I don’t normally share stories about my travels around this amazingly diverse country but my recent trip to the Autonomous Region of Bouganville (ARB), to the North East of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and reaching out to the Solomon Islands, inspired me to reflect on my observations from the short visit to this conflicted province. It was the first time I have ever been to a country so recently post-conflict and the current landscape of the region had a strong impact on me.
Similarly to many of the colonially baptised islands, Bougainville was named by a French navigator and its title certainly doesn’t conjure up visions of wonder and awe. But it should. ARB has heart-stoppingly beautiful landscape with dense, bush covered mountains that erratically cut through the skyline, peaks shrouded in mysterious cloud, unnaturally cyan and cobalt water, and a myriad of birds and butterflies darting around. This is a place where tourism should be thriving but it isn’t because of ten years of civil war. The crisis changed the face of this stunning island and the people that live on it and what was once the second wealthiest and thriving economy in PNG plummeted.
The war centred around independence, money and the extraction of copper ore from what was at the time the biggest open copper mine in the world, Rio Tinto, owned by an Australian company. The Bougainvillean’s were receiving just a 0.5%-1.25% share of the profit from the mine and in return were having the face of their beautiful landscape carved away. PNG was receiving 20% so you can see where the tension came from. Leaders alleged that the mine was causing devastating environmental consequences from poisoning the length of the Jaba river, to causing birth defects, and forcing the extinction of flying foxes. They also claimed that the mine owners had set up a system of apartheid on the island, with one set of facilities for white workers and one set for locals. In 1988 tensions regarding the mine reached breaking point and what followed was a conflict that killed 15-20,000 civilians.
The Bougainvillean’s were receiving just a 0.5%-1.25% share of the profit from the mine and in return were having the face of their beautiful landscape carved away.
The civil war has had an effect on everything. On arrival in Buka, I was surprised by the significant difference between other parts of PNG and ARB. The feel is very laid back, almost Caribbean, but the default setting of people is less of a smile and a hello and more a reserved, look of uncertainty with it being much trickier to draw out that all too familiar Pacific warmth. Through seeing what has become of a picture postcard destination it is understandable that there is caution when it comes to outsiders. The next thing to hit you is the smell being pumped out from the new copra processing plant in the centre of the town. Not only is it a real blot on the landscape but the odour from the plant is suffocatingly strong.
“It is a safe place but we need to work at raising awareness about Bougainville being a beautiful place to come and enjoy.”
A little dejected by Buka Town, we took a ride on the back of a truck, three hours South after crossing the passage. In Arawa, a town close to the Panguna mine which had previously been the capital, all that remains are deserted and desolate shells of buildings. A bank, police station and a few small stores behind heavy metal gates are all that has returned to the town following the crisis. There are some guesthouses but they are very simple and it is hard to imagine a place that once attracted countless tourists and had large supermarkets and luxurious accommodation.
We could have visited the mine site but we decided against it. The ‘no go’ zone is still manned by militants and it would have cost us K200 (£50) per person ‘white man’ fee just to pass through. There is talk of the mine re-opening, which is prompting a very negative response from locals also making it a politically unsafe time to visit. We felt it was best to focus on the positive sites that this beautiful region has to offer rather than seeing the huge scar on the landscape and the sleepy tropical island paradise of Pidia where Mister Pip was filmed really didn’t disappoint.
On our visit we met some proactive Bougainvilleans that were keen to revive tourism. Bertha Lorenz, strong minded and determined business owner of the Rising Sun Guesthouse spoke passionately about wanting to revive what was once a bustling holiday destination: “When thinking about tourism we have to look at getting a proper hospital. The airport re-opening at the end of this year will make a big difference for visitors accessing Arawa easily. It is a safe place but we need to work at raising awareness about Bougainville being a beautiful place to come and enjoy. We are responsible for the tourists that visit so we need to be able to provide a good service.”
I must say that I was very conflicted by this autonomous, distinctive part of PNG. I couldn’t help feeling sad that there is still little sign of life returning to its former glory but it was great to meet positive individuals that want to drive things forward. I know good work is being done by NGOs working with determined individuals and people really want things to return to the way things were in their heyday but I couldn’t help feel for the people caught in the cross fire, what they have experienced and the impact it has had. I hope things can continue to flourish out of the rusted relics of a post-conflict landscape.