Planning for life after Panguna

Editorial, Normal

The National, Monday October 12th, 2015

 THE current Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) led by President John Momis is uniquely positioned to see the proposed referendum to determine the island’s political future.

As the 2020 date looms, the ABG is also challenged to ensure that it is well prepared for the event. 

Political and administrative institutions appear to be in place and functioning, at least at acceptable levels.

ABG President John Momis met with Prime Minister Peter O’Neill in Port Moresby last week to discuss autonomy related issues but it is not known if the two leaders discussed Bougainville’s future economic prospects, including the re-opening of the Panguna copper mine.

Seemingly, the biggest question on the minds of the island’s political leaders concerns not political leadership ability or the public service capability although they need to be improved in some measure still.  

Instead, it is the question of economic development or sustainability. Can Bougainville enjoy a degree of economic self-sufficiency post 2020?

That question cannot be answered with confidence without the Panguna copper mine in central Bougainville.  

The large mineral deposit in the Panguna mountains has several more decades of mine life left after the forced closure in 1989. 

Its re-opening would be a huge bonus for Bougainville’s economy. 

The sensitive question of re-opening the Panguna mine has been in discussions for some time now but trying to get all parties to agree on a single course of action or timeline has been difficult. And that is unavoidable.

However, a quick resolution of outstanding matters involving all the parties concerned would help in determining when the mine would be re-opened.

Therefore, the ABG has been pushing for the bel kol (reconciliation) process at Panguna to proceed.  

However, the ABG was clearly disappointed with the actions of a Panguna-based group opposed to such a move.

The tough stand taken by Panguna hardliners angered ABG minister Patrick Nisira who recently urged the parties to be clear on what they wanted and not waste each other’s time.

Nisira said that at times it seemed that they were agreeing to the government initiative but the same people would then backtrack and stall the process.

The uncertainties and indecisiveness have created a formidable hurdle to the ABG’s stand on this niggling issue.  

Panguna’s wealth will no doubt make a huge difference for Bougainville post 2020 but the ABG needs to consider other options open to it.

Bougainville was and is still the largest cocoa producer of the country and its tourism potential remains largely untapped. 

And of course possibilities of small scale mining throughout the island are there as well. 

Recently, the region has gone into seaweed farming which also is another revenue earner.

These are options that are available to the ABG to invest or expand.

The ABG is also considering at least one other viable economic project – one that would bring in K2 billion in revenue.  

The Bougainville Peace Agreement provides for a referendum on Bougainville’s future political status and the choices available will include political independence for Bougainville.

According to the agreement, the actual date of the referendum will be set taking account of standards of good governance and the implementation of the weapons disposal plan. 

The outcome of the referendum will be subject to ratification (final decision making authority) of the PNG Parliament.

Good governance and weapons disposal have been achieved to a certain degree over the past few years.  

For the ABG to achieve a level of economic independence, it needs to have the Panguna mine operating as a first step but there are obviously a few more hurdles to overcome.

Should this also be a signal to the ABG that the time is just not right or that things are moving too fast?

Bougainville and Papua New Guinea must be prepared well, politically and economically, for the watershed event in 2020. 

If Panguna sticks out as a sore thumb, it can wait.

For now the ABG must think economic development without the Panguna copper mine.  

There other viable options and resources available which will need harnessing by people with the drive and creativity and Bougainville has no shortage of them.