Interview: Joe Lera

How has Bougainville been important for the economic development of Papua New Guinea?

JOE LERA:   Economically speaking, Bougainville was extremely important during the pre-independence period and contributed much of the revenues that supported the country’s independence. The Panguna mine, which boasts the second-largest copper deposit in the world, accounted for as much as 45% of PNG’s export earnings between 1972 and 1989, but minerals were not the only wealth, as more than 300 plantations were to be found on the island, mainly of cocoa and coconut, which contributed hundreds of millions of kinas into the national economy every year. The Germans knew this very well, which is why they insisted on retaining the island at the turn of the century. Bougainville is so fertile that little or no irrigation at all is needed to sustain a thriving agriculture industry. This is why it has remained Bougainville’s best asset, even though mining remains in the back of everyone’s mind following the sad years of the civil unrest and the unfulfilled potential of the island’s mineral resources.

Considering its early start, where do you see opportunities for Bougainville in the future?

LERA:  I am positive about the economic future of Bougainville, simply because the island is too rich in natural resources to fail in the long run. What we lack at the moment are human resources, as the education sector lags behind the rest of the country and the region as a whole. What we need now is to move to the next level, meaning skills training and technical colleges. This is partly the fault of the previous Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) administration, which neglected this essential part of the education system. During the pre-independence period, plenty of Bougainvilleans held positions in the central government and, apart from contributing with taxes to the local economy, they also had access to vital information and knowledge that has been lost with the passing of time.

How would you assess the present level of cooperation between the national government and the ABG, and what could be done to improve this?

LERA:   Much more could have been done in my opinion, and the reason why we have not really fulfilled our collaboration is that the role and responsibility of the Bougainville Affairs Ministry was not well defined. It should build bridges between the two governments for a better mutual understanding, and foster positive outcomes in the political, economic and social spheres. We are currently working on a five-pronged approach aimed at improving the relationships between leaders at the national and ABG levels, as well as educating our members of parliament on the complex issues in relation to the Bougainville Peace Agreement, as at the end of the June 15, 2019 referendum, the National Parliament will ratify the outcome. This office will also coordinate bilateral official meetings between the two governments, so that we can introduce a sense of protocol and mutual respect.

Would you support the independence of Bougainville at the next referendum?

LERA:  Because of its recent history, people will most likely vote for independence, but that would mainly be an emotional decision. Personally, I know that we are not ready for independence, especially from an economic point of view. Our internal revenues amount to only PGK13m ($4.4m) a year, while prior to the crisis we contributed as much as PGK200m ($68.3m). At the moment the national government provides between PGK300m ($102.4m) and PGK600m ($204.8m) to the ABG, depending on the performance of the national economy, and those numbers should highlight the wide imbalance that persists. I would much rather a solution like Macau – a one country, two systems approach – that would retain our dependence without jeopardising our relationship with the national government. It would also be a way to keep unity among Papua New Guineans.