Dr Jon Ritchie – Port Moresby Postcard #2

Dr Jon Ritchie is the Contemporary Histories Research Group’s representative in Papua New Guinea as he undertakes field research. Dr Ritchie is a Senior Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. While in PNG, Jon will be writing regular ‘postcards’ for the Contemporary Histories Research Group, reflecting on current news in the region.

Port Moresby postcard #2 – 8 February 2016

Last week, as part of my research here in Papua New Guinea about World War Two, I visited PNG’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB).  Bougainville had been fought over during the War and I wanted to see if it would be possible to develop an oral history-based project there.

I was in the convivial company of my colleague Dr Naihuwo Ahai, who heads the Bougainville Peace Building Program (or BPBP).  At his request I attended a meeting with local leaders and three young Bougainvilleans, newly appointed as research officers with the job of investigating traditional conflict mediation practices and also recording interviews with people about – not the Second World War, but the much more recent Bougainville Crisis of 1989-2001.

The visit centred on the township of Arawa, sandwiched between the black volcanic sands of Bougainville’s eastern coast and its central spine of mountains (which for most of the visit were hidden by low-hanging and juicy-looking clouds).  Arawa was built in the 1970s to house the engineers, truck drivers, geologists, surveyors, technical officers, teachers, doctors, accountants, and all the associated hangers-on who worked at, or depended on, the enormous copper and gold mine at Panguna, thirty kilometres distant to Arawa’s southwest, tucked in among Bougainville’s rugged mountains.  Beginning in the late 1960s, at one stage the Panguna mine was responsible for more than forty per cent of PNG’s export revenue, but that all changed in 1989, when it was forced to cease operations.  Shortly afterwards Arawa’s population, which once had numbered in excess of a hundred thousand, shrank to almost zero as the mainly ‘foreign’ inhabitants hurriedly departed.

What drove them away, as most will know, was the rapidly developing Bougainville Crisis, a conflict that blighted the following decade: a civil war that brought starvation, misery, the deaths of tens of thousands of Bougainvilleans, and an entire generation lost to education and economic progress.  Following the exodus of the Australians and other internationals, and of the many more thousands from other parts of Papua New Guinea who had come to Bougainville for the mine, Arawa became a ‘care centre’, which like the ‘strategic hamlets’ of the Vietnam War, housed people dislodged by fighting from their villages.  As is only possible in the humid tropics, nature has reclaimed with astounding rapidity the houses, clubs, shopping centres and offices.  Nature’s job was made much easier by the actions of the various fighting forces – ‘rebels’ (the Bougainville Revolutionary Army or BRA) and ‘redskins’ (the PNG Defence Force, or PNGDF) – who gleefully took to burning and blowing up the minerals processing and exporting facilities, using expertise gained from working at, as well as explosives taken from, the mine.

Now, in 2016, the town of Arawa reminded me of something post-apocalyptic, like the world John Wyndham portrayed in The Chrysalids or, bringing the comparison up to 2016, something out of The 5th Wave.  With the foreigners’ departure, local people – the customary owners of the land on which Arawa had been built – have reclaimed the houses, more or less following the original ownership patterns.  Now, there seems no reason for the town’s existence other than a kind of autarkical round-robin economy, where every house has a small shop that sells to other houses exactly the same products: chiefly cheap Chinese goods, cans of Coca-Cola and lush tropical vegetables and fruits (at the moment, hairy-skinned, ruddy-hued rambutans and the largest betel nuts in all Melanesia).  A visit to Arawa should be compulsory for everyone who sets out to exploit mineral resources and doesn’t think too hard about the consequences.

Like Timor-Leste, that other site of tragic significance in our region, Bougainville’s hope lies in its younger people.  Skipping over the Crisis generation who missed school (shown in the book and film of Lloyd Jones’ Mr. Pip), young Bougainvilleans like the three research officers will need to make the hard choices about their island’s future as it negotiates the complexities of the post-conflict Bougainville Peace Agreement.  They will need to understand Bougainville’s complex history dating far beyond both Crisis and World War, to colonial decisions and even before.

It seems that recording oral histories of the War – whichever war – in Bougainville will take even more sensitivity than usual.


Power station at Loloho, pre-Crisis (Source)


Loloho Beach, near Arawa, pre-Crisis (Source)


Copper ore at Loloho, 4 February 2016 (photo by Jonathan Ritchie)


Devastation, Loloho, 4 February 2016 (photo by Jonathan Ritchie)


Derelict mining equipment, Arawa, 4 February 2016 (photo by Jonathan Ritchie)


Arawa market, 5 February 2016 (photo by Jonathan Ritchie)


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