My weekly Guardian column:
After years of uncertainty, the once-profitable copper mine on Bougainville, an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), could well be reopened.
The chairman of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), Peter Taylor, told the Australian recently that “the Bougainville government seems to want the mine reopened, but we have to sit down … and see what’s doable.”
BCL’s Panguna mine opened in 1972, three years before PNG was granted independence from Australia. Bougainvilleans barely benefited from the operation, a deal that smacked of colonial arrogance and resulted in pollution.
In response, locals launched a rebellion in the 1980s against the mine, BCL, and the PNG and Australian governments. The resistance won the ensuing civil war but at a steep human cost: up to 20,000 killed and infrastructure broken.
Today Bougainville is beset by poverty and economic stagnation. I witnessed this myself during two visits in recent years.
The polls opened last week to elect a new government in the lead-up to an independence referendum scheduled before 2020. The local government, along with BCL and Canberra, is pushing for the mine to be Bougainville’s financial saviour first.
But according to a Jubilee Australia report last year, the vast majority on the island oppose BCL’s return. This tallies with what I heard in towns and villages.
The potential reopening of the mine is one piece of an Australian strategy to open up South Pacific nations to foreign interests. As Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said in 2014: Australia should “stimulate the [PNG] private sector through growth”.
The situation in Bougainville perfectly encapsulates the parlous state of affairs in PNG as it approaches the 40-year anniversary of its break with Australia.
On 16 September 1975 a ceremony was held in the PNG capital Port Moresby, at which Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam, Prince Charles and PNG’s first prime minister, Michael Somare, declared PNG a constitutional monarchy with membership of the Commonwealth.
The country was was granted independence but its path has been torturous ever since. Canberra never allowed its northern neighbour to fully leave a relationship of dependency, and today provides $577m annually in aid that primarily benefits Australian companies making money there.
The PNG exposed blog – an independent and reliable news and analysis website – has criticised Australia’s attempts to teach PNG leaders how to avoid corruption.
According to the blog, Canberra turns a blind eye to billions of dollars of “PNG taxpayers money [siphoned] through Australian banks and into real estate schemes in Brisbane and Cairns, posh Australian public schools, its glitzy casinos and expensive private hospitals”.
Forty years after breaking free from Australia, PNG suffers shockingly high levels of HIV infection, maternal health issues, domestic violence, aggression against women and illiteracy. Even the PNG government itself admits that “PNG’s adult literacy situation is in dire straits”.
This isn’t solely Australia’s fault; endemic corruption has blighted PNG for decades (US State Department cables released by Wikileaks confirm this). Yet Western donors and resource companies are principally to blame for engaging in neo-colonialism, treating the country as nothing more than a source of wealth for outsiders.
Some of the mining projects currently in operation may be familiar: Ok Tedi, Porgera, Lihir, Ramu. They’re all environmentally destructive and offer little benefit to local communities. At the Porgera gold mine, cases of “extreme sexual violence” by security guards against tribal women and girls resulted in offers of compensation.
It’s unsurprising that most Papua New Guineans I met were sceptical about foreign investment in their country, knowing they would never feel or see any benefit from it.
Others are more hopeful, like US Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. During her time as US Secretary of State, she was open in admitting that the huge energy resources in PNG, especially the Exxon-Mobil LNG gas pipeline that opened in 2014 and is already struggling due to collapsing global commodity prices, was part of a regional contest with China. She chastised China for “wining and dining” Asia-Pacific politicians.
“If anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, that is a mistaken notion,” she said.
The people of PNG have only been impoverished by so-called leadership from Washington and Canberra. Meanwhile, corruption is rife; PNG’s anti-corruption agency, Taskforce Sweep, was starved of funds earlier this year following allegations they made against prime minister Peter O’Neill.
Perhaps the clearest indication of how Australia views PNG is the Manus Island asylum seeker deal. Slammed by a leading PNG provincial governor as “neo-colonialist”, locals receive little benefit and are really helping the Australian Liberal and Labor parties solve a domestic political problem.
Journalist Jo Chandler, writing recently in the Monthly, shows in great detail the way “Australia is primarily concerned with building the infrastructure to service their interests and comforts.” This is also an accurate summary of the dynamic between Port Moresby and Canberra since 1975.
There’s huge potential in PNG to be a nation that isn’t known internationally for mining and witch burning. Grassroots groups, such as the Madang-based Bismarck Ramu Group, aim to protect local communities and inform them of viable alternatives to resource extraction – such as agriculture.
Yet this year’s 40th anniversary of independence should be a sombre occasion to reflect on four decades of failed Australian interference in PNG. Canberra views Port Moresby as overseeing a massive quarry Australian firms have the right to plunder. We dump asylum seekers on PNG territory while still claiming to be a victim of unscrupulous people smugglers. And our aid money? It’s is an insurance policy against a failed state on Australia’s northern border.