Bougainville has a long human history with the first inhabitants arriving around 29,000 years ago.[1]

In 1643, the inhabitants of Takuu and Nissan atolls had the first recorded contact with Europeans from an expedition led by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.

In 1767, British explorer Philip Carteret landed on the islands that bear his name and, a year later, Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville sailed past what are now known as Buka and Bougainville.

Between 1886 and 1914 Buka and Bougainville were under the colonial rule of Germany. French and German Marist missionaries became the first Europeans to live in Bougainville, when they arrived in Kieta in 1901.

Many relics from World War II remain in Bougainville.

Bougainville was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II, which led to the region becoming the theatre for a major offensive by the allied forces, especially the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. The Bougainvilleans suffered greatly during this campaign, with the indigenous population decreasing by as much as a quarter[2].

Australia continued to administer the region after World War II and this period saw the growth of the plantation industry, especially in cocoa and copra.

There had been a history of small scale mining in Bougainville for many years, but the identification of a major gold, copper and silver orebody at Panguna in the 1960s led to the operation of a major mine from 1972 until 1989, when work ceased after the start of the Bougainville civil war, which lasted for almost 10 years.

The conflict was triggered by a number of factors that included the social and environmental impact of the Panguna mine, inter-generational issues and the distribution of mine-related benefits, and a growing support for secession from PNG.

Exacerbating tensions were the influx of PNG mainland settlers and a belief that the PNG mainland received a disproportionately large share of benefits from the mine.

When the mine closed in 1989, few people expected that the Bougainville crisis would be protracted. However early attempts to broker a peace agreement failed and, despite short-lived ceasefires, significant cycles of violence continued until October 1997 when peace talks resulted in a truce.

The conflict impacted all Bougainvilleans, with many people losing their lives and suffering as a result of violence and the loss of healthcare and other services.

The Bougainville Peace Agreement signed in 2001 provided for Bougainville autonomy, an independence referendum and a weapons disposal plan.

The Bougainville Autonomous Government (ABG) was established under its own subnational constitution (2004). The ABG has legislative powers on most functions of government, including; land, minerals, petroleum, ocean resources, and the environment. Autonomy also allows the ABG to establish its own separate police service, bureaucracy, courts, ombudsmen and impose a wide range of taxes. Particular functions are available for transfer over time, and as the ABG’s capacity allows[3].

As the peace process has consolidated, the focus of efforts has switched to stabilisation and reconstruction. Bougainvilleans are now on the road to economic and social recovery. Successful and peaceful autonomous region elections have been held in 2005, 2010 and 2015.

In accordance with the Bougainville Peace Agreement, the autonomous region will have a referendum to determine its independence, this is due to occur between 2015 and 2020.

[1] (Regan & Griffin, 2005, p. 9)

[2] (Regan & Griffin, 2005, p. 196)

[3] Regan, ‘Light Intervention’, 2010, p. 90-91