The inhabitants of Oceania’s Bougainville are holding a referendum that will define the island’s future. Rich in copper and gold, Bougainville will opt for Papua New Guinea’s independence or regional autonomy.
After 20 years of waiting, the inhabitants of the island of Bougainville in Oceania will be able to vote in a referendum that will determine whether the region becomes independent of Papua New Guinea. If expectations are confirmed by mid-December, Bougainville is set to become the world’s 194th independent state.
“It’s obvious that the people are now in the mood for celebration and I join them as they have every right to celebrate,” Momis told a media conference. “This is a forecast or beginning of good things to come if we collaborate and work as trusted partners to implement something that both parties have contributed to.”
For two weeks, the inhabitants of Bougainville will be able to vote. Referendum results are due to be announced in mid-December. Expectations are for an overwhelming independence victory.
The referendum is an organizational challenge, as 90% of the population lives in rural areas.
Communication on the island is scarce: there is no radio or television network that caters for the entire population, and only 100 copies of Papua New Guinean newspapers arrive on the island daily.
Self-determination and matriarchal culture
From a cultural, linguistic and geographical point of view, Bougainville is closer to the neighboring Solomon Islands archipelago than to Papua New Guinea.
Bougainville has about 250,000 inhabitants and 25 language groups spread across ten different clans that practice matriarchy – which sets them apart from the practices of the country to which they currently belong.
The region became part of Papua New Guinea as one of the late nineteenth-century colonial many accidents, according to Dr. Anthony Reagan of the Australian National University.
Bougainville first sought independence shortly after Papua New Guinea separated from Australia in 1975.
A unilateral declaration of independence from the Republic of Northern Solomon was issued, but Bougainville did not gain UN support in its struggle for sovereignty.
Copper and Gold Mines
In Paguna, in the central mountains of Bougainville, is one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world. Operated by a local company in partnership with the exploitative Australian multinational Rio Tinto, the mines were a source of funds for Papua New Guinea between the 1970s and 1980s, generating 44% of the country’s income.
“I want to see Bougainville become our own country, in my lifetime. I want to see us producing our own products. We have tons of natural resources, good lands and great farmers so we need to take ownership starting with this vote,” said Moses Seropa from Arawa who has already voted.
The exploitation of the mine, however, had serious environmental and social consequences, as well as few resources for the local population as ithe profits were directed mostly to the shareholders.
Severe crisis over the exploitation of wealth led to a civil war in 1988, characterized as “the deadliest, bloodiest and most destructive conflict in the South Pacific since World War II,” according to John Momis.
In 2001, as part of the peace process that ended hostilities, a referendum was promised to the people of Bougainville so that they could opt for Papua New Guinea’s independence or greater autonomy.
The referendum has been held since last Saturday and is expected to close on December 7, 2019. The results are due to be released by mid-December.