My guide book assumes that everyone who visits Papua New Guinea comes and goes through the capital Port Moresby but I very stubbornly avoided the city. Indeed virtually all international flights go from and to Moresby but I entered overland from Indonesia and my plan was to exit overland (overwater actually) to the Solomon Islands. There is a flight to the Solomons from Moresby but that costs an arm and a leg. And also Moresby is supposed to be expensive, dusty, busy and “the (second, third or whatever) most dangerous city in the world”. I’m sure the security situation wouldn’t have been too much of a problem but exiting the country from a palm-fringed beach in a banana boat appealed to me a bit more than exiting through an airport security screening machine. To go to the Solomons I had to go to Bougainville.
Although it is a remote island, Bougainville is still easier to access than many places on the mainland – you just get on a plane. Still, few people come here because of its reputation. Bougainville was where the bloodiest war in the South Pacific (after WW2) went on throughout the 1990s. It was all because of a mine (the biggest open copper mine in the world at the time), land ownership traditions, bad management and what-not.
I’m not going to tell the whole story of the war (or “the Crisis” as it is locally known) here, although almost anything one would say about Bougainville is somehow related to it. It is too complicated. There’s plenty of information on Wikipedia and other places (also a book and a movie called Mr Pip, among other books and movies). It is in fact a very interesting thing to read about – the absurdity of having a war on a tropical paradise, lead by people with experience in tribal warfare who suddenly had access to guns (here I’m also referring to the PNG defense forces). It had its interesting (under some circumstances I’d say funny) turns and twists with South African and Fijian mercenaries, kings, a central bank headquartered on a cattle farm… And of course it also had the usual, boring war paraphernalia such as stupid leaders, a twisted understanding of independence and pride (as dropped in a package with the rest of the western “cargo”), big money, burning down villages, rape, killing people and feeding their bodies to pigs etc. It ended with every seventh Bougainvillean dead, some progress towards independence and a peace treaty that the UN considers one of the most successful ones in recent history (thank god New Zealand got to broker the peace – the Australian authorities seem to always mess it up when there are humans, rights and human rights involved).
So Bougainville is known as a place of conflict. This being PNG (or is it?), visitors already imagine cannibals walking around with bush knives. Now mix that with the “savages” carrying guns as well and it’s easy to see how everyone would warn you against travel to Bougainville. Before I came here I got many warnings by virtually everyone although few had actually been here. My experience is exactly the opposite. Everyone basically minds their own business. I’d have to initiate the conversation and then people would be more than glad to talk or help. This has a very positive side though because it also gave me some personal space. The people are proud, quiet, eloquent and handsome. They’ve been through a lot but they are not angry (at least not at me or you). I never saw anyone carrying a gun (although this doesn’t mean they don’t have access to guns). Virtually all foreigners that I met who live here had no complaints about safety.
I had read on the news that the government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (it is an autonomous part of PNG since the crisis) had bought a ship to carry passengers to Rabaul, Kimbe and Lae. It would start operating on July 2014. In September the ferry was still in China where it was bought from so maybe in some years when I visit again, I might be able to take it. Until then the only option is flying. Of course I went for the cheapest flight which that day was on Travel air. It’s supposed to be a somewhat dodgy airline but I didn’t find anything wrong with the plane. Besides that the toilet in the front of the plane smelled quite bad. Just before takeoff they asked everyone to move to the back “in order to balance the aircraft”. Yeah right! It was a short flight and bearable enough.
Getting the plane to Bougainville was not without its uncertainties. Just a week before I was planning to go there, the only functioning airport in Buka was closed because of landowner issues. Now, in PNG landownership is taken very seriously. In short, once a landowner, always a landowner. There’s not really such thing as buying the land really. Even if you buy the land, the traditional landowner will come back and ask for more money again and again. The government has to constantly pay compensation to landowners where there are roads, airports etc. Once in the Highlands my PMV encountered a road block. The landowner had not received some money he had requested from the government and had blocked the road. The solution would be to walk across the road block and try to find some transportation on the other side. In my case, after waiting for a while, the landowner let a few cars through. I think the crucial part was that the white man (that’s me) wanted to pass. In Buka, the people who own the land, on which the airport is built, drove a truck onto the runway and would stay there until they had received payment. The article in the newspaper showed a picture of some young men with beer and happy faces, obviously having a good time on the runway. Fortunately only two days later they reopened the airport – probably the beer had finished. It turned out that the government had written a check for the 5 million kina they had requested already two months earlier. However, the landowners couldn’t agree how to split the money between themselves and therefore could not open a bank account to cash the check. So they decided to make it everyone’s problem… In New Ireland and New Britain there’s a special way to solve this kind of issues. Instead of wasting time sitting on the runway, they would put a special plant called gorgor (a ginger like plant) on the runway and no one would dare go there or use the area until the person who put the gorgor would take it away. It’s a kind of taboo. They use this for anything. There’s a mine on an island called Lihir, off New Ireland. When the locals want more money from the mining company, they would put the gorgor and then all operations would stop until they get paid and take it away. The mining companies respect that (they have learnt their lesson from landownership problems in Bougainville that resulted in the whole crisis). I even found online a scientific article about gorgor that was written by an anthropologist employed by the mining company. I like the idea of gorgor – you see a sixpack of beer, you put your gorgor there and wait till the owner agrees to share it with you.
According to the peace treaty, by 2020 Bougainville may organize a referendum to decide on independence. Most people seem to be very eager. Opening up the mine again is quite controversial. There are still armed groups in the mine area who did not participate in the peace. I met a lady in Arawa who had a very clear view of what the future should be like:
– “We don’t need the mine now, maybe later. Now we can do agriculture and tourism. We need schools and hospitals, electricity, water supply, roads and ports, and only after we have these things on the ground, we can talk about independence”.
– “I’m not a politician. I don’t want to become one because I will become like them. But I can sit here and bark at them.”
Bougainville has lessons to teach. About how natural resources can be a curse rather than a blessing and how paradise can be turned to hell. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, some say. And copper mining, Bougainvilleans might add. I am glad I witnessed how these humble and friendly people – victims of their time, are slowly rebuilding their home.
It was time to try and cross the border to the Solomon Islands.