Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Buka, in the Autonomous Region of Bouganville, on the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea. Though Bouganville is still a part of PNG, its people identify more closely with Solomon Islanders than with Papuans, and have sought their independence since the 1960’s, when PNG was still under Australian colonial rule. In the late 1980’s, spurred by disputes over the Panguna mine in southern Bouganville, the movement for independence exploded into civil war. Landowners in the area of the mine demanded better environmental protection and $10 billion USD in compensation payments. Not surprisingly, their demands were not met. The Bouganville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed, and the mine shut down because of violence. The PNG government, unhappy with the loss of the mine revenue, which was about 45% of the country’s export earnings at the time, sent in its army. Tens of thousands of people were forced from their homes, villages and infrastructure were burned, innocent Solomon Islanders on nearby islands were killed for allegedly supporting the BRA, and the PNG prime minister was eventually pressured to resign after he hired foreign mercenaries to put down the BRA.
Peace was eventually reached and, in 2002, Bouganville was given autonomy, with plans for a referendum for an independent Bouganville by 2020.
Today, Bouganville is a much calmer province, though it is fiercely proud of its autonomy, and the conflict is far from forgotten as the province works toward independence and tries to figure out what to do about the still-closed Panguna mine. Buka, an island at the north end of Bouganville, is far from the mine site and grew into something of an administrative center during the civil war because of its relative safety. It remains a safe stop with lots of friendly faces and a few services. It is our last stop in PNG before we head north, across the equator, to Micronesia.
We arrived here a few days ago and some friendly men helped guide us to a safe anchoring spot in the intimidatingly strong currents of Buka Passage. We spent Christmas Eve sweating in the sunshine and feeling decidedly un-Christmas-y. But, we managed to track down some friends of friends who work for an aid group here in Buka, and had Christmas at their house. This was fortuitous, since we had run out of propane and couldn’t get our tanks filled in time to cook our own Christmas dinner. For an extra special Christmas treat, they even let us use their shower!
We lost Pete two days later, and now it’s just the two of us again. “Lost” might be misleading–Pete flew home, as scheduled, to return to his responsible life where is is eager to start his office job (soon). Before he left, he bought us ice cream and cheese, so we’ve been thoroughly spoiled for the holidays.
And now, we’ve filled our propane tanks (sort of), topped off our drinking water tanks with rainwater, lugged jugs of diesel back to the boat, said farewell to the friendly kids on shore (who miss Pete and his Polaroid terribly), and we’re about to spend our last kina on avocados at the market. We’ll leave for Micronesia in a couple of hours. It’s about 800 miles to Pohnpei, the island we’d like to reach, but we’ll be spending a big chunk of this passage in the doldrums, so we don’t expect a speedy sail. But, Rob greased the folding bike for exercise underway, and Pete left us with a jar of conversation topics, so we’re ready to hunker down for a couple of weeks if we have to.
Tagu koke, Papua New Guinea–thank you! We’ve had a great time here with friendly smiles, fantastic sailing canoes, energetic dancers, fascinating stories, giant manta rays, pilot whales, birds of paradise, big cliffs, lush trees, uninhabited islands, sky-shattering lightening, and a hint of witchcraft.
But now, we go NORTH!