Panguna Mine in Bougainville

Thursday, 1 March 2012

In February I travelled up through the Solomon Islands and into Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. I’ve posted on my back door route to Bougainville, taking a local boat across from Shortland Island, the northernmost island in the Solomons. I’ve also posted on the sad story of Balalae (or Ballalae) Island, the airport island where you fly to get to Shortland. And my visit to the WW II site where Admiral Yamamoto’s Betty bomber crashed.

Panguna truck◄ Standing in front of the rusting remains of a Panguna mine truck.

The other place I really wanted to visit in Bougainville was the Panguna mine, at one time one of the largest open cut mines in the world. Owned by the giant multinational mining company Rio Tinto the mine accounted for about 25% of the whole Papua New Guinea economy. Although it was a copper mine it’s said the silver and gold production alone covered the mine operating costs, the copper was pure profit.

For the islanders the mine caused big problems, they suffered the environmental costs and damages, the money went straight to the Papua New Guinea government in the capital Port Moresby. They saw very little of it. Protests against the mine escalated into a full scale civil war and in 1989 the mine was closed down. It has never reopened.

The civil war was a vicious affair and remarkably little was heard about it outside Papua New Guinea and not that much inside the country. If you want to get a little taste of the horrors that unfolded during the war read Lloyd Jones’ wonderful novel Mr Pip. A film of the book, made in Bougainville late last year, will be released during 2012.

The long struggle between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea government finally ground to a halt from 1997. The Sandline Affair, when the PNG Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan tried to use the Sandline mercenary force to sort out the conflict, brought his government down. Although the mine has now been closed for almost 25 years and it’s 15 years since the conflict ground to a halt it’s only recently that visitors have been able to get up to the mine site. There’s also an international horde of scrap metal merchants up there pawing over the mining equipment and buildings.

To visit the site, a 25km uphill drive from the coastal town of Arawa, I rented a little Toyota RAV4 4WD (for a hefty K350 (nearly US$200). That was still a lot less than the K800 I was initially told a day’s car rental was going to cost me! Chris Imba, a local police officer whose father worked at the mine when it was open, came along to show me around.  Chris had a part, as a PNG soldier (a bad guy!) in the Mr Pip filming. Lord William Munta, the local head of the Mekamui, organised permission for me to get past the Morgan Junction roadblock.

Panguna trucks
▲  The mine today is still an enormous hole in the ground and parked down the road leading to the bottom of that big hole are the gigantic mining trucks which were parked there in 1989 and haven’t moved since.

Shell sign◄ Fuelling the car before I set out from Arawa was a reminder how things have changed. Fuel was hand pumped out of a 50 gallon drum into a 5litre glass container and then poured into my car’s tank. Nearby were the forgotten remains of Shell and Mobil service station.



If Arawa was a reminder of how things have changed then the Panguna site and its town was like a post-apocolyptic setting for a new Mad Max film. The jungle is reclaiming the town’s 50metre (Olympic size!) swimming pool, apartment blocks like the one in the background are gutted. ▼Panguna Pool

Panguna even had a cinema, that’s gutted as well. ▼
Panguna Cinema