Monday 31 October 2022

From On Board: Heritage Expeditions in Melanesia - Panguna Mine, Bougainville

#expeditioncruising .

Panguna Mine Google Map Link

Let's face it, the mention of Bougainville does not automatically conjure warm and fuzzy images. The 93,000 sq km island of some 300,000 people has endured more than its share of tumult beginning with its annexation by Germany in 1899, the location of fierce battles in WWII and then its own civil war that saw its people effectively isolated from the world until the 21st Century.

Our visit was a chance for us to engage with the people at a true grassroots level, learn their stories and understand why one of the world's richest copper mines (the Panguna mine) led to a violent uprising by the people against multinational control.

From our landing point at Loloho, a few kilometres north of the provincial capital Arawa, we repeated the minibus cramming and headed into the hills to the site of the Panguna mine on the twisty road surveyed by the brother of one of our companions, Lyn.

At one point, this pit was the largest open cut mine in the world (RE)

I'm surprised we haven't seen this apocalyptic location in some 'last man one Earth' remake, as the abandoned mine and its massive machinery set the scene for a true 'end of the world' blockbuster. The enormous equipment rusting in the bore mill and the scattered heavy machinery all over the sprawling site is a truly eerie scene. This is despite much material being removed by scrappers and salvaged by locals.

The mine was immensely profitable during its short, 17-year lifetime accounting for 45 per cent of PNG's GDP. But the local Bougainville people, already champing at the bit of independence, pulled the pin in a most spectacular fashion, resulting in a violent conflict that lasted 10 years and cost more than 15,000 lives and reaped destruction throughout the island.. Today, even after a referendum overwhelmingly in favour of full independence, the issue of complete autonomy remains unresolved and the future of the mine uncertain.

Enormous heavy machinery like this front-end loader, still litters the site

With the inspection of the site and the huge pit complete, we were again treated to a magnificent and enthusiastic show by local performers featuring the famous 'thongophone' and pan flutes common throughout the Solomons.

Another of our fellow travellers, Harley, shared his considerable knowledge of mining and its effect on the landscape and communities. In his concluding remarks, he noted that any mining venture now or in the future must engage communities as stakeholders along with investors and governments.

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