There are two things that people remember about the North Solomons. Firstly they recall that the people who live here are reputed to have the blackest skin on earth and, secondly, that the world’s largest copper mine is here.
The people are so black that the name by which they call other Papua New Guineans is ‘redskins’. This indicates that they have been genetically isolated for a long time or that they are part of a larger group that has not survived.
For many years, headlines have reminded outsiders of the bitter conflict over the copper mine, which ended in the closure of the mine, the loss of many lives and the destruction of entire villages. A dispute over land and mineral rights had grown over the years into an armed secessionist movement. Today, a fragile peace agreement is still holding.
Talking about this province, people tend to use the name of the island which contains the mine, Bougainville. North Solomons has two adjoining main islands, Bougainville and Buka, and 166 smaller islands scattered over 450,000 square kms of sea. Bougainville is almost all of volcanic origin. A series of mountain ranges form a central spine of high peaked mountains, underground caverns and lakes. Bougainville has many natural harbours. Buka, by contrast, is mostly coral that has been raised up from the sea. The Bougainville Copper Ltd. mine is in the Crown Prince range of mountains. Coconut and cocoa plantations cover most of the coastal land. North Solomons is in PNG’s most active earthquake area.
From the opening proper of the mine in 1972 (though it was started in 1969), to its closure in 1989, Bougainville enjoyed a productive economy and one of the most effective government and education systems in PNG. The arguments and history of the conflict make up a long and complicated story, much written about elsewhere, but the lessons of Bougainville are reflected in the current efforts to reform Provincial government throughout PNG and in the laws regarding land rights and compensation.
The chief task is of rehabilitation. The population of North Solomons is estimated at 130,000. Those living in the small islands and in the Buka area arranged a peace in 1991. They wanted their lives to return to some sort of normalcy. Government services in the form of teachers, public servants and non-public servants were asked to return. Interim authorities were set up and with the assistance of the Council of Chiefs, schools and health centres re-opened. As soon as areas were declared safe by the Security Forces, essential services were set up. Small-scale rural economic activities were restored. By the end of 1993 full productions of cocoa and copra were being exported from Nissan and Buka. Now the effort is being extended to Bougainville itself.
It is a massive task. Whole villages been displaced. In 1994 there were approximately 50,000 people, almost a third of the population, living in care centres. The whole infrastructure was disrupted. There is a huge repair and rebuilding job to be done. Roads need maintenance as do wharves and airstrips. International aid is at hand as long as the peace holds.
It may not be too long before North Solomons is open to the casual traveller once again. There they will find a people whose clan membership is traced down the maternal line. The crafts and customs are complex. Best known are intricately patterned baskets woven by the Siwia and Telei people of south west Buka. They may hear a bamboo flute band or a group of drummers. They will certainly hear stories of the great mine and the trouble it brought to this island in the South Pacific.