Bougainville the Brave

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The White Island (foreground) and one of the bigger islands of Bougainville Autonomous Region

To somebody who watches documentary films, the name Bougainville may ring a bell.  At least two multi-awarded documentaries were made about this obscure island in the PacificThe Coconut Revolution and Bougainville – Our Island Our Fight.  It may also sound familiar to activists and revolutionaries in the third world since Bougainville was dubbed as the site of the  “world’s first successful eco-revolution”.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

After an almost 3-hour flight from the PNG capital, Port Moresby, one arrives at the only airport of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Located in the small island and present capital of Buka, the airport shows some hint of disrepair.

The Bougainville story sounds like it was the translation of Avatar (the 2009 movie) in real life.  Rising against the broken promises and the significant ecological damage and social exploitation brought by a huge mining firm operating a massive open cut copper mine at Panguna (an area near the center of Bougainville Island); indigenous Bougainvilleans fought the Papua New Guinea Army, survived years of blockage by the PNG Government and eventually  drove away the mining firm and earned autonomy of governance from the PNG government.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The main island of Bougainville is just across the small channel from Buka Island where the present capital of Buka Town is located

The documentaries told the tale of how the  Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), led by Francis Ona and the defecting Papua New Guinea officer, BRA General Sam Kouna fought with vintage World War II weapons and homemade guns, built mini power plants from equipment and junk scavenged from the abandoned mine, and processed coconut oil as fuel for their vehicles in order for the desolate Bougainvillean communities to survive the terrible effects the blockage.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A strait called Buka Passage, a deep, 300 meter wide body of strong currents separates the two main islands of ARB

For some reason, most of Western media did not report about the Bougainville conflict and so it’s no surprise if many have not heard of the place and why the now Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB) of Papua New Guinea remains relatively obscure.  Nevertheless, it was definitely my  kind of place. Simple, surrounded by nature (especially the sea), and isolated from pollution and the hustle and bustle of big cities.  Unfortunately, I was there on assignment and my movement was limited to the focus areas of my work, only taking photos whenever I had an opportunity. Here is a glimpse of Bougainville the brave.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Motorized dinghies regularly cross the strait between Buka and Bougainville Islands

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The Bougainville side of the strait looks serene especially when the Buka Passage water is calm

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Buka is colorful and lively even at night

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The post office in Buka. Government offices and major banks are also located in Buka Town.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Most of the major stores are also in Buka

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Thus most of the islanders buy their supplies and do their business in Buka

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

In the afternoon, the main street of Buka turns into a raw food market

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The goods being sold in these street market reminds me of Kiunga market in Western Province at the opposite tip of PNG

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Yes, several stalls in the market sell the popular “buai” or areca nut

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Buai vendors can be found in almost every corner of Buka

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The banks on both sides of Buka Passage are teeming with activity during daytime

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

For 5 Kina (about $2.50), these boats would take you to the other side or to the nearby islands

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Local kids don’t mind the strong currents of the Buka Passage

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

At night, adults get some fresh air at the banks

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Scenic thatch residential huts dot the banks of the passage

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Beyond the Buka Passage, around the main island of Bougainville, are many scenic reefs, atolls, islands and islets that are perfect for fishing or a weekend getaway to the more adventurous

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Mangroves cover many of the outlying islands where local folks can be found fishing

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Most of the islets are deserted but bigger islands with pristine white beaches like this abound and are home to some almost self-sufficient tribes.  While their life can be difficult to the uninitiated, I envy the simplicity and the natural paradise they’re living in.

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