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Born out of bloodshed, colonial politics, civil war and the pursuit of mining riches, the independence referendum on the island of Bougainville starting on Saturday has been a long time coming for Barbara Tanne.

Tanne, one of the 300,000 or so people who live on the small group of islands in the South Pacific, has spent the past months criss-crossing remote villages to tell people about the vote, which could result in separation from Papua New Guinea.

“Everybody is saying ‘now is the time’,” said Tanne, 56, from her home town of Buka. “People are positive and they want to see the result, but I’m telling them that we have to be patient, because the next step could take a long while.”

As many as three quarters of voters may choose independence, according to one estimate, but even that wouldn’t guarantee the advent of a new nation. Any split would need to be approved by an act of parliament in Papua New Guinea, and the government in Port Moresby has indicated it wants Bougainville to remain a province.

With fewer people than Pittsburgh, an estimated per-capita GDP of about US$1100 and an economy reliant on money from the central government, Bougainville seems an unlikely candidate for independence. But it has one resource that could change its fortune, potentially giving it real and not just nominal autonomy – a massive copper deposit.

It is the country’s blessing and curse. The Panguna mine was the focal point of a 10-year civil war and has been shut since 1989, shortly after the conflict started, tainted by its bloody past and fettered by a tangle of environmental and ownership issues. But it remains central to what will happen to the islands after the vote is counted in mid-December.

PNG Prime Minister James Marape told local newspaper The Post Courier in September that negotiators may be able to give Bougainvilleans greater economic independence while maintaining the country’s unity, hinting that such an option would be linked to Panguna, as “we owe it to them to help rebuild that place.

While the mining industry will be hoping the vote unlocks Bougainville’s mineral resources, political powers such as China and the US will be watching the outcome for a potential new ally.

Travel News


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