By Keith Jackson
Peter O’Neill has avoided a full frontal clash with the Autonomous Bougainville Government by agreeing to give it a majority stake in the Panguna gold and copper mine.
In a move that was fundamentally stupid, mining giant Rio Tinto in June decided to split its 53.8% stake in Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) to leave the PNG and Bougainville governments each with 36.4% of the equity.
It was a recipe for potential conflict and tragedy which only a global company with no sense of the society and culture within which it was operating could have formulated.
And now it seems that Peter O’Neill has let Rio off the hook.
BCL’s Panguna mine was closed in 1989 after attacks by secessionist rebels. The subsequent conflict in which Bougainvilleans first fought Papua New Guineans and then each other cost between 10,000 and 20,000 lives.
Rio’s decision to leave Bougainville in a hand wrestle with PNG angered the provinces’s president John Momis who consistently said his people would never accept equal or majority control of BCL by PNG.
This left Peter O’Neill facing the prospect of having half of nothing or hanging on to his existing 19% share of a potentially very rich resource.
It seems he has opted for a piece of the action as well as peace of mind.
O’Neill told the PNG parliament Wednesday that his government would transfer the 17.4% Rio stake to Bougainville to “help to alleviate some of the legacy issues of the past”.
These issues included the continued failure of his government to honour some key conditions of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.
“With this transfer, the people of Bougainville will own a combined shareholding of 53.8% of BCL,” O’Neill stated, apparently casting asunder a range of side deals he had tried to put in place with Rio.
Bougainville is rich in minerals – especially gold, silver and copper – and the Panguna mine, when re-opened, is expected to have at least another 30 years of highly profitable production.
Bougainville is also facing a referendum before 2020 on whether it should split from PNG and become an independent state.