The Tale of the Bougainville Islanders

“We are fighting for man and his culture, land and the environment, and independence.”  – Francis Ona (leader of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army)

I recently watched a documentary called ‘The Coconut Revolution’. It’s about the indigenous Bougainville population fighting for independence in the face of oppression – a common tale no-less but one which leaves you with an enduring message. It is an incredibly enlightening and moving tale. What is taking place there is a tale of ‘ecological-revolution’.

Having to use their environment sustainably to survive and prosper after 10 years of blockade the people fighting the revolution there, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), are an inspiration to us all.

But how many people have heard about the Bougainville islanders? How many people have even heard of the island of Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands? I doubt very few have, I certainly hadn’t before watching the documentary.

The history of the island is a classic one connected, like so many other regions, by colonial and imperial conquest. Originally part of the Solomon Islands the culture and the people were ethnically the same and shared a similar historical background, but the British Empire simply curved up and dissected the islands; drawing a line threw them, like it did to so many places in Africa.

It was the French colonial explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville who, in 1788, put his stamp on the island, and since then it has passed from one colonial power to the other.  The British ‘gave’ the island to the Germans, who lost it after the Second World War to the Australians. It briefly fell into the hands of the Japanese before Australia reclaimed it and handed it to the officially recognised state of Papua New Guinea (PNG), who gained independence in 1975. Even though 2 weeks earlier the Bougainville islanders had declared independence and autonomy, the international community never took any notice.

To date the Papua New Guinean authorities – with the unequivocal aid and support of the Australian government – deny the island of Bougainville independence. For over a decade PNG didn’t allow any essential goods, like food, medicine and petrol, to enter the island. However, things have begun to change since the 1997 peace-agreement.

Yet the Bougainvilleans don’t want outside interference. Having developed some of the most sustainable and ingenious inventions, which support the local population without the requirement of global capitalism and disingenuous exchange, they don’t want this resilient self-sufficiency to be compromised.

They’ve developed hydro-electric power, environmentally friendly petrol from coconut oil to drive their cars and medical treatments from natural remedies. Not to mention the cultivation of an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables in their unique gardens. They’ve managed for so long without imports the lifting of the sanctions could change everything; but back to tale for now.

The Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF), an army that has been attacking, not defending, the Bougainville Islanders were the ones enforcing the embargo. The PNGDF committed countless atrocities against the Bougainvilleans: as a consequence 15,000 people died out of a population of about 150,000.

The PNGDF were originally set the task of defending the interests of Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL) – owned by the world’s largest mining multinational, a British company called Rio Tinto. There were huge protests by local residents about the damage caused to the fertile land by BCL mining. A massive hole was being dug at the heart of the island, but BCL (with the aid of the PNGDF) took the land by force.

As the example of the Panguna mine (highlighted in the documentary) demonstrates, in their quest for copper BCL ransacked, poisoned, polluted and destroyed land the size of “London’s West End, where Rio Tinto’s headquarters are based”.

Even after this travesty very little of the $3billion profit made by the company was paid to the people who owned the land. To add insult to injury the islanders had to pay for local schools out of their own pocket.

The Panguna mine was at one stage the biggest copper mine in the world; making huge profits. But the Bougainvilleans saw little of that profit. Now the mine is a desolate and barren land unable to be used for agriculture. Toxic waste from the mine polluted the Jaba River meaning the river is now inhospitable and poisonous. The wildlife died and the locals could no longer use it for drinking or watering crops. Yet this did not stop the Bougainvillean fighting spirit and only acted to further revolutionise their cause.

Francis Ona, later to become the leader of the BRA and independence movement, demanded the mine close and asked for $10billion in reparations. He was shunned and ostracised. So Francis and his soon to be guerrilla army decided enough was enough; they shut the mine down themselves. BCL retreated, leaving the mine discarded. BCL also destroyed the mine, and the local town they’d built, to ensure the Islanders didn’t return.

PNG sent in the riot police – and later the PNGDF – who burnt down homes and murdered many Bougainville villagers and civilians. This only antagonised the locals and increased the popularity of the fledgling guerrilla force, which was to become the BRA. It was David verse Goliath; literally slings and bow-and-arrows verses guns and heavy artillery.

Australian pilots where even drafted in to fly the army helicopters. Francis Ona asserts in the documentary that the war against the PNG would be won or lost in a week but the war against the Australians would last much longer. It soon turned into a full blown war, with the Australian army training and arming the PNGDF.

However, so ingenious and resourceful where the Bougainvilleans they started making their own weapons from the material they found in their environment. First it was crossbows, and then it moved onto home-made guns created from the scrap metal they retrieved from the old mines. From these rudimentary beginnings they managed to win the war and sign a PNG government treaty calling for a cease-fire in 1997. It’s truly inspiring. But as Ismail, a leading commander remarks:

“I’m not proud to be a fighter. I’m proud because my names written in the book of life.”

By 1990 the PNGDF had withdrawn from the island, and thought setting up a blockade around the island would turn the people against the BRA; they were wrong. As history has taught us so many times this only increased BRA support. The people rose up in defiance and with resilience.

They continued the struggle for survival and their fight for independence using the materials in their environment around them. To sustain their way of life and defend themselves against a constant onslaught and barrage of attacks they became more than intelligent fighters but eco-warriors of great ingenuity.

It was when, in 1997, the PNG government hired in mercenaries to do their dirty work that the PNGDF essentially conceded defeat. Since the PNGDF weren’t able to contain the revolutionary spirit of the BRA and the Bougainville islanders the government paid “$36 million to the London-based company Sandline International” – a private military business established in the early 1990’s by British Army Lt Col Tim Spicer, which advertised itself as a “Private Military Company” (PMC) and offered military training, ‘operational support’ (equipment and arms procurement and limited direct military activity), intelligence gathering, and public relations services to governments and corporations – to quell and suppress the Bougainville revolution.

To the surprise of many, the PNGDF sided with the BRA, with whom for practically a decade they’d been fighting. As the documentary details:

“Humiliated by the very idea of needing foreign troops, and even more angry at the price, the under-funded PNGDF soldiers rallied huge popular support. They arrested the mercenaries, and threw them out.”

It is testament to the vitality and ingenuity of the Bougainville population that even after years of oppression the oppressor sided with them. By no means was it an end to the problems and struggles the islanders were still to face and contend with in the coming years but it was a miraculous step in the right direction.

The land proved to have the answers and provided the islanders with all they needed not just to survive but flourish. As the documentary states they were forced to learn the valuable lesson that “necessity is the mother of invention” and self-sufficiency became the totem ideology of the Bougainvilleans.

The blockade meant Bougainville islanders didn’t have access to electricity. So what did the Islanders do? They created their own hydro-electric generator to provide electricity for the community and power the lights, that’s what. They cultivated extraordinary agricultural gardens; used plants to create medicinal remedies that cured flu’s and other aliments – even claiming to have healed cancers – and generally gathered resources from their environment to self-sustain their way of life.

However, it is the coconut that is of utmost importance to the Bougainvilleans. As the documentary affirms the coconut is such “a perfectly packaged life-support system”. It is used for everything from food, medicine, insect repellent, soap, leaves for weaving baskets and making shelters, oil for lamps and petrol.

As the documentary declares, “not only is coconut oil less polluting than diesel you also get double the mileage; Ismail laughs that after the war they’re really going to scare Esso and Shell.” Ismail goes on to say that, “if the coconut wasn’t part of the revolution I can’t think how we would create this state.”

Truly the coconut is worthy of reverence and respect, and the Bougainvilleans worthy of greater admiration for their ability to master its qualities.

Above all the coconut became their symbol of resistance. It has embodied their struggle. A seed whose buoyancy and spirit of insubordination against adversity carries for miles on the waves of the oceans without blemish or defect from outside incursions; reflective of the Bougainville islanders strength, energy and vivacity; may their seed of revolution take root across the globe. The people’s coconut will prevail.

“In the war for the environment it helps to have the environment on your side”.

It was only after they sent the mercenaries packing that they Bougainville islanders became headline news around the world and once people learnt of their victory against Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Rio Tinto Group that peace talks began in mid-1997 (and yet many to this day still know nothing about their struggle). Since then they’ve agreed a cease-fire, the PNG government lifted the blockade, and Bougainvilleans continue to expand their ecological innovations, setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

This tale ends with a quote by Francis Ona, one of the leaders of the revolution, that I think sums up – in the most powerful and wisest of words – the truth behind the coconut revolution:

“During my high school days I was appointed to sweep the principals house. But on one occasion I found he was doing my job; he was cleaning out the toilet. And I asked him; How could you, the principal do such a thing? And what he told me was that leaders must come down and clean the dirt for their people. And that taught me a very, very big lesson, which I’m looking forward to teaching other leaders in all other parts of the world – the leader must clean the boots of his people…Man on this earth, on planet earth, depends on the land, depends on the environment, and I wish to ask everyone, every leader of every nation to take care of the land so that the people on this planet earth can be saved.”

I think we have much to learn from the tale of the Bougainville islanders.

You can watch the documentary here:


I have a problem. I can’t find any information about the Bougainville Independence movement after 1999. Can anyone help me?


One thought on “The Tale of the Bougainville Islanders

  1. Well thanks for your post I also have watched that documentary a long a go and it really lit a fire in my heart, I will always remeber it and sound of the music made with crocks and hollow canes
    Thanks again

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