An independence referendum and unresolved issues over the rich Panguna copper mine threaten to tilt Papua New Guinea’s tumultuous autonomous island back to civil war
Foreign mining companies are jostling for exploration rights on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville ahead of a crucial independence vote next year that some fear could revive tensions that sparked a civil war that killed 20,000 in the 1980’s.
The island will need mining royalties to maintain a viable economy if the referendum backs independence, but unresolved issues over the Panguna copper mine are still a sensitive point with traditional landowners. Villagers shut the pit down in 1989, triggering the previous lethal conflict.
The referendum is the culmination of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which formally ended the decade-long bloody civil war. It will take place as the US and Australia aim to work closely with Papua New Guinea to develop its Lombrum Naval Base to counterbalance China’s growing maritime influence in the region.
In January, the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) said that an indefinite moratorium had been imposed on work at Panguna, which was the world’s biggest open-cut copper mine when it was being operated by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a unit of Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.
Rio exited in 2016, transferring its 53.8% shareholding to the ABG and the Papua New Guinea government, but there has been speculation the mine could reopen. Papua New Guinea’s government gave its shareholding to traditional landowners in the Panguna area.
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