You’ve read most of this story hundreds of times before. In fact, it’s so old that the civilized world has anesthetized itself and sterilized a blight on our civilization with terms like the “Resources Curse” and “Dysfunctional States”. Countries rich in minerals and energy where poverty – both in economic and social terms – run rampant; where officials are prone to bribery and corruption; and where, when faced with a world turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the people, desperate people turn to violence in a predictable last grasp for something to control. Blood runs. Families are destroyed. And the perpetrators sponsor lavish seminars with their elite friends to discuss the hopelessness of a world filled with savages. Paradoxically, Rio Tinto’s CEO reportedly has decided to participate in a campaign to “raise awareness” around human trafficking as part of the firm’s London Olympic sponsorship despite the labor abuses, impoverished living conditions, and sex trade affiliated with its mining operations. Apparently “awareness raising” serves as his copper and gold Pontius basin in which he launders his conscience and that of his investors. And best of all, in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility, even PAX Global and Praxis Core Stock Fund (funds that prey on the disembodied conscience of uninformed investors) invest in the perpetrators who, according to them are necessary components of investment portfolios despite being part of a “messy and imperfect” compromise.
But you haven’t read THIS story. Because this story hasn’t been told before. And if you listen to Australian media (ABC, to be specific), you may have been led to believe that this story could not be told.
In 1967, under the UN-authorized colonial custodianship of Papua New Guinea by the Australian government (jointly liable for the atrocities described herein) and eight years before independence, the Bougainville Copper Agreement was executed granting occupiers the control of one of the world’s largest copper (and other mineral) assets. This agreement, forced into the “peaceful” independence agreement in 1975, granted a company (now Bougainville Copper Ltd – majority owned by Rio Tinto) rights to 42 years of mining with compulsory 21 year renewals irrespective of any law or Act of the government. This provision, in a letter to then Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, was invoked by BCL Chairman Peter Taylor demanding that the Company enjoy renewal of its mining license prior to its expiration at the end of 2011. Peter was simply reminding Sir Michael Somare of the agreement he had signed with R.W. Ballmer of BCL in 1967.
Bougainville became synonymous with the worst of mining. Politicians were pitted against their citizens’ interests; clans were variously favored or ignored by the Company leading to bitter enmity and violence; and, in the late 1980s, the situation became intolerable. A landowner conflict erupted into a war in which the Company was forced to cease its operations and over 20,000 people were abducted, tortured and killed. And, to add insult to injury, in the fig leaf promoted as a Peace Agreement, the Bougainville government was given the 19% equity ownership once provided the National Government – equity that gave no PNG party any meaningful corporate or economic controls when issued – and an interest that, without production, had negligible value to Bougainville.
To listen to the international media regarding Bougainville since the conflict in 1989 is to see images of fierce armed fighters, destroyed infrastructure, and destitute living conditions. To hear BCL speak of the mine and the project is to hear about the need to pacify people for which they’ve exhibited nothing but contempt for 45 years. The vitriolic propaganda spewing from remote shareholders is only outdone by opportunistic bureaucrats seeking to use their public office to pander to would-be operators who would love to rip new holes in the fabric of the land and its people with just another destructive operation. To watch the footage from ABC in Australia, you would be advised that this is a place of dysfunction, lawlessness and hopelessness.
But that was before this week. Because this week, during the consummation of a six week global financial and corporate literacy program that we helped develop and deploy, I had a chance to spend time in Panguna and Arawa and meet the people that have been the object of Australian, UN, and global contempt for decades. Teaching them about the unconscionable acts that formed the BCA prior to independence and the intolerable supra-national rights granted to a company by a custodial administrator acting under the authority of the UN, we saw hundreds of people realize that those who they were told were “development partners” had in fact been complicit in grave injustices. Showing them a corporate structure – like so many in Papua New Guinea and around the world – where equity, financing, leasing, taxation, and self-dealing arrangements aid in the misappropriation of assets to the detriment of the people awakened a level of passion unseen since the beginning of this stain on humanity’s record. And, much to the surprise of the common narrative promoted by remote privateers, the people did not resort to violence. Rather, they sought more information. Because, as is always the case, abusers maintain their power by the persistence of ignorance, not by transparency and full exchange of facts.
And then what happened next was most poignant. Sitting in the back of the room at a 3 hour session in Arawa was a muscular man with a fatigue hat on his head. He sat motionless for 3 hours looking at me with piercing eyes. And before I was finished, he left. The next morning, my companions said, “Chris Uma wants to meet with you.” Chris is one of the men who the outside world – the world terrifyingly romanticized by a company that wants another bite at its ill-gotten apple – has been told to fear. This General of the Mekamui Defense Force – most often pictured with battle-hardened visage and armed with automatic weapons wanted to meet me. Meeting with Chris was not part of my plan but that’s part of the story.
Chris may very well have the firmest handshake in Papua New Guinea. He’s muscular, powerful and our first interaction involved the dissolution of every one of the propaganda-laced messages that have been littered around the world by those with something to hide. “We know that we’ve been lied to for all these years,” he said, “but now finally someone – a white man – has come and told us the truth that we all knew must be out there.” And after that statement, Chris, many of his men, and our delegation had a long conversation about what true resource development could look like. Together we went to the “NO GO ZONE” on the road to Panguna. And when there – a world away from the terror that has been promoted by so many who have so much to hide – we had fun. We picked flowers and put them into the barrels of the weapons that, in a moment of honest exchange, served no hostile purpose. We sat together and talked about a future built on mutual respect. And best of all, we agreed that it was time for the world to see a new picture of Bougainville. Rather than the story of brokenness, violence, death, and treachery, an image of what happens when people sit together with mutual respect was allowed to emerge. And then, the man the world has been told to fear; the man who has been enraged by the injustice meted to him and the people living around him; the man who only saw violence as a means to have a voice; that man removed his hat and placed a flower in his hair while the gun barrels that once blocked a hostile world became vases for the flowers of a new day.