Bougainville Panguna
Panguna mine in Boungainville, 1971. (Image: Robert Owen Winkler)

The name "Bougainville" rests uneasily in the Australian subconscious, but many Australians may not be able to recall exactly why. A quick refresher is in order, because we’re about to hear a lot more about the place. And, just for a change, some of the news is good.

Australia's dark history in Bougainville

Bougainville is the largest island in the Solomon Islands chain to the north-east of Queensland, with a population of around a quarter of a million people. The island is presently an autonomous province of Papua New Guinea, with a referendum on full independence due to take place in mid-2019. Settled by Melanesian people at least 33,000 years ago, a unique matrilineal culture evolved with strong obligations to country and coming generations. The place has a bruising modern history, with colonial occupation beginning with a carve up between Germany and Great Britain in 1886 before authority was passed to Australia in 1946.

While under Australian government control, Rio Tinto’s Australian subsidiary CRA was given free rein to prospect anywhere they liked. Then, in the mid-1960s, CRA hit one of the largest copper/gold deposits on Earth.