By Ross Verne
BOUGAINVILLE President John Momis has labelled a report by an Australian non-government organisation (NGO) on community opinion surrounding the potential reopening of Panguna mine as “deeply racist…misleading and irresponsible”.
Jubilee Australia’s Voices of Bougainville report paints a picture of communities virulently opposed to mining activities restarting at Panguna mine, which closed in 1989 when environmental damage and compensation claims culminated in civil war.
The report claims all 65 local interview respondents and 17 focus group participants opposed the mine’s reopening – a figure Dr Momis said was vastly inaccurate and in opposition to earlier community consultations.
He said the sampling method used by the researchers to gauge public opinion was geared to elicit a specific, desired outcome – a profoundly negative view of the mine’s potential recommissioning.
“The report is factually inaccurate, biased, methodologically unsound, and dishonest in claiming that interviews with 65 individuals selected by its authors allows it to represent the voices of 300,000 Bougainvilleans,” Dr Momis said.
“Those failures have been compounded by even more inaccurate public statements about the report and its findings made by Jubilee chief executive, Brynnie Goodwill.”
When asked to explain the negative reaction to the report Ms Goodwill said it was not the organisation’s place to speculate on the opinions of Bougainvilleans, but said Jubilee maintained the outcomes were accurate.
“Jubilee expected the report to be criticised by some groups in Bougainville,” Ms Goodwill said.
“This reaction has not changed our opinion of the validity of the findings we made in the report.”
Dr Momis said though there were pockets of opposition against the reopening of Panguna, it was not possible that a proper sampling method would find a 100 per cent opposition to the mine reopening.
He was critical of the “snowball sampling” method employed by researchers, who admitted their sample groups were created by contacting “culturally appropriate gatekeepers”, or community leaders, who “then introduced researchers to potential local participants”.
Dr Momis said he suspected the snowball sampling method had allowed researchers to “contact people they knew were opposed to mining”.
“These contacts, not unnaturally, suggested participants that they too knew were opposed to mining,” he said.
“This is the only credible explanation as to how 65 of 65 interviewees would all express opposition to mining.”
Ms Goodwill defended the sampling method, saying a larger, randomised study would have faced “serious impediments” in the locations in question.
“Many studies in the social sciences employ snowball sampling as part of their repertoire,” Ms Goodwill said.
“Snowballing techniques are useful methodological tools for accessing research participants where barriers to access are significant.”
When asked why a random probability study was not used, Ms Goodwill said such a method would not be appropriate for an “exploratory, qualitative study of this kind”.
“It would also have been infeasible given lack of reliable census data concerning the relevant population, significant barriers to accessing relevant individuals and communities, and high financial costs of carrying out a study on a significantly larger scale.”
Dr Momis’ criticisms were outlined in an eight-page letter he wrote to the board of Jubilee Australia following the report’s release, citing a number of other “grave errors”, including allegations of excessive and unethical Australian influence in the country.
“The view implied by this report…that in some unexplained way Australia controls things in Bougainville though advisers paid for by Australian funding not only completely fails to understand donor roles in a post-conflict state and peace building conflict such as Bougainville’s, but is in my view deeply racist,” Dr Momis said
“It implies that white advisers can determine what Bougainville leaders do.”
Dr Momis said many of the errors in the report could have been avoided if they had consulted landholder associations through the Bougainville government
“They apparently believed there was no value in engaging with the government on the assumption there is some form of chasm between the government and the people of Panguna.”
Jubilee Australia chairman Luke Fletcher told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the decision to not include the opinions of landowners was deliberate.
“We had the sense that if we were in any way associated with the current landowner associations of ABG, that may make it difficult to feel comfortable in talking to us, so it was a deliberate strategy to try and come in as independent and not be perceived and to be part of any particular agenda,” he said.
“As it turned out, it is really important that we did do that, because even though we only spoke to a small number of people, the feelings of the small number of people suggest to us that they wouldn’t have spoken to us if we were allied with these groups.”
Dr Momis said Jubilee Australia’s non-contact with the government entity responsible for conducting consultations meant the NGO was not interested in providing a balanced view.
“Rather it seems to have been pursuing a specific agenda to represent Bougainville people – or at least those of Panguna – as being against the reopening of the Panguna mine.”
Dr Momis said consultations had been “multi-faceted, extensive and prolonged”, with public meetings in all lease areas during 2010 to gauge responses to reopening the mine.
“Clear majorities supported negotiating about re-opening the mine, always subject to strict conditions,” Dr Momis said.
“The report fails to even mention the extensive community consultation and engagement process undertaken in early 2014.
“It covered some 100 villages and hamlets across all areas affected by the Panguna mine or potentially affected by its possible reopening.”
Dr Momis also described as a “gross distortion of the truth” his government’s purported campaigning to reopen the mine.
“It is equally untrue to suggest that I have spearheaded the effort to reopen Panguna,” he said.
“As anyone who knows my history will be aware, I have been a critic of Rio Tinto and BCL since the 1960s, before the Panguna mine opened.
“So when I became President in mid-2010, initially I explored several other options, which did not bear fruit.”
Jubilee Australia has indicated that despite criticisms, it will not withdraw the report.
“By determining to keep the report in circulation, Jubilee is simply maintaining that the views that were provided were accurately recorded and criticisms made about the report are unwarranted,” Ms Goodwill said.
Rio Tinto, parent company of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), said in August that it was reviewing its stake in Panguna after the adoption for new laws in Bougainville which stripped BCL of any mining rights.