Cursed by riches: Melanesian resource wars

Lihir gold mine, Papua New Guinea

h3. A history of conflict

As has been explored in previous Oceania Day posts, conflict in Oceania – particularly in Melanesia – is often related to resources. The prime example is Bougainville, where in 1989 – in a scene straight out of John Robb’s Brave New War - angry landowners toppled transmission towers, sabotaged equipment and threatened workers at the Panguna copper mine, blaming it for economic inequality and environmental damage. The mine has never reopened, but the resulting insurgency and naval blockade led to 10-20,000 deaths before Australia and New Zealand helped broker a peace deal, finally ending the fighting in the mid-1990s. And when the government hired heavily-armed mercenaries to bring the islanders back into line, the army mutinied and the government toppled.

Bougainville wasn’t the only resource war in Oceania. The Solomons civil war erupted over land, and after the end of war, some linked the Honiara riots to local anger over illegal logging by Asian firms. The 2000 Fiji coup was led by a businessman involved in the timber industry, and it has been alleged that the attempted coup was a grab for money and power on behalf of his investors. In the early 1980s, an increase in nickel mining increased tensions with the indigenous Kanaks of New Caledonia until the independence struggle turned violent, with murders and bombings on both sides. The conflict claimed some 80 lives, culminating in 1988 when FLNKS rebels killed 4 French gendarmes and took 27 others hostage. 2 paratroopers and 19 Kanaks died in the rescue operation.

On the other side of New Guinea, the region’s bloodiest and longest-running conflict still simmers – the West Papuan campaign for independence from Indonesia. Freeport-McMoRan opened the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine there in 1973, and the rebel group OPM first attacked it in 1977, blowing up a pipeline. Since then grievances relating to environmental damage, and human rights abuses by the Indonesian soldiers Freeport pays to guard the mine, have been central to the independence cause. Freeport is Indonesia’s largest taxpayer, and the government has reacted harshly every time mine workers are attacked or equipment is sabotaged.

h3. The resource curse

In 2000, Paul Collier of the World Bank published a controversial study of the causes of civil war, Greed and Grievance. He claimed that statistical analysis could identify states most at risk of civil war based on three factors: a high proportion of primary commodity exports, a high proportion of unemployed young men, and a lack of education. Collier’s analysis has been expanded by various other scholars, and there is now a large body of literature on the causes of resource war.
Natural resources not only create grievances (environmental damage, distribution of profits, etc), they also create opportunities for profit. Resources can either be looted, or obstructed and used to extort wealth. The process of compensating landowners and developing local communities means that violent protest can be effective in extracting concessions from mining companies, for example.
In Melanesia, with a history of intertribal warfare, strong attachment to the land and weak states, conflict is almost inevitable. The forested, mountainous terrain of most of Melanesia also gives locals an advantage when violence does break out.

h3. Future resource wars

Knowing that natural resources often fuel violent conflict in Melanesia, it is possible to find several places where violence has the potential to escalate in the future. Here are a few examples:

  • Goro nickel mine, New Caledonia. In April 2006, a Kanak group attacked Inco’s Goro mine, causing $10 million in damage, setting up roadblocks, and attacking police. Later they torched water pipelines and damage a communications tower. The group’s website has photos of bullet holes in their vehicles following a police ambush.
  • Porgera gold mine, Papua New Guinea. Barrick’s gold mine at Porgera is PNG’s biggest. Landowners continually agitate for more compensation for environmental damage, and clashes between Barrick’s 400-man “Asset Protection Department” and gold-panners have claimed up to 39 lives.
  • Ok Tedi, Goilala, Ramu and elsewhere, PNG. The same problems exist in other PNG mines. Ok Tedi was notorious for dumping cyanide into rivers, and war was narrowly averted when some large compensation schemes were set up. Ramu, a $600 million nickel and copper mine, is China’s largest investment in Oceania. Workers have staged strikes and complained about abuse, safety and poor work conditions.
  • Interoil, PNG. Oil and gas exploitation in southern PNG could make resource conflict far more profitable – pipeline sabotage and extortion has been an economic lifeline for militants from Colombia to Iraq. A proposed pipeline carrying gas to Australia has been put on hold, but would have been in serious danger.
  • Illegal logging, Solomon Islands. Six women were injured by guards while protesting at a logging operation last week. Apart from environmental damage, Asian loggers have been blamed for rape, abuse and corruption throughout Melanesia.
  • In an increasingly interconnected world with high commodity prices, and as high-powered weapons continue to proliferate in Oceania, we will undoubtedly see more wars over resources in the region. Transnational crime, mercenaries, PMCs and militant cults could all gain money and power from a new resource war – the losers would be the ordinary people and local landowners of Melanesia, and the impoverished states which depend on resource exports to pay the bills.

    This entry was posted in General and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

    3 Responses to Cursed by riches: Melanesian resource wars

    1. Pingback: Pacific Empire » Blog Archive » Cursed by riches: Melanesian resource wars

    2. lirelou says:

      For those interested, a link to a Kiwi foreign legionnaire’s photos and story of their New Caledonia deployment.

    3. Pingback: Pacific Empire » Blog Archive » Congratulations, Coming Anarchy!