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  • In the early 70’s, before PNG gained independence, the Panguna copper mine was established on the island of Bougainville. In 1989, after repeated attempts to negotiate payments stemming from promised royalty payments and environmental damages, Francis Ona led Bougainville’s rebellion against the mine. In response, the mine was evacuated and the PNG Defense Force (DF) fought against the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).

    The battles were wicked affairs. The BRA fought against the DF, as well as other BRA factions suspected of sympathizing with PNG, families were pitted against families. Nearly 15,000 people died of hunger, sickness, or violence during the crisis. In 1991, the DF enforced a blockade on Bougainville, effectively severing the island from government services, education, and commerce. The blockade lasted nearly 10 years.

    My work here has introduced me to some remarkable people forged by the tragedies of the Bougainville crisis, but nobody has inspired me as much as Benedict Erengeda. I met Ben in Mendi, home to PNG Parliamentary Minister Francis Awessa. When we met, Ben was staking out a piece of flat land that overlooks Mendi’s white-water river and stately white stone cliffs. Ben is building the Minister’s new home, alone. Curious to know how this man found himself in the highlands, many miles from home, building a princely estate, I asked him if he would tell me his story. He said it would take some time. We met in my room that evening and he told me his story over two plates of rice and veggies and a pot of tea.

    As a young man, Ben was recruited to become a builder for the Panguna mine. There he learned basic engineering and construction skills. Ben knew the details of Ona’s plan and sympathized with the rebellion. But he also knew the kickback would be tragic, so he made his own plans. The day after the uprising, Ben took his family back home, a small community found deep in the bush about 20 miles from the mine site.

    “At first we joined BRA. We found arms buried by the Americans during WWII – 303’s and mine bombs. We modified M16 bullets by drilling their openings to fit the 303’s pins. A helicopter flew over a neighboring village and sprayed bullets down on them. We thought it was the Army. It wasn’t and that’s when we learned the BRA splintered.

    We were young men. We were all BRA, unless the BRA turned on us. So, after a few months, we made the decision to remain neutral. “Say no,” was our instruction to the community. “No matter what the question is, you say no.” If the BRA asked us if we knew this or that, we said no. If the Army asked us if we knew this or that, we said no. That was it. Neutrality and the grace of God. That’s really how we survived the crisis.

    We kept to ourselves for years. As the war dragged on, I thought to myself, “one day this war will end. Then what will all the young men do? They’ve only seen war. They must see something else.”

    Ben pushed his plate aside, picked up his bilum, pulled out a worn blue photo album, and put the album between us. He carefully opened the front cover. The first picture was of a small building that reminded me of the old adobe structures in northern New Mexico. It was a simple structure, about 16’ x 16’, a wooden frame that protruded at the corners of its earthen walls.

    “That’s when I started Akaira construction. I started with twenty young men. Thirteen of them were BRA. We began by building this small workshop out of bricks made from our soil. It’s still standing and being used today.”

    Together, we turned pages of faded pictures and he told me about the people and projects. “This man was a fierce warrior and it was hard to get him away from battle” and “this woman was a good woman – she joined us and started a program to teach young women basic accounting skills and gardening.” There were pictures of men welding, rebuilding cars, building school desks and furniture, and entire homes.

    “You must understand that we had nothing because of the blockade. We were completely cut off – no fuel, no equipment, no nails or screws or drills. But, that’s ok, we thought, because we could just recycle everything at the mine. We headed for Panguna and carried hand tools, power tools, table saws, welding equipment, scrap iron and wood and spare parts back up to the village.”

    “Make Use.” This became a kind of battle cry that drove Bougainville’s resourceful and entrepenureal spirit forward (which casts America’s DIY movement in a cute and childlike light). Ben and his crew were left completely to their own devices.

    “Since we didn’t have fuel, we made it with coconut oil. We split open coconuts, scraped the soft white fruit from its shell, and strained grease from the fruit. We cooked down the grease into bio-fuel, which was a long process that fueled our equipment and even vehicles. I guess that’s why some called it the coconut revolution,” he chuckled. “If you take care of nature, she takes care of you.”

    “We also learned how to power our homes with hydro-power. We converted the motors in power tools into power receivers. The motors were placed near our homes, but connected to turbines turned by nearby waterfalls or rivers. The little hydro-power units provided power for a home. Soon we were powering our whole neighborhood, including our workshop, turning generator motors into hydro units.”

    For the next nine years Ben trained over 150 tradesmen.

    "We rebuilt the bridges others burned."
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