Mister Pip shows mining companies can't be trusted!

My recent article on designing high schools in the Solomon Islands led an old friend to ask if I'd ever read a novel called Mister Pip.  Written in 2006 by New Zealander Lloyd Jones, it's set in Bougainville at the time of the ten years of civil insurrections that followed the digging of what was then the world's largest open cut copper mine.

I hadn't read it and was pleased to find Mister Pip in the St Kilda library. I'd had some small involvement in Bougainville as the Clarke Gazzard office had been commissioned by Conzinc Riotinto (CRA) in the late 1960's to prepare a plan for the mine town at Panguna and design the buildings. It's a beautiful place and rains heavily for an hour every afternoon, you can set your clock by it, and as the fine volcanic soil is prone to liquifaction, whole villages sometime slip down the hill.  It was a technical challenge to design the buildings so they wouldn't slip, but I'm afraid we accepted everything else about the project as a given.

Bougainville is a large island that is geographically part of the Solomon Islands chain and was a German colony until World War 1.  It became an Australian mandated territory until PNG became independent during the Whitlam period when for some reason Bougainville was made part of the new state of Papua New Guinea rather than the newly independent Solomon Islands to which it's logically related both ethnically and geographically. 

The book Mister Pip is effortlessly written in the believable voice of a young village woman at a time of great uncertainty. Matilda describes how, in the absence of any schooling, Mr Watts the only white person in her village, undertook to hold classes.  He had a copy of Dickens' Great Expectations that he read to the children, and Pip, Joe Gargery, and Miss Haversham became real people to Matilda and encouraged her expectations of joining her father in Australia one day.

The PNG soldiers who came to restore order in Bougainville during the ten years of conflict were called redskins by the villagers, in contrast with themselves who are the blackest black; like 'arse bilong frypan' as they say in pidgen!  

The redskins think Mister Pip is a rebel being concealed by the locals and can't understand that he's a fictional character in a book that had mysteriously disappeared.  The village houses are burnt down, and Mr Watts and Matilda's mother are casually hacked to death with machetes in their efforts to find this phantom Mister Pip.  

Matilda manages to leave the island eventually and join her father in Townsville, gets an education and as a nice touch, ends up researching Mr Dickens in the Library of the British Museum. 

But apart from being a good read about a difficult time in a place with which I had a small connection, Mister Pip led me to reflect on the dangers of untrammelled private enterprise.  The mine was such an enormous enterprise that the whole island was effectively run by CRA without much, if any, input from the local people or the central PNG government.  Many of the locals were employed in the mine of course, and from what I saw CRA were good employers; if there was ever a fight between a white man and a black man, both were sacked with rough justice regardless of the circumstances.

But the tailings from the mine were discharged into the sea and stretched for discoloured miles with a disastrous effect on the sea life the islanders depended on for food.  And apart from the carving up of the island by roads and the enormous mine infrastructure, the mine inevitably led to a money economy and the destructive influence of alcohol.  The mine has been closed since 1989 by the actions of rebel Bougainvilleans who thought they weren't getting a fair share of the royalties that were flowing into PNG government coffers.

This history made me wonder about the small role played by my office in this debacle.  CRA must have prepared an environmental study of some sort, but it was a simpler time, it wasn't in Australia, there weren't any legal constraints and we didn't ask any hard questions.  In retrospect it's hard to believe that CRA were not aware of what the end result would be like when the mine was exhausted.

CRA are engineers and their prime objective was to mine copper ore as cheaply as possible.  But the mine, and the ten years of insurrection that followed, resulted in the breakdown of a simple society with their physical and social environments both being badly damaged if not destroyed.  

I doubt if anyone realised at the beginning what irreversible damage would ensue to both, and it didn't help that PNG had regarded the mine as a milch cow without regard for any local consequences.  The abandoned mine left behind a wrecked environment, an uneasy political relationship with PNG, and no recompense for the local people!

Conservatives keep advocating the unthinking removal of all government and bureaucratic constraints, with the unproven assertion that letting private enterprise rip would lower costs and create prosperity and more jobs.  Rather what we need to make our society fairer and sustainable is more controls rather than less if we are to avoid Bougainville situations.

CRA are not alone, mining companies continually attempt to evade their environmental responsibilities. It happened recently at Morewell where coal at the Hazelwood power station caught fire to the detriment of local health.  What happened in Bougainville and at Morewell are warnings that neither governments nor powerful mining companies can be trusted without some oversight and legal constraints, and even then experience has shown that it's difficult to hold them to cleaning up afterwards and not just have them simply walk away.

CRA probably argue that they couldn't have foreseen the political situation that ended up shutting down the mine, but like the examples in Barbara Tuchman's'The March of Folly,'there were people preaching caution at the time who were ignored by the powers that be, but there was clearly too much money at stake!

Don Gazzard LFAIA
November 2015