The mine at the centre of the decade-long civil war between rebels in Bougainville and Papua New Guinea security forces is set to reopen 30 years after it was forced to close, following an agreement between local landowners.
Panguna was once one of the world’s largest and most profitable copper and goldmines and still contains an estimated 5.3m tons of copper and 19.3m ounces of gold, which would make the reserves worth about $60bn at today’s prices.
In 1989, amid rising community anger at the environmental damage and the inequitable division of the mine’s profits, locals forced the mine closed, blowing up Panguna’s power lines and sabotaging operations.
The PNG government sent in troops against its own citizens to restart the foreign-owned mine, sparking a bloody, decade-long civil war. A peace settlement was brokered in 2001.
On Wednesday, five customary landowner groups – the Kurabang, Barapang, Bakoringu, Basikang and Mantaa clans – signed a joint resolution on the mine reopening at a summit in Tunuru, central Bougainville, local media reported.
At the gathering, Bougainville president Ishmael Toroama had asked the groups to find an outcome that would support the region’s aspirations for independence.
“If we are talking about a new Bougainville, we must reset and refocus our priorities,” he told them.
Wednesday’s resolution signified “the beginning of a new chapter, a chapter to realise Bougainville’s independence”, he said.
Since his election in September 2020, Toroama has maintained that the reopening of the Panguna mine would be a decision for the land owners but that it is the only option that could provide the economic support for Bougainville’s independence.
Specifics of the reopening are to be discussed in separate, follow-up meetings. The autonomous region’s Department of Mineral and Energy Resources is to liaise with the landowners. The national government has yet to comment on the decision.
The civil war claimed the lives of about 20,000 people and amplified calls for Bougainvillean independence.
The Bougainville Peace Agreement, signed between Bougainvillean leaders and Papua New Guinea in 2001, marked the end of the war and guaranteed a referendum on independence, to be held in 2019.
The non-binding results of that referendum showed overwhelming support for independence, with 98% of people voting in favour, but are yet to be ratified in Papua New Guinea’s parliament, which has the final say on the process.