visitors since April 2008


Source: Foreign Policy Journal

Conflict Resolution in a Hybrid State: The Bougainville Story
by Timothy G. Hammond

Background Information


In Oceania, the islands of Bougainville and Buka (together making the Autonomous Region of Bougainville) are geographically and linguistically a member of the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea; however, they are not politically recognized as having affiliation.  There are about 200,000 inhabitants, or a little over 3 percent of Papua New Guinea’s total population. As is a characteristic trait of PNG, the people of Bougainville have vast diversity in language, cultural traditions, and identities. While the people of PNG speak about 840 different recognized languages, Bougainville holds about 25, on an island of 9,438 square kilometers (A. Regan 2008). A common trait among Bougainvilleans that tends to be shared is the strength of the Christian faith mixed in with indigenous spirituality, as a result of Catholic missionaries. Another common trait that most Bougainvilleans share is a very dark skin color in comparison with the majority of people in Papua New Guinea. While distinguishing populations by skin color has historically led to extreme racism and marginalization of millions of people, different skin color has aided in helping Bougainvilleans see themselves as a unified group separate from PNG, from which they desire to be independent.


Global Framework of the Bougainville Conflict


The nature of the Bougainville ethnic conflicts themselves demonstrate to us the most common and destructive of all forms of war that exist in modern times. In more recent years, the world is witness to more and more conflicts between indigenous populations and nation-states, as they battle over access to and management of natural resources (Castro and Nielsen 2001). These debilitating conflicts are not the traditional form of state versus state conflicts that most international relations fields are trained to address. Instead, conflicts such as Bougainville’s may be understood in the context of the “new wars” in a hybrid-political state. The Bougainville conflicts demonstrate an overlapping of interests and actors from both modern and indigenous spheres, adding a diverse factor to the perceptions, values and motives of those involve in the conflict (Boege 2010).

The new wars are new due to their nature of combining both western modern and traditional indigenous factors into the conflicts. Hybrid political states exemplify an overlapping of ideologies and social organization based on what is typically defined as the “modern” and the “indigenous”. Western forms of social organization and land tenure tend to dominate the ideology in the world in correlation with the expanse of globalization. Globalizing forces increase interactions between industrial and non-industrial, individualistic and communalistic, capitalistic versus subsistence-based cultures. The indigenous populations in the world today are not isolated from the world market economy, as demonstrated by the Bougainville struggle over land between the mining company and the native people. This global framework of understanding globalization’s positive and negative impacts, the formation of hybrid political orders, and the new wars’ conditions is important in understanding today’s most virulent conflicts, many of which are occurring in Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania.


Short History of the Bougainville Conflict


Bougainville was host to the most severe and chronic case of violence and conflict in Oceania witnessed since WWII. From 1988 to 1998, a decade of guerilla warfare, political struggles, and famine plagued the people of Bougainville. Hundreds of soldiers died, along with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 civilians, from the costs of deprivation, disease, or fighting (Parliament of Australia, 2010). The war wasn’t a clear cut case of the secessionists versus the state of Papua New Guinea, as many intra-Bougainvillean ethnic conflicts commenced at the same time, creating a complex array and diverse levels of violent conflict and insecurity in the region (A. Regan 2008).

Violence originated from the social uproars against the negative social and environmental impacts of the Panguna mine.  The Panguna copper mine was dug in the land of Bougainville, and through the ’70s and ’80s was one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. The project brought enormous profits to Britain and Australia, along with high revenues for the government of Papua New Guinea, producing 44 percent of Papua New Guinea’s exports. The Panguna mine was dug by Bougainville Copper Limited, which was owned by an Australian subsidiary of the British mining giant, Rio Tinto Zinc. The mine had many negative consequences to both the natural environment and the Bougainvillean natives. As the indigenous viewed themselves as part of nature, their environmental concerns were deeply tied to their socio-cultural concerns.

A billion tons of pollutant runoff from the mining activities has destroyed entire river systems, killing the animals and plants. The mine pollution into the rivers included copper, mercury, lead and arsenic, leaving the water unsuitable to drink (Rotheroe 2001). The mining company had removed over a billion tons of land, and 99 percent of that land was turned into waste.

Bougainvilleans felt that their voice had not been respected and that external forces were taking the wealth out of their land, while they were being booted into what were effectively reservations on their own land. Under traditional land tenure of the Nasioi community, whose homeland was where Panguna was installed, land ownership is passed through matrilineal family lines. These methods of land tenure were not properly recognized by Bougainville Copper Limited, leading to the failure to sufficiently compensate the rightful land owners (Parliament of Australia, 2010). The mine appeared to have very high costs to the indigenous people and very limited financial returns to the land owners. Resentment of the mine spurred a collective desire to separate from Papua New Guinea and a Bougainvillean identity began to strengthen (A. Regan 2008).

Former employee of the company Bougainville Copper Limited and Bougainville native, Francis Ona, came to lead the resistance against the Panguna mine, and in turn the resistance for independence from Papua New Guinea. Ona stated that his people fight for: 1) land and the culture, 2) land and the environment, and 3) independence (Rotheroe 2001). Ona, after making a plea to the Panguna administration that was ignored, stole 50 kilos of explosives, and with the help of other concerned people, sabotaged the mine. Papua New Guinea sent in riot police that burnt down homes and created a backlash of unified guerilla forces under Ona’s command. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed, and would now face the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF), Australian forces, and opposing Bougainvillean forces. Because militaristic stale-mating occurred, in 1990 the forces of PNG formed a blockade around Bougainville, prohibiting the flow of goods. Extreme stressors on the health of the natives occurred, as they became malnourished and lacked medicine against malaria and other diseases. Something had to be done, so the Bougainvilleans turned inward.

The coconut revolution, as it has been coined, was created out of indigenous innovation to the isolation they experienced due to the blockade. Theirs was a war over the land of which they valued and respected, so it was to the land’s bounty that they turned. In the absence of diesel, Bougainvilleans learned how to extract oil from coconuts to run vehicles. Herbal remedies to disease and infection were discovered using plants. The rich fertile soils of the land supplied them with bountiful amounts of food once they strengthened their cultivation techniques. Bougainvilleans even were innovative enough to utilize rivers for hydroelectricity to light their towns. They were resourceful, going back to the closed down Panguna mine, taking anything and everything that they could use to create something useful. They were coming a long way from beginning the war fighting with bows and arrows. By turning back to a subsistence-based livelihood using indigenous knowledge of the environment, the Bougainvilleans were surviving, and proving much about indigenous identity to the world.

In 1990, the national government forces withdrew from Bougainville. The BRA was left alone, yet it lacked administrative capabilities to ensue political authority. It was a time in which Papua New Guinea fled from Bougainville, unable to break through the stalemate, and Bougainville still lacked autonomous political identity. The absence of formal state structures re-opened the possibility for traditional indigenous leadership to arise. The Bougainville conflicts did not exist in simple means of secessionists versus PNG, but many intra-Bougainvillean violent conflicts were occurring as well and a new method of providing security was needed. The potential of a council of indigenous chiefs to provide a level of sustainability was being recognized. Traditional authority had been largely disintegrated due to the history of colonial and imperial forces, and so much effort and dialogue was needed to strengthen indigenous identity and forms of conflict management.  Working from the bottom-up, a representative system arose, including clan-councils of chiefs (CCC), village-councils of chiefs (VCC), and area-councils of chiefs (ACC) (A. J. Regan 1999). A successful blend of indigenous and modern mechanisms of providing sustainability and peace seemed to be working.

In 1997, peaceful steps began.  Significant factors playing into the efficacy of the process include the following (Dinnen, Porter and Sage 2010): involvement of the locals, including woman and church leaders; powerful external actors acted as a monitoring force and paid particular attention to the specific nuances of the Bougainville conflict, instead of trying to implement blanket solutions that would not suit the culture’s needs; negotiations took their time, focusing on the process and not on the outcome. With the signing of the Bougainville Peace Agreement in 2001, Bougainville achieved autonomy (A. Regan 2008). Conflict still occurs, and peace building efforts need to continue; however, the considerable successes of the story provide us with many lessons to apply to other hybrid conflicts in the world.


Characteristics of Indigenous Methods of Conflict Transformation


The Bougainville story can largely be viewed as a success story of the implementation of non-western traditional indigenous methods of livelihood and conflict prevention, management, and resolution (CPMR). It must be noted that such indigenous methods are not “going back to the way things were” but are instead incorporating traditional values and livelihoods while at the same time recognizing their identity in its place in the larger global context. After years of conflict within the frame of the new hybrid wars, the peace building mechanisms that have proven to be both effective and sustainable are those mechanisms that are valued and created by the indigenous peoples themselves. This is contrary to the intervening CPMR and peace-building efforts of many international aid-focused organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), in which their efforts tend to be latent with ideology promoting capitalism, individualism, industrialization, and westernization. These are values that do not coincide with the traditions, beliefs, values and norms of the Bougainvillean people, and therefore policies and aid efforts coming from such ideologies do not suit their needs.

There are several main characteristics that are unique to the Bougainville security building movement that will be discussed, exemplifying their indigenous non-western nature and effectiveness. These include process versus outcome-based discussions, the involvement of women, a subsistence-based livelihood that is not dependant on the external economy, the inclusion of the community’s voice in decision making, a strong faith providing positive outlooks, collective community responsibility for the deviant actions of an individual, and a focus on restorative justice versus enforcing punishment.

The importance of longevity in solving ethnic conflicts: A major reason linked to the failure of international aid efforts by organizations is that they, usually in alignment with western industrial ideology, tend to be outcome-oriented instead of process-oriented. These organizations tend to go in to the country, work for a short period of time to build security in the region, and then leave without making sure to implement things that will make their efforts sustainable. For ethnic wars, there are deep historical wounds that need to be healed, and that takes time. Throughout the Bougainville peace process, time was taken and the dialogue was framed under a long-term perspective. In New Zealand, dozens of rounds of negotiations took weeks, and the New Zealand hosts made sure not to push a time frame, allowing representatives to adjust as needed (Boege 2006). It was recognized that failure to implement policies often plagues peace agreements, and therefore efforts were made to solidify the implementation of what was said in the Peace Agreement (A. Regan 2008).

The role of women in peace building: Women’s power potentials in Bougainville culture are a fundamental tool that must be utilized in the peace process. Their positions of power most fundamentally lay in relation to the land, as land rights are passed down according to matrilineal descent. Women reserve the right to designate land for personal or commercial use and to draw boundary lines. As women do not fight in battles, they are viewed by young fighters as neutral parties with the roles of peacemaking and negotiating. In 1994 peace talks were held in Arawa between the government of Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Resistance Army. Hundreds of women put aside their diverse differences and clan allegiances to come together as a Bougainville identified force (Saovana-Spriggs 2003). The majority of women in Bougainville strive for peace due to their faith in God, who provides for them.

The validity of Faith: Bougainvilleans are unified by a strong faith in God. They owe their abilities to innovate and survive off the natural environment to a higher power, thanking God for any amount of blessing they receive. A communal notion of positive outlooks has kept the faith of the Bougainville community alive, always striving for peace and always fighting for their rights. Unlike most westernized industrious societies, in Bougainville, as in many indigenous populations, spirituality is inseparable from the values of the people and their social and political organization. The role of spirituality and mythology in indigenous populations may appear taboo to westerners, but it is a legitimate unifying force worth taking into consideration.

Self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability, and subsistence economies: As discussed earlier, the Bougainvilleans turned inward to solve the needs of their people, instead of relying completely on the external global market and its resources. This not only sustained the population, but also strengthened their collective identity as Bougainvilleans.

Inclusion of the community voice: The United Nations and New Zealand in particular, holding the more dominant power in the capitalistic world system, made efforts to understand the specific nuances of the conflicts in Bougainville. Often dominant powers romanticize the livelihood of the indigenous or aim at implementing blanket solutions that do not suit the cultures values and needs. Women’s groups and Church groups played a strong role in giving community members a channel through which to have their voice heard.

Collective responsibility, Communal life: If a Bougainvillean should act in a manner that is socially unacceptable, their individual actions are tied to that of their kin and collective community. Should another Bougainville indigenous population suffer from the deviant actions of an individual, that individual’s entire community will be responsible for whatever compensation be necessary (Boege 2006). This reciprocal system of collective responsibility is an effective method of social control in Bougainville, deterring negative actions.

Restorative Justice: Chief leaders aim at restoring damaged relationships between individuals and groups instead of the more western notions of using punishments. Punishments are seen as providing more damage where the emphasis should be on healing the wounds of the community through open dialogue (Boege 2010). Bougainvilleans express this method of conflict resolving due to the fact that it better coincides with their traditional livelihoods.




While conflict still exists and CPMR mechanisms are still needed to provide security in the region, the history of the Bougainville conflicts provides us with many positive examples of how indigenous methods of peace-building and social organization CAN efficiently blend with the modern westernized global flows when the hybrid nature of such conflicts is properly addressed. Both “modern” and “traditional” ways of living have to adapt in the process of providing security. The indigenous populations in the world are not isolated from the demands of the global market, and the dominant groups in society must recognize other ways of life in a non-ethnocentric manner. The successes of the indigenous people in Bougainville are exemplified in the documentary “The Coconut Revolution” as the film referred to the story as the “world’s first true eco-revolution”. Lessons learned from the particularities of the Bougainville case need to be applied to the larger works of international relief organizations and conflict resolution efforts.




Boege, Volker. “Peacebuilding and state formation in post-conflict Bougainville.” Peace and Development Commission, 2010.

Boege, Volker. “Traditional Approaches to Conflict Transformation- Potentials and Limits.” Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2006.

Castro, Alfonso Peter, and Erik Nielsen. “Indigenous people and co-management: implicationss for conflict management.” Environmental Science and Policy, 2001: 229-239.

Dinnen, Sinclair, Doug Porter, and Caroline Sage. “Conflict in Melanesia: Themes and Lessons.” World Development Report 2011, 2010.

Parliament of Australia. “History of the Bougainville Conflict.” 2010.

Regan, Anthony. “Bougainville/ Papua New Guinea.” Kreddha: Kreddha Autonomy Mapping Project, 2008.

Regan, Anthony J. “‘Traditional’ Leaders and Conflict Resolution in Bougainville: Reforming the Present by Re-Writing the Past?” 1999.

“The Coconut Revolution.” Directed by Dom Rotheroe. 2001.

Saovana-Spriggs, Ruth. “Bougainville Women’s Role in Conflict Resolution in the Bougainville Peace Process.” Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2003.

















The European Shareholders of Bougainville Copper (ESBC)