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The Coconut Revolution

The Coconut Revolution

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  2 Oct 2018 10:26 AM GMT

Manjit Kashyap

Amidst the cacophony of water and oil wars and environment protection initiatives, Bougainville Island, a small islandnear Papua New Guinea, with a population of just 160,000 people, spoke in a stage whisper about how to get things done the way it should be.This is a modern day ‘David vs Goliath’ story where a heavily outnumbered and outgunned force of Bouganvilleans rose up in an environmental revolt against mining giants, Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ). The corporation owned the Panguna copper mine of Bougainville, and through the ’70s and ’80s were one of the world’s largest open-pit mines.It was dug by Bougainville Copper Limited, which was owned by an Australian subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc. The mine yielded massive profits to Britain and Australia, along with high revenues for the government of Papua New Guinea, producing almost half of Papua New Guinea’s exports. But it also created many detrimental effects for the natives and the environment they lived in.

The corporation disposed a billion ton of toxic waste into the river systems killing the local Java river as well as the flora and fauna around it. The water was rendered toxic for decades. Billions of tons of land removed for the mine was turned into waste. The natives who had deep ties with nature were evidently shaken. The natives felt exploited and neglected by the Western powers and believed that they received only 1/1000th of what was earned from the mine. Bougainville Copper Limited totally neglected the methods of land tenure of the natives of Panguna and failed to aptly compensate the rightful land owners.

Agitation started when Francis Ona, a native of Bougainville as well as a former employee of Bougainville Copper Limited led a resistance against the Panguna mine owners. He demanded for compensation and independence from Papua New Guinea, but was totally ignored by the mine authorities. The mine owners laughed at the local claim for compensation. As an act of retaliation, Ona, with the help of other concerned people stole 50kgs of explosives from the company’s store and blew up key pieces of machinery of the mine.

Following this, the authorities fled the island and Papua New Guinea started a police repression by burning the homes of the natives. Ona, then formed the Bouganville Revolutionary Army(BRA) which was a unified guerilla force against the Papua New Guinea Defense Force(PNGDF), Australian forces and opposing Bougainvillean forces. BRA began fighting with bows and arrows and sticks and stones against a heavily armed opponent. PNGDF then imposeda naval gunboat blockade around theislandin order to stop the rebellion. The blockade prevented them from receiving medical and humanitarian aid, leading to declining health and the appearance of leprosy, malnourishment and other ailments. In this crucial period of isolation, against all odds, the Bougainvilleans did something greatly remarkable.

While the blockade stopped the supplies from outside, they started finding solutions in their own backyard. They sought the answers in their own land’s bounty. There was no fuel available for them to run their vehicles. So they learned to extract and distill coconut oil and used it to run the engines. According to them, the vehicles, when run by coconut oil, exhibited more fuel efficiency than what it was before when run by diesel. Coconut oil was also used to clean their weapons, for lighting up lamps and for cooking purposes. For them, each and every part of a coconut tree had a utility. Indigenous cultivation techniques combined with rich and fertile soil of the island provided voluminous food supply for the natives.They discovered certain herbs and plants in the island which could cure most of the common diseases and infections. The Bougainvilleans invented innovative and eco friendly methods for harnessing hydroelectricity from their fast flowing rivers to light their own towns.

Now people might wonder how and where they got the equipments from. They were very frugal and resourceful people. They recycled things left behind by the corporation starting from vehicles, machineries, locks and practically everything they could lay their hands upon. Complex machineries, parts of weapons and vehicles were being constructed by the Bougainvilleans from the remnants of the Panguna mine. They held their ground for a decade with antique weapons and homemade guns. Although a few things still had to be smuggled in by the brave BRA soldiers, the land produced almost everything it needed– not just only to survive but also to flourish. This ascent from fighting with bows and arrows to becoming a self sufficient bountiful land was noteworthy. In 1990, the national government forces withdrew from Bougainville. The BRA was left alone, and Papua New Guinea fled from Bougainville, unable to break through the stalemate.

Aptly named ‘The Coconut Revolution’, it is regarded as the world’s first successful eco-revolution. In contrast to the modern day wars for oil, water and supremacy, the Bouganvilleans set an ideal example by fighting for nature’s well being. Being very spiritual and environmentally sensitive people, they turned back to a subsistence-based livelihood using indigenous knowledge of the environment. While the world is frantically searching for means of alternative energy, the Bouganvilleans found the answers in their own backyard. May be it is time to set new benchmarks. Succumbing to nature’s essence seems to be a better option for mankind. Easier said than done – but it is definitely worth a try.

The article is based on the documentary film, “The Coconut Revolution” directed by Dom Rotheroe

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