The story began in 1969 when huge multinational corporation Rio Tinto Zinc opened its copper mine on the island, tensions were growing through the 70's when Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia, and it turned into war in 80's, when some local people demanded their share of profits from the mine. Just few billion dollars. Not more and not less than half of the profits since the mining started. Fair enough. Why let somebody just come to your backyard, dig a huge pit in the middle of your garden, poison your water and land, get enormously rich from that and in the end leave you with just a big hole in your land. Unfortunately that's how the world works far too often. I can imagine those executives in Rio Tinto rolling eyes and rising brows and saying that all this is ridiculous. Bunch of savages, you know, we used to buy them off with trinkets and a bottle of rum.
Not anymore. Not being able to get to terms with the mining company in negotiations, Bougainvillians decided that they don't need such mine on their land. All they needed to achieve their goal was determination and some stolen dynamite. Papuan government sent the riot police in and then some troops, but both of them were repelled by rebels, who initially were armed with just bows and arrows, but later managed to take full control of their island. After that the government of PNG sent warships to impose blockade on island, however even nearly complete isolation from the rest of the world didn't brake the resistance. What doesn't kills you, makes you stronger. Bougainvillians learned how to make weapons, how to run vehicles on coconut oil instead of petrol and even built some hydro plants from scrap material found on the island. I found it absolutely amazing. What you can see in the movie is sort of self-sufficient, heavily militarized, tropical DIY wonderland.
Far from paradise however. Lack of medication and other supplies, military actions and other problems led to far too many premature deaths. It is estimated that 10000 to 15000 people died during the conflict, largely from starvation and diseases. There were certainly many problems, and it was a very hard life, but somehow by watching this movie you get the feeling that things like freedom, dignity and pride matters. That they are worth suffering and fighting for, at least for these people. Even more importantly you get the feeling that it's not so utterly hopeless to stand for them.
You can watch the movie here:
I'm obviously under the spell of these big, eccentric, superstitious warrior preachers as much as the journalists were when making the movie. As for today the war on Bougainville is over. Actually it was already almost over about the time when the movie was made. What's shown there is the very last days of the war if not first days of gradually coming peace. Which might be a good explanation why these people are so relaxed. According to Wikipedia ceasefire was agreed in 1997 and no major military action happened anymore. So it must be that when the movie was made it was already the case. Then again it might have looked somewhat different back then and definitely less certain, as according to the same wikipedia article multiple agreements were signed and not honored by any side during the years of the war.
Bougainville is not fully independent country yet, however they won considerable autonomy and a promise to held a referendum on independence in next few years. Both leaders of the resistance Francis Ona and Joseph Kabui are dead now. They died from natural causes. Ona never accepted peace negotiations and proclaimed himself King of Bougenville on the day of first election in 2005, but soon died from malaria, while Kabui became the first president of the autonomous province, by winning election with solid majority. While in office he granted access rights to 70% of islands mineral resources to Canadian company without parliamentary consent and was widely criticized for this. He died shortly afterwards in 2008.
Will Bougainvillian leaders soon find themselves corrupted by power and wealth that it could bring for themselves and their families, or will they manage to build a fair and prosperous society for everyone? That's certainly a huge test, but at lest they won the right to do it for themselves.
By the way, and I found it out absolutely accidentally, just when I was about to finish this post. There's another election going on on the island of Bougainville right now. It's about to finish on 24 May. According to this article, the life on the island goes on pretty well.
There's another movie about the conflict which is made a couple of years earlier and called "Bougainville: Our Island, Our Fight." Unfortunately I couldn't find it on the internet.
Director: Dom Rotheroe