In their long socks, white shirts and uncomfortably tight shorts , the men of CRA had come, if not by stealth, then without permission. It was April Fools Day, 1964, when the first of the company's geologists walked into Panguna Valley. More were to follow. A claim was pegged out before the owners of the land could even know what this meant. Neither could the miners foresee what lay ahead. Technology was changing; an open-cut mine of the scale which was being planned for Bougainville had never been tried before. Panguna was an experiment that would one day become the 'biggest jewel in the RTZ crown,' but also its greatest curse.
It was in 1882 that the first traces of copper, the substance that was to so define the island's future, were found after a ship's surgeon, attached to a British expedition to Solomons Islands, H.B.Guppy, managed to collect some ore from south-east Bougainville and declare 'copper will not improbably be found in association with these islands'. It would take a good part of a century for the import of Guppy's discovery to be felt although capitalism had already arrived on Bougainville a decade before him, when in 1871, another doctor of less salubrious repute, James Murray, began kidnapping Buka men for export to the cane fields of Queensland on Australia's north-east coast.
More noble intents led the Catholics, in 1902, to Bougainville but the advent of the Missionaries of the Catholic Society of Mary, or Marists as they were commonly known, had their own impact on Bougainvilleans' traditional ways. Life before Christianity had been harsh. Inter-tribal warfare meant days marked by constant wariness, distrust and even death. The men were fully occupied guarding the women as they worked the garden or went fishing on the coast. The Marists brought with them a system of beliefs, which would gradually release many communities from this tyranny. They also brought education and new ideas, different from the colonial powers. There was never good synergy between Australia and its colonial charges on Bougainville, but the American priests were living proof of an alternative authority to the rough-shod Australian administration. Their belief in the intrinsic good of every man and their American concept of land ownership – so much closer to that of the Bougainvilleans – empowered people to question, and ultimately resist much of the administration's clumsy attempts to 'civilise' them.
By the 1960s, Bougainvilleans had withdrawn their labour from all foreign-owned plantations. Refusing to accept menial work for minimal wages, they would cut only their own copra. In 1962, a United Nations mission visited Bougainville. Members of Francis Ona's Nasioi language group living on the coast of Kieta told the visitors that they were unhappy with Australian rule. Matters weren't helped three years later, in 1965, when the Australian minister for External Territories, Charles Barnes, put in an appearance on the island only to abruptly declare that the Nasioi, as the owners of the proposed mine site, could expect exactly 'nothing' for their land but would have to be content with the standard paltry compensation for lost properties such as houses and coconut palms.
The more the Australian administration insisted upon the construction of the copper mine – for the sake of the future state of Papua New Guinea they said – the more the issue of the mine and Bougainville's future political status became inextricably mixed. In 1967, the Australian colonial administration – despite its role as a UN trustee of the territory – struck a deal with the Australian mining company: the Bougainville Copper Agreement.
The following year the first call for a referendum, including the option of secession, was made by a group of Bougainvilleans students who, meeting in Port Moresby, formed the Mungkas Association. A year later, when land at Arawa was being purchased for the site of the mining town, the women whose land it was lay down in front of bulldozers and grappled with police in riot gear. The administration was forced to negotiate with the villagers over the price of the land at least.
When the Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, made a fleeting visit, the Chairman of a recently formed opposition group, Paul Lapun, sought an 'official referendum to determine the future of Bougainville', an option Gorton immediately ruled out. The same year, Teori Tau, a Nasioi from Pakia village, challenged the colonial administration's right to compulsorily acquire their land before Australia's High Court. In a decision of the full court it was ruled that section 122 of the Australian constitution empowered the Commonwealth Government to make such laws without having to provide 'just terms of acquisition'. The 'merciless intrusion' of CRA continued unabated.
By 1971 more than 1000 construction workers had come to the island. Eight years to the day after the first of CRA's geologist had walked in, production at the Panguna mine commenced. It was April Fools Day 1972. A schoolboy at Rigo High School, Francis Ona, watched as the first shipment of copper was loaded at the wharf. Like many Bougainvilleans that day, he sensed a greater import.