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25 February 2013

Bougainville Interlude

With kind permission by Dermott Ryder


Late in January 1971, as the aircraft climbed out of early morning smog-bound Sydney and moved north - first call Brisbane and then onto Port Moresby - I reviewed my recent meeting with the pie-in-the-sky recruitment guy and my subsequent life changing decision.

"Bougainville", he told me, with enthusiasm bordering on evangelical fervour, "is a tropical island with an amazing history, fascinating people and great opportunity. It is the home of the Panguna Project; the world's most promising copper mine. You mark my words, Bougainville Copper will become a household name." Neither of us could have possibly foreseen what a prophesy of doom this eventually became.

"Where there's copper, there's gold too", he said, almost bubbling with excitement. "It's a marvellous chance for an adventurous young man, a writer and musician like yourself, to find and embrace new inspiration in a place most people will never be able to visit." He added - gilding the lily a bit - "And with your experience in construction at Mount Newman you have a great deal to bring to the job. That's why the pay and conditions are so good and the company will pay your airfare there and back and put up the expatriate guarantee bond to get you into TPNG." He finished with a conspiratorial stage whisper. "This job will be better than a holiday with pay."

He had a fine line of bullshit, but that was a given so nobody was getting fooled. We had objectives in common. I wanted to travel. He wanted to make quota. He shouted a plate of sandwiches and a couple of beers and it was a done deal.

Two weeks later I found myself, with a slight hangover, at thirty-five thousand feet, flying north and, as luck would have it, sat next to a cynical but talkative self-styled historian. He was returning from annual leave in Sydney to his position in the administration. He declared himself a government man but more accurately and on reflection, I think, he was an opposition man. He gave me the low down on Bougainville, chapter and verse. He spoke with practised and unchallengeable authority. I quickly came to the suspicion that he had written a book or that he had memorised somebody else�s.

"The island of Bougainville", he declaimed, "is 127 miles long and 30 miles wide. It is geographically part of the Solomon Island Group and politically part of Papua New Guinea, and as such is part of the Australian External Territories. The United Nations deemed it so at the end of the Second World War. The act of accepting this hegemony increased Australia's colonial power."

I detected something in the tone of his voice that made clear to me that he did not approve of colonial powers. He sensed this insight and he knew that he definitely had my attention and he warmed to his pompous presentation.

"The history of Bougainville is a grisly story of rampant imperialism", he announced. He was on a roll. "At the end of the 19th century the rapacious representatives of Her Britannic Majesty Queen Alexandrina Victoria and the equally grasping wheeler-dealers of the German Kaiser Wilhelm created an Anglo-German pact that brought sunny smiles to the time-lined features of these two aging, inbred monarchs. British imperialists, the owners of record, gave Bougainville to the German imperialists. They attached their new little gem of empire to German New Guinea. Neither power consulted the native peoples so dramatically affected. Why should they? After all, Europeans were gods." He took a sip of water. He seemed to be pacing himself, speaking in what I later came to know as sound bites. I waited in silence for him to continue and then I listened intently.

In the fullness of time I have edited his potted history into memory as dot points of factual convenience. The main points being that in 1914, at the start of The First World War, the New Colonial Power, Australia, annexed German New Guinea and attached it to Australian Papua - an empire within an empire. Victoria Regina would have been as proud as punch of her colonial children.

During the Second World War the imperial Japanese became the brutal overlord but the imperial Americans, swaggering gods of the cargo cult, kicked them out and introduced chewing gum as an alternative to beetle nut. However, as if to spite the interlopers, the ingenious indigenise combined the two evils and developed the capacity to projectile spit over a great distance. In a less politically correct world this local competitive activity could have become an Olympic sport.

In time the remote and dispassionate United Nations, sensing problems ahead, gave the whole box and dice back to Australia. What goes around comes around shrugged the faceless grey suited undead of Canberra as they recreated the Bureaucracy.

Once again, apparently, the protecting power did not consult the Bougainvillians. However, the island people were growing up and developing a sense of enlightened self-interest. They were becoming politically aware and quite naturally began to object to foreign rule. Their expressions of earnest opposition and protest became particularly vocal in 1969 when the people of central Bougainville learned that their ownership of land extended no more than one metre below their gardens. The land below this depth belonged to 'the crown' a right and title sustained by the ruling power, Australia, and administered by the all-powerful Neo-Colonial Bureaucracy.

This august, humane and forward-looking body granted the right to plunder the copper riches of the island to the company Bougainville Copper Ltd, part of the ugly Australian face of the ravenous Rio Tinto Zinc of London. My airborne informant smiled and laid the whole scam bare.

"Just between you and me", he stage whispered, "the plan was simple: dig up the hill, turn it into a slurry, pump it down to the coast in a pipeline, ship it out, get rich and bugger the bloody kanakas. Best not call them bush kanakas though, at least not directly. Some of them get really agro if you call them that. The tactful, or the hypocritical call them indigenes, not me though, I call a spade a spade." Then he laughed, I think he thought it was a joke.

He continued his address as if quoting from a well-rehearsed lecture. "The simple plan, when implemented, included the destruction of the coastal copra plantations, the obliteration of gardens, the felling of trees and the polluting of rivers and bays." He droned on. The Bougainvillians became stroppy and vociferously voiced their discontent. The police force handled the protesters, particularly the land-owning women, in the time honoured colonial, head-banging way, with hobnailed boots and batons, tear-gas and unlawful imprisonment with cruelty and with impunity.

He stopped for breath and for another drink of water and for a moment I got the feeling that through his half closed eyes he could see the audience he would one day address. Then he was off again.

"Of course, the multinationals won and got the land they wanted and have dug a six kilometre long deep, deep hole at Panguna and are shipping out as much copper and gold as they can before the shit hits the fan. The unprofitable part of the excavation, mostly poisonous tailing's are as we speak being thrown into the Jaba river system thereby killing every living thing in it, most of the riverside flora and an as yet uncounted number of people." Finally he said, with the hint of a sigh, "We have the best bureaucracy money can buy and influence can protect. In the beginning we could have stopped the rape of Bougainville but not now that politics and profits run the game."

At this point I realised that apart from asking for a second cup of coffee I had not spoken a dozen words since taking off from Brisbane. But the thought quickly passed as the cabin steward, a feisty woman with sharp blue eyes and no buttocks, barked out the usual orders for landing. So, cigarettes extinguished, seats upright and tray tables folded away, we landed with a bump at Port Moresby's unprepossessing airport.

We left the aircraft together and walked across the tarmac to the baggage check and customs and immigration table where we said our goodbyes. He was met by a uniformed government chauffeur who took his bags and led him around the formalities and out to a large official car. I, on the other hand, had my documents diligently scrutinised and my belonging rigorously searched and my guitar treated with upmost suspicion.

According to my ticketing details I would have a one-hour wait before boarding my flight for Bougainville so I made my way to a bar and discovered a small crowd of travellers - five New Zealanders, a South African and two North Queensland carpenters - all heading for the island. I also discovered South Pacific Lager, commonly known as swamp piss and quite rightly so. After a couple of beers in good company I asked about the approaching flight departure time and was told, with a great laugh, that the term one-hour in the external territories meant a time period of no particular duration. The flight for Bougainville left three hot, sweaty hours later.

I can only describe the flight as liquid and hilarious. Apart from the construction group and the crisply turned out and up themselves Burns Philp types the rest of the passengers were indigenous and gregarious, and so were their children and sundry livestock. Although all became strangely quiet as we approached the landing strip at Aropa, near Kieta. I joined in the silence when I looked out of the window and discovered that what I had originally thought to be a third class road was the landing strip.

The arrival at Aropa was as chaotic as the departure from Port Moresby. There were no company people there to meet us and nobody knew where we were supposed to be going. Eventually our company truck arrived to collect the South African and me and take us to our accommodation in the Loloho camp. After some discussion and the establishment of an appropriate gratuity the driver agreed to take the New Zealanders and the now seriously hammered North Queenslanders to the wet canteen at Loloho from where they could contact their employers. The negotiations worked and the driver had free beer for a week, courtesy of the incoherent carpenters, and we discovered that alcohol in any form was as good as if not better than legal tender.

The construction camps on Bougainville were similar to those I'd experienced during the early days at Mount Newman. The accommodation was simple. There were neat lines of demountable caravan-like units, each with four two-man compartments. Each compartment contained two beds separated by a small table and two lockers. A table fan, a monument to futility but the only form of air-conditioning available, laboriously moved the heavy, humid, almost oxygen free air around the compartment. This Spartan structure, called a donga, is universal in remote area construction.

For the next instalment of Dermott's story, click here.