An Upe voter in the Bougainville Referendum. Photo: Bougainville Referendum Commission via RNZ

Bougainville has just held an independence referendum, and the results are due back before Christmas. This island, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, has been waiting nearly 20 years for such an opportunity. Of a population of 300,000, more than two-thirds voted.

PNG still has the final say on cutting ties. The islanders feel ethnically distinct from the mainland, and are geographically closer to the Solomon Islands. But if Bougainville breaks away, it’s feared other island provinces will want to do the same.

New Zealand has had a big role in the peace process – RNZ Pacific’s Johnny Blades says it’s a “foreign policy success you never hear of”.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 people were killed in the civil war that broke out in the late 1980s and raged through much of the 1990s.

International mediation – held in Christchurch – paved the way for a ceasefire and in 2000 a peace agreement was signed. Next year was the deadline for an independence poll.

“The New Zealand police have a long history since the conflict of being in Bougainville, they’ve got a great reputation, and in fact during the referendum the New Zealand police have led a regional police effort to patrol polling places in main urban areas. They’re highly valued by Bougainvillians.”

Blades says the civil war brought the country to its knees. There was conflict over the region’s main economic driver – the Panguna copper mine – which generated tremendous wealth for its foreign owners, and was worth about 45 percent of PNG’s economy. For 30 years now the mine has been left unused, being reclaimed by nature. It’s estimated there is still $80-$90 billion of copper and gold reserves left in it. That’s likely to be a factor in PNG’s decision on independence, but even if Bougainville remains, there’s no guarantee the mine’s landowners will allow access.

If Bougainville does become the world’s newest country, “it’s huge”, says Blades.

“Self-determination is a real hot topic now in the Pacific,” he says. “It’s a region that’s of great interest to external powers … there’s no doubt that China is interested in Bougainville for instance, and has made overtures to some of the key players about wanting to help develop its resources.”

In today’s episode of The Detail, Sharon Brettkelly also speaks to Dr Jason Brown, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Auckland, who’s been researching one of the 25 languages of Bougainville – Naasioi.

“This is such a strange and beautiful place,” he says. “It’s a small island, it’s green, it’s lush … the people are incredible, they’re friendly, they’re welcoming … but it’s all set in this background of destruction.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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