis further and argue that in many cases mining companies co-opt locals into framing their situation using scientific modes of reasoning and operational efficiencies in dealing with local communities despite the glaring social incompatibilities between the indigenous and foreign systems (Jenkins 2004). In the mining context, concepts such as 'landowner' and 'land ownership' are loaded with preconceived concepts of corporate logic and the rationality of scientific development. These value cost-benefit analysis, numerical accuracy, (e.g. fixed amounts of compensation, fixed schedules of compensation payments) and measurable outputs from the effects of their operation (e.g. x number of classrooms funded and built by company or x number of permanent houses built for impacted communities).

    The political secession paradigm
  27. The final, rather ubiquitous attribution of the causes of the conflict by some observers finds its justification in the political history of Bougainville Island. This view highlights the reconfiguration of political boundaries through colonial contact. According to Griffin (2005: 72) this view was entrenched primarily among educated Bougainvilleans. Griffin notes that some Bougainvilleans have a view that the province was once under British control and only became part of Papua New Guinea (PNG) because of some form of exchange or what Griffin alludes to as a 'trade-off' between Great Britain and Germany. Griffin further argues that this view is misguided because the province was never a colonial subject of Great Britain, either as part of PNG or Solomon Islands. The notion that Bougainville was always different from mainland PNG in terms of its geographical and political boundaries is anchored on this premise. In Griffin's earlier depiction of the colonial encounter he posits that this 'early contact experience of Bougainvilleans tended to entrench a sense of difference between themselves and other Papua New Guineans' (Griffin 1990: 5) At the height of the conflict, this view would become the political ammunition of choice for political activists despite the lack of direct correlation between mine-related landowner grievances and political secession.
  28. In fact this scenario of political secession attained a nominal cultural hegemony in a society that has no history of a shared, island-wide cultural practice (Griffin 1990). According to Griffin, the only indigenous imagery that offered a sense of ethno-nationalism is the 'mungkas' – a Southern Bougainville Buin dialect word meaning 'black' which presumably might have led to a sense of being different and a degree of distantiation and alienation from other Papua New Guineans. To complicate matters there was even a study by a team of biological and medical anthropologists in the 1970s measuring skin complexion and pigmentation of the islanders using the DermaSpectrometer (Friedlaender 2005: 58). This was done with a view to answering the question of how uniquely black Bougainville people were. Even more so, Friedlaender's article titled 'Why do the people of Bougainville look unique?' published in 2005 goes on to boldly pronounce that 'we (the researchers) do not know of any darker groups'. At one point, Friedlaender cites Douglas Oliver's work where Oliver refers to Bougainville Island as the 'Black Spot of the Pacific' (Friedlander 2005: 58, Oliver 1991: 3).
  29. Furthermore, the paradox apropos the political secession issue is that during the initial stages of the conflict there were hardly any threats of political severance from PNG by the two conflicting landowning groups if their demands were not met. To a large extent, the idea of political independence was dropped as a bombshell only after the PNG government deployed security forces in an already escalating violent situation and when it became apparent that the conflict could not be contained via the coercive use of force. Therefore political independence as a justifiable explanation of the conflict is highly debatable. The social history of political aspirations for modern forms of governance is very recent, and in most cases is not synchronous with the chronology of landowner grievances. Moreover, there is no ethnographic evidence revealing a historical continuity of landowner grievances tied to demands for political independence. Of course some people might argue otherwise, citing incidences of pre-independence riots that resulted in Bougainville being granted the Provincial Government status before Papua New Guinea's independence. What the proponents of this view do not say is that the pre-independence riots were ideologically driven, elitist projects. Their origin was based on ideas of economic and political development and had little to do with the majority of the people in Panguna, let alone the Nagovisi communities severely impacted by the mine tailings. The political secession paradigm imposes a monolithic view of Bougainville that does not fit with pre-mine social divisions and later configurations in the mine-impacted communities.
  30. A critical analysis using the model of political self-determination also fails to provide a substantive explanation of what induced the widespread community fragmentation and differences of opinion regarding independence among Bougainvilleans in general and amongst the landowners themselves. It portrays an alleged unity emergent from the extreme social fragmentation that was transcendently evident throughout the conflict. The depiction of unified pursuit of self-determination creates an artificial image of amicable social relations when in fact the entire conflict evinces compelling evidence of social relations gone awry. Perhaps political independence is among the highly vaunted causes for the conflict on the island because it seems to offer an overall explanation to simplify complex events, as argued by Jackson (1992).

  31. Throughout this paper I argued that the conflict between Panguna landowners and the mining company (Bougainville Copper Limited) is immensely complicated. I have emphasised continuously that reducing the locus of indigenous tensions to an a priori set of mine-generated grievances does not adequately account for the reasons for the conflict. I have also argued that an encompassing analysis of the conflict is one that draws on insights from local cosmology. The primary question the analysis has tried to address is how can the sources of indigenous disaffection be theorised without generating a reductive analysis that unnecessarily privileges some causes over others? Clearly the paper is about how the conflict had multiple causes. They were not just multiple in the sense that the conflict had complex origins but also in the sense that different people tended to offer different explanations. This paper is no exception. Moreover, I hope my analysis does not yield a view that we must 'choose' one explanation as 'the explanation'.
  32. The juxtaposition between causal explanations that trace their origin to the existence of the mine and its negative impacts illustrates how imported concepts like landownership can be easily misunderstood where there is a lack of conceptual equivalence in local experience. What I have also tried to argue is that the life-world of mine-impacted regions operates according to pre-existing systems of cultural logic. We cannot fully comprehend how and why the conflict eventuated without understanding such local logics.


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