It wasn’t until the 17th century that the outside world began to have a tremendous impact on the sliver of green paradise that made up the archipelago. For close to thirty millennia, the people, cultures and biodiversity of Bougainville remained primarily untouched and in sync with the natural environment. Then, everything changed. What is Bougainville’s story and how did it come to shape the trajectory it is on today?
People have inhabited Bougainville for more than 29 000 years. Archaeological evidence discovered in the Kilu Cave on the northern Buka Island shows that the first people who arrived on the islands were of Australo-Melanesian descent. Until about 10 000 years ago, sea levels were low enough to have connected many of the islands, allowing for early inhabitants to settle a wider area than what is above sea level today.
European Discovery & Colonial Era
The first European explorers noted the islands in 1616, with the Dutch sailors Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire recording outlying atolls and islets. 150 years later, the British and then the French also visited the islands. The name “Bougainville” is credited to the latter – French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who sailed along the coast and made an indelible mark on the history of the green shoreline.
By 1886, German expansion had enveloped Bougainville and agreements between the German and British empires saw control and borders change hands and boundaries numerous times, with Bougainville shifting back and forth between being considered part of PNG and the Solomon Islands group.
World War 1 came to the islands in December 1914 when the Australian Navy occupied the territory and placed Bougainville under Australian-controlled administration. After evicting the German population and following more than 20 years of Australian influence, the Japanese invaded Bougainville in 1942 to establish a support base close to Australia.
In 1943, the Allied forces counter-invaded the islands. After a long and bloody campaign, with close to 30 000 mostly Japanese casualties, the islands were placed back under a new Australian-administered territory of what was to become Papua New Guinea.
When PNG declared independence from Australia in 1975, Bougainville had enjoyed nearly thirty years of relative peace. However, in the early 1970s, a large mine was established to exploit the large copper deposits on the main island. The operations at the Panguna Mine led very quickly to disputes, environmental damage and a decline in the quality of life on the island. This ultimately led to a rise in discontent for the regional Papua New Guinean administration, increased support for secession and, eventually, the outbreak of war.
The Panguna copper mine, located in the heart of Bougainville Island, had been a flashpoint since its establishment in the early 1970s and is considered the trigger for the war that ravaged the island for a decade. When activists proclaimed unofficial independence for Bougainville in 1975, PNG security forces suppressed the resistance.
By 1988, the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army had begun an armed campaign against PNG – a movement which exploded into fully-fledged civil war following the second independence proclamation in 1990. During the conflict, PNG enforced a strict seven-year blockade of the island, effectively cutting the islands off from the outside world.
After a long, brutal conflict that destroyed much of Bougainville’s infrastructure and claimed an estimated 20 000 lives, the war ended in 2000, with PNG agreeing to grant Bougainville autonomy and a promise that they would be permitted to hold an independence referendum sometime between 2015 and 2020. The people of Bougainville would have to wait another 19 years before taking the next step towards independence.