Mining for hope
Near a ripening banana plantation on the road to Panguna, Bosco Miriona, the island’s sole tour operator, slammed on his brakes and made a startling revelation. “I was nearly shot here,” he said.
“We were setting a roadside ambush when a Papuan patrol surprised us and began shooting, so we crawled away on our bellies. I smelled burning. My dreadlocks caught fire,” he laughed, revealing the red decaying gums of a habitual betel-nut chewer. “We were young at the time,” he qualified. “The war felt like a big adventure, like a game.”
No longer dreadlocked, Bosco drove me the hour or so inland from Arawa into the Crown Prince Range, ‘California Dreaming’ pummelling his stereo. We passed mangled electricity pylons blown up by the BRA to cut power to Panguna, then a torched workers’ bus and a fallen crane.
Perched on Panguna’s rim is an unforgettable sight: an open-cast pit so deep that it would have provided a fine head start for Professor Lidenbrock’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in that Jules Verne epic. It’s also the epicentre of Bougainville’s anguished past and possible future, with an estimated $58 billion of gold and copper still to be mined. “There used to be a mountain here,” added Bosco.
Descending deeper into Panguna’s abyss, I found unimagined optimism in an ad-hoc town of thriving opportunism where thousands of Bougainvilleans eke out a livelihood amid dystopian ruination. Copper-blue slime oozed from the pit walls while gold miners – sometimes whole families, including children – pawed at crumbled slopes with pickaxes. One miner, Justin Morris, showed me a chunk of gold ore he said was worth 100 kina (over £20) per ounce – more than he’d earn in a week selling sweet potatoes at market.
On the mine floor, Bougainvilleans have ingeniously reused abandoned infrastructure. The Meccano-like exoskeleton of the former mineworkers’ accommodation has been boarded out with tin sheets to create new housing. Tony and Rose rear freshwater fish in the old outdoors swimming pool. Jeffrey supplements his teacher’s pay selling betel outside a newly built school – although not to his pupils, he quickly added. Meanwhile, Sylvester guards the ruined bank where a repurposed vault secures 303 weapons decommissioned after the Peace Accord.
“You know what we did with the vault’s key?” he asked. “We threw it into the ocean.”
Everywhere on the island, the weather-beaten silhouettes of halcyon days are hauntingly photogenic. We scrambled through an ore suspension plant easily 400m long, roofless, its steel girders exposed to the azure sky above. Glass and copper-coloured ore crunched underfoot within a gutted junkyard of disembowelled metal piping and discus shaped crushers that once pulverised ore bound for suspension tanks laced with toxic chemicals.
“We cannot reopen this mine,” said Bosco, now pensive. “We must find another way to build our economy.”
This could happen through tourism. Over the following days, on excursions from Arawa I experienced Bougainville’s heady fecundity amid the swirling dark clouds of the past.
Bosco’s home village, Topinang, would have tempted Adam and Eve with delights more alluring than apples: hibiscus and wild ginger flowers mix with bananas, taros, and cocoa trees around whose trunks vanilla vines coil like Eden’s serpent. Bosco is a sub-chief of the village’s Eagle clan; theirs is a system of fellowship more than bloodline. The society is matrilineal, though – so one day his wife’s land will go to their daughter, and her future husband will come to live with her and build their house.
Another morning we hiked along a volcanic ridge to the pearly Koharu Waterfalls, drinking in views to 2,715m Mt Balbi, an active volcano ringed like a hoopla prize by a doughnut-shaped cloud. The clicking of my camera reminded Steven of a machine gun. Later, at Kieta Wharf on the east coast, we visited a ‘Zero’ fighter plane mounted on a plinth, a reminder of Japanese occupation.
In 1943, Japanese momentum had stalled and the US Air Force launched ‘Operation Vengeance’, targeting the plane carrying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had overseen the attack on Pearl Harbor. The wreckage of that plane lies in jungle to the south, too far for me to reach. Instead I spent my final three days exploring the divine east coast – and all the gold in Panguna could not outweigh its delights.