10 Oct 2013

Call for plebiscite to decide on opening of Bougainville's Panguna mine

5:08 pm on 10 October 2013

There's a renewed call for the people of the autonomous Papua New Guinea province of Bougainville to have a say in any re-opening of the controversial Panguna copper and gold mine.

This comes as the final of a series of regional meetings on a possible re-opening, being held near the mine site in central Bougainville, has been held up by disputes between several of the parties involved.

A Panguna landowner and former candidate for president of Bougainville, Martin Miriori, says a plebiscite, run by the election office, is the only way to get full buy-in from the people.

MARTIN MIRIORI: If the people decide that we open with a mandate from the people, if something goes wrong then we are all to blame ourselves, unlike when the Panguna mine was opened in the '70s, early '70s, [there were] only a few leaders, chiefs. And, of course, in those days a lot of our people were uneducated and the white men exploited the ignorance of the people to bull-doze them. Now we've got educated people, the majority, so that is why I think a plebiscite will be a way forward. So if anything goes wrong with the reopening of the mine then we bear the have responsibility jointly.

DON WISEMAN: You're suggesting that the the ABG go around to all the villages and effectively, I guess, talk to everyone. But you're talking there about what would be an enormously expensive and time-consuming activity, aren't you?

MM: Well, it's an expensive exercise, but if we need to address it properly, to do it properly, that's the way. We've done it during election times - campaigning. Candidates go around visiting almost all villages, not every village, but most of the areas, they go and visit and campaign. So it's not impossible. The only thing that we need to do is find the resources, find the money, and I'm sure if people value the reopening of the mines it's a worthwhile exercise spending money, that kind of money.

DW: As a Panguna landowner yourself, what's your feeling about a possible reopening of the Panguna mine?

MM: When I am asked that question I always say 'Leave it to the people'. And by that I mean a plebiscite needs to be conducted, a referendum - yes or no - needs to be conducted. If the majority of the people say that we keep the mine closed, so be it. If the majority of the people say yes to the reopening of the mine, so be it. So the decision belongs to the people. That's the position that I'm taking.

DW: In debate that's been going on in the lead-up to these planned meetings this week, there's been a suggestion that the ABG should buy Panguna off Bougainville Copper Limited. Are they in a position to do something like that?

MM: I don't think so. They can borrow money to buy it, but at the moment they're in dire need for money, they're looking around for money. So I don't think that is going to be possible at this stage. But what I think, the strong view that some people maintain, is to give that mine back to the people. And I suppose with that view in mind, that perception - ABG buying it and owning it on behalf of the people - maybe that's what [Indistinct]. But in terms of having the money, the resources, I think it may not be possible unless that money is borrowed.