Wealth from the Solomon Islands
By “Awake!” correspondent in Papua New Guinea
HAVE you ever heard of “King Solomon’s mines,” the imaginary source of wealth for the Biblical King Solomon? Certain legends locate these “mines” in parts of Africa or in Asia. But in sixteenth-century Spain the prevailing theory was that this vast source of wealth was located on a mysterious continent in the south.
In the year 1568 the small fleet of Spanish seaman Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra searched in the South Pacific for this “continent” with its rich treasure. As a result, Mendaña discovered a chain of islands, which came to be called “the Islands of Solomon.” But he found no hidden treasure to justify the name he had given to the islands. At most they yielded up small amounts of gold and other precious metals.
During World War II the Solomon Islands achieved notoriety of a different kind as bitter combat shattered their tranquillity. The scars of modern jungle fighting are still visible in the outlines of trenches and the litter of rusting ammunition clips that pepper the islands. After the war it seemed that there would be a return to the easy way of life of the tropics. Recently, though, an unexpected chain of events has brought back to mind Mendaña’s treasure hunt. How so?
It all began one day back in 1963 when the ship Craestar dropped anchor off the small town of Kieta, chief settlement of Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands. A helicopter rose from its decks and flew sixteen miles inland to the valley of Panguna, where some gold had been found, though not in sufficient quantity to warrant development of large-scale mining. This time, however, the word that created excitement was “copper.”
A decision made on that day of 1963 has resulted in development of an extensive mining process that has also brought much industry to Papua New Guinea. This is because the northernmost of the Solomon Islands, Bougainville and Buka, are, together with Papua, part of the Trust Territory of New Guinea under Australian administration.
For some time an estimated 880 million tons of copper- and gold-bearing ore had aroused the interest of international companies. Now a start was made at mining the treasures of copper beneath the soil of the Solomon Islands. How different from Mendana’s dream of simply filling one’s pockets with gold nuggets and sparkling gems!
Extensive Preparations Necessary
Bougainville has virtually no industry. Most of the 78,000 inhabitants engage only in subsistence farming. Thus, setting up a copper-mining operation would entail extensive preparations. A road would have to be cut out to provide free access between Panguna and the coast. This was no easy task, considering the climate and rugged mountain terrain of Bougainville.
Imagine the difficulties involved. For one thing the driest month of the year in this area sees seven inches of rain. Besides that, the road would have to traverse a 3,400-foot-high pass and go around steep slopes. To accomplish this, it was necessary to chain two bulldozers together and, at times, to drive the front one over the side of the steep slope, trusting that the rear one would hold it back from plunging to the bottom.
Much water was required for the operation of hydraulic equipment. This need was filled by erecting a pumping station with a thirty-inch pipeline on the Jabba River. And to meet the around-the-clock demand for electric power, a 135-megawatt power station was set up sixteen miles away in Anewa Bay. The bay, too, was dredged to permit ships of up to 40,000 tons to approach a new 250-foot wharf.
All together, it took nine years of surveying and preparatory work along with $A 400,000,000* before the first shipment of this precious metal could be extracted from the soil of Bougainville and sent along to customers in Japan, Spain and West Germany.
Copper Mining in a Jungle Setting
Can you visualize mining copper in the midst of a jungle of greenery? Bougainville has one of the largest open-pit copper mines in the world. A person taking a vantage point on a nearby hill sees an excavation the size of the entire city of Sydney, Australia. Drills have sunk holes to a depth of sixty feet to receive explosives that will shatter and loosen the ground.
The mining process here is costly. It involves six huge electric shovels and fifty-two trucks that can carry a hundred tons of ore apiece. This equipment alone involves an expenditure of $A 13,000,000. Once the earth is loosened, the electric shovel goes into operation, taking huge bites of ore and dumping it into the waiting trucks. In spite of the capacity of these trucks, it takes only four scoops to fill one up.
Next, the ore is transported to the first of three crushers. Of the 160,000 tons of ore that go to the primary crusher each day, only 90,000 tons will end up as copper concentrate. The ore passes through a second crusher in which it is reduced to pieces about six inches across. Then it goes through another crusher, resulting in even smaller chunks. These are transported to a large building for the next part of the operation—grinding.
The twelve grinding mills utilize steel balls of approximately three inches in diameter (about the size of a tennis ball). These pulverize the ore and, though the steel balls look quite durable, they cannot stand up very long to such a rigorous operation. Recently eleven thousand tons of these balls arrived for use in the mills here. In just six months they will all be worn out.
From the grinding mills the ore is moved on to the concentrator. Here the copper is placed in solution with certain chemicals known as “collectors.” When bubbles of air are forced into the solution the collectors, together with the copper, rise to the surface, where they can be skimmed off. This thickened copper solution now travels sixteen miles through a five-and-a-half-inch pipeline to storage tanks at Anewa Bay. There the concentrate awaits the arrival of a ship that will take it to overseas customers.
Benefits for Local Residents
Copper mining in the Solomon Islands has been most profitable. Growth has been rapid since the first shipment of concentrate went out in 1972. In 1973 a profit of $A 158,000,000 was realized. Who benefits from all of this?
At present the large mining company, Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia Limited, owns over 52 percent of the shares and the Papua New Guinea government has an additional 20 percent. The rest of the shares are held by the public, including over 9,000 residents of Papua New Guinea who were given opportunity to profit from this bountiful source of wealth.
Other benefits have resulted from efforts to use local people in the work force wherever possible. Papua New Guineans are to be seen working in every section of the mine; they provide truck drivers, clerks, and even the company doctor. There are on-the-job training arrangements, apprenticeship opportunities and study courses.
Some Problems Crop Up
But the mining operation has created some problems too. A look at the grayish-black hue of the water makes one realize that Bougainville now has a pollution problem, though not as extensive as that of the more industrialized nations of the world. Efforts are under way to meet this problem head-on by experimenting to find out what can be grown in the waste material. Small plots of ground serve as sites of tests with local vegetables and tropical fruit to see how the waste material can be used or how it must be treated to make it fertile.
Another problem has been that some people were forced to abandon their hereditary land possessions. However, they have received compensation money for their land, and this has enabled them to purchase permanent houses instead of the usual village-type dwelling. Some have even had a surplus of money to buy new Japanese-made trucks.
In spite of this, a number of Bougainville people have been disappointed, especially certain ones of the older generation who view their hereditary possessions as of greater worth than money. As a result, emotions boiled over among the local people in early stages of the development. Riot police were flown in to quell disturbances and to allow the work to proceed. Ill feeling over this has not yet fully died down.
Another sore spot is the strong separatist feeling of some people of Bougainville. Certain ones feel that their ethnic ties are stronger with the people of the southern Solomon Islands, a British protectorate, than with the mainland New Guineans. The dark-skinned people of Bougainville often refer with contempt to the lighter-skinned inhabitants of the mainland. As was expected, certain persons contended that the riches of Bougainville should be applied toward the development of that island rather than sharing them with Papua and other areas of New Guinea.
How will these problems be worked out? That remains to be seen. Without doubt the mine, as a source of increased revenue, will bring many material benefits to local residents. Higher wages will mean a different standard of living for many. “Different,” however, does not necessarily mean “better.” Time and again, material prosperity has brought with it moral laxity. (1 Tim. 6:9, 10) Will people of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea resist such a corrupting influence? Time will tell.
One Australian dollar equals $1.49 in American currency.