Re-negotiating Relationships – Supporting the peace process in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea through dialogue and restorative interventions – Dr Serge Loode, Director, Peace and Conflict Studies Institute Australia (PaCSIA)

Since 2015 I have worked in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) through my non-government organisation Peace and Conflict Studies Institute Australia (PaCSIA). From 1989 to 1998, Bougainville, politically a part of PNG, suffered the worst armed conflict in the Pacific after the Second World War. Environmental degradation and social disintegration caused by the Panguna gold and copper mine, as well as grievances of local Bougainvilleans over the unfair distribution of revenue from the mine, were at the core of the conflict. The war first pitted Bougainvilleans – who formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) – against the PNG Defence Force (PNGDF) and then against each other as the BRA fought home-grown Resistance Forces which sided with the PNGDF.

The people and communities in Bougainville still suffer from the impact of that internal war. They are in the process of rebuilding their lives, building peace, reconstructing governance institutions, social services and the local economy. Currently Bougainville is an Autonomous Region within PNG and held a non-binding referendum on its future political status in late 2019. In the referendum 97.7% of Bougainvilleans voted for independence from PNG. The referendum is non-binding, its outcome needs to be ratified by the Parliament of PNG. Before a ratification can take place the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and the Government of PNG (GoPNG) need to engage in a consultation process to develop the agreement that is to be presented to the Parliament. This consultation process has started, but there have been delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the general elections in Bougainville in 2020. Further delays can be expected due to the general elections in PNG in July 2022.

Our project there, the Bougainville Transition Dialogues (BTD), are a public dialogue project that supports the ongoing peace process. They are the crucial link between Track 1 consultations and the grassroots peacebuilding process in Bougainvillean society. The project has created a network of more than 150 local facilitators who conduct horizontal dialogues between people in remote areas and vertical dialogues between the village communities and the two governments. The project has reached over 70,000 Bougainvilleans, about 15,000 people per year. Since 2019 the project also includes a participatory video component in which communities are encouraged to share local stories of peacebuilding and sustainable development with each other.

The BTD provide an opportunity for Bougainvilleans to be informed and to engage with the current process of consultation and transition. The BTD encourage constructive and informed discussions among Bougainvilleans about their political, economic, social and spiritual future and address some of their fears and concerns to ensure a peaceful transition. They also provide a feedback loop to both governments, where frequently raised questions and concerns as well as sentiments of the population can be addressed by the political leaders. The dialogues are mostly conducted in Tok Ples (local language) and Tok Pisin. Our organisation acts as a liaison with the ABG and GoPNG and also with the donor community and international stakeholders.

Since 2015 the network of facilitators has continued to operate and grow, and has now become one of the most important capacities for peace in Bougainville. It is being used by external stakeholders such as the Bougainville Referendum Commission and the Australian National University for election and referendum monitoring as well as for local reconciliations and restorative justice processes.

Reconciliations in Bougainville are complex and slow processes that require many careful exchanges, apologies and important rituals to mark the passing of conflict. These can include processes like the “lagena” from the mountainous region of Bolave in South Bougainville, in which two clan chiefs represent the conflicting parties and negotiate a way forward, while walking towards each other with wooden spears in hand over many hours while the community is watching. During the discussions, reparation is agreed and ways forward for the communities are mapped out. At the end all parties to the conflict shake hands, pray together and conclude the first part of the reconciliation. Many more parts are necessary, as joint feasts have been prepared and goods such as pigs, woven mats, shell money or sweet potatoes have to be gathered and exchanged. I have talked to participants in these processes, and they have described the experience as not just a peace mediation, but a spiritual experience. They have told me that “a big burden was lifted off our shoulders and our hearts felt lighter after many years of conflict”. Other symbols of reconciliation and restoration of relationships include the breaking of spears and the joint chewing of betel nut. Bougainville is culturally and linguistically diverse and each area has its own specific ways of making peace and healing wounds.

What strikes me as the most fascinating part of working in Bougainville and of learning about these insightful restorative processes from my local colleagues is the careful attention to relationships and the slow and unhurried approach of communities. Reconciliation takes time and it requires many levels of meetings, encounters, heartfelt discussions and celebration, from the family to the clan, to the village and even across different regions. The more deep-seated and long-standing the conflict, the longer it takes to heal it. And this time is well spent, as restorative interventions in Bougainville are never just about resolving one dispute, they are about re-establishing and re-negotiating relationships and need to involve the head, the heart and the spirit. There is rich learning for the outside world in the experiences of Bougainvilleans as peacebuilders and restorative practitioners, and they are now turning towards the international community to share these and to ask for support in their journey towards becoming the youngest nation on Earth.

For more information on our work in Bougainville, please visit and check out our YouTube channel at

Dr Serge Loode combines academic teaching and research experience with a deep understanding of conflict resolution and peacebuilding practice. Originally from Germany, Serge worked as a civil law lawyer before developing his conflict resolution and peacebuilding practice. He is a director of Peace and Conflict Studies Institute Australia in Brisbane and a mediator and restorative practitioner with the Department of Justice and Attorney-General in Queensland.