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village 1What to expect of a place called Bou­gain­ville? For starters, it’s nowhere near Hamilton but there are quite a few Metal­lica T‑shirts. When you ask Google, the feed fills with images of the Second World War in a jungle and the later Bou­gain­ville Crisis, along with beau­ti­ful black faces and bright Bou­gain­villea flowers. And then there’s the book and movie Mis­ter Pip, filled with gor­geous scenery and people, but also tragedy.

In August 2014, I embarked on a trip to Bou­gain­ville to explore their cocoa industry. I’d been approached by Sera Price, who had lived there for 16 months through Volun­teer Ser­vices Abroad (VSA). She came to the Wel­ling­ton Chocol­ate Fact­ory ask­ing if we were inter­ested in mak­ing chocol­ate with Bou­gain­ville cocoa, and her pas­sion for the place was infec­tious. I had to see it for myself.

Bou­gain­ville is a cluster of islands in the Pacific that make up the north­ern tip of the Solomon Islands archipelago, but polit­ic­ally Bou­gain­ville is part of Pap­ua New Guinea. How did this come about? To put it simply, the colo­ni­al powers back in the day played ‘swap­sies’ — Bri­tain traded Bou­gain­ville Island to Ger­many for West­ern Sam­oa and Aus­tralia took it over after the Ger­mans lost the First World War, gov­ern­ing the ter­rit­ory (apart from a three year Japan­ese inter­rup­tion in World War Two) until Pap­ua New Guinea became inde­pend­ent in 1975.

The name Bou­gain­ville comes from the French explorer Louis de Bou­gain­ville. In Tok Pisin, the loc­al pidgin lan­guage, Bou­gain­ville is called Sankamap, mean­ing sun­rise. There’s no ‘loc­al lan­guage’ as such, because there are over 22 dif­fer­ent loc­al lan­guages — not dia­lects but dis­tinct lan­guages like Arab­ic, Eng­lish and Indi­an — all in an area roughly the size of the Wel­ling­ton region. It’s pretty aston­ish­ing, but the place has been inhab­ited for close to 30,000 years.

Get­ting to Bou­gain­ville is rel­at­ively easy these days: it’s a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Pap­ua New Guinea’s cap­it­al city, Port Moresby. The flight in is always scen­ic, as the pilots need to eye­ball the wind­sock to determ­ine which dir­ec­tion to approach the run­way — you can’t rely on gad­gets or power here! You’ll either do a sweep over Buka Island, with its lovely satel­lite islands and beau­ti­ful reefs, or over the rich jungle and moun­tain ridgeline of the main Bou­gain­ville Island itself.

Rochelle and Gabe co-owners WCF  The air­port is basic, with a depar­ture area inside for pas­sen­gers leav­ing and an arrivals area out­side for the recently landed. There’s a crowd wait­ing by the fence, being nosy and col­lect­ing col­leagues, friends and fam­ily. Sera’s is the only white face. Our lug­gage is loaded onto a ute, which is reversed up to us, and every­one goes for their gear at the same time. Order is an unfa­mil­i­ar word here, but it’s always polite hustle. At some point the plane gets ready to leave, and as it turns around it blasts us all with its jet engines.

Man, it’s hot here — you nev­er stop sweat­ing. The aver­age tem­per­at­ure is about 30˚C, but this is 100 per­cent energy-sap­ping heat. A chilly day, I’m told, is 28˚C, which will cause loc­als to wear jump­ers and com­plain of catch­ing colds the fol­low­ing week. A hot day is 35˚C, and you spend it lying on the floor under a fan groaning.

Buka town is about ten minutes from where we’re stay­ing. We walk out to the main road and catch a PMV, pub­lic motor vehicle. These are mostly vans with rad names like ‘Tal­lu­lah’ and ‘Trans­former’. The drive in is pure scen­ic joy, with vil­lages, banana trees and jungle on my right, and breath­tak­ing coast on my left. Buka town isn’t quite so scen­ic. It’s a bit of a dirty, ram­shackle place with shops, offices, gues­t­houses and wee eat­er­ies, all jumbled togeth­er. New places are being built and old places being added to. There are people every­where. The place is humming!

The shops are all pretty sim­il­ar but slightly dif­fer­ent, as in they largely sell the same stuff — tinned fish, tinned corned beef, powdered milk, Maggi two-minute noodles, rice, fake-label cloth­ing and dusty sta­tion­ery. But then one shop might get in some cheese every now and then, and anoth­er is known to get weird things like frozen boxed crois­sants, sweet chilli sauce and tomato juice. Sera tells me noth­ing is ever guar­an­teed — you have to do the rounds to see what’s on offer, and the place is known to run out of staples like sug­ar, eggs, chick­en, rice and flour. It’s all about impro­visa­tion. She told me how a fel­low VSA’er made a ‘cheese­cake’ out of kaukau (sweet potato) and banana, boiled in coconut cream with some lime and vanilla, mashed, cooled and set in the fridge. They all loved it and swore it was pretty darn close to the real thing.

The mar­ket food here is fresh from the jungle and it’s amaz­ing! For a start, you’ll find the biggest and tasti­est paw­paws and pine­apples you’ll ever eat in your life. One paw­paw we bought weighed at least 7 kilo­grams and was com­pli­men­ted by loc­als the whole walk home. Buy­ing from the mar­ket is always a bit of an adven­ture; we made sure to get a dif­fer­ent ‘green bushy thing’ every day. Once it was pump­kin tips — the last foot of the pump­kin vine — bril­liant. Everything is piled neatly or tied with vine to keep bunches togeth­er. Spe­cial items — smoked octopus and smoked pos­sum, for example — are wrapped in leaves with a tentacle or tail pok­ing out. Most things are smoked or cooked on the open fire here; it’s a good way to pre­serve the food, as power is lim­ited to the three main towns, and even then it’s quite iffy.

On my third day I trav­elled south with a new buddy, Robert Critch­ley, who is a young Bou­gain­villean entre­pren­eur or, as the loc­als like to put it, ‘tycoooooon’. The road is rough but I hear it’s sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter than it was — not long ago there were no bridges and so what is now a four-hour trip could take a couple of days across swollen rivers. The main­land is very dif­fer­ent from Buka Island, with its lush jungle and forests, big old run-down plant­a­tions and moun­tain­ous interi­or. Some­thing I noticed was that there were always people on the road — walk­ing down it, emer­ging from the bush, hanging out on the side — even when it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. It’s very dif­fer­ent from New Zea­l­and. And the people we saw were often sport­ing bright umbrel­las or very big leaves for shade — I found com­fort in the fact that they also found it quite hot!

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Baby cocoa pods

As you get closer to Arawa town, Bougainville’s former self becomes more evid­ent. A sealed road, power lines without power, pylons covered in vines, a once major inter­sec­tion, foot­paths —these were all part of what was a well-developed town in the 1980s. The Bou­gain­ville Crisis, which star­ted in 1988 as a protest against the envir­on­ment­al dam­age caused by min­ing and poor bene­fit-shar­ing, turned into a civil war that las­ted ten years and killed 20,000 people. Most of the infra­struc­ture was des­troyed, bridges were blown up, build­ings and machinery were torched, and vil­lages were burnt.

The dev­ast­a­tion is still evid­ent. It was fas­cin­at­ing talk­ing to people about their exper­i­ence dur­ing the Crisis, and I was always amazed when I heard troub­ling stor­ies told with a good sense of humour. When Sera began work­ing for the Divi­sion of Lands in 2010, for example, she found two of her new col­leagues laugh­ing over the dis­cov­ery that one had taken the oth­er host­age dur­ing the Crisis. Atti­tudes like this aren’t always the case though, and there are many sad stor­ies. You can’t help but admire the strength, resi­li­ence and innov­a­tion of the Bou­gain­ville people who lived through such dif­fi­cult times.

On my way back up the island to Buka, I met the legendary James Rutana, who helped estab­lish the cocoa industry in PNG in the 1970s. He has green fin­gers and can basic­ally grow a cocoa tree in sand. Since 2006, he has been rehab­il­it­at­ing his plant­a­tion after the dev­ast­at­ing cocoa pod borer took up res­id­ence dur­ing the Crisis. He’s also help­ing and train­ing oth­er farm­ers and work­ing with the gov­ern­ment and NGOs to devel­op a strategy to rebuild Bougainville’s cocoa industry. His motto is that agri­cul­ture is the island’s golden oppor­tun­ity, not min­ing, because the vast major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion can par­ti­cip­ate in it, they earn money dir­ectly doing so, and it’s sustainable.

I was inspired. Even before I left, I was already sure I wanted to work with James and help put Bou­gain­ville cocoa back on the map. When I returned to Wel­ling­ton, we cre­ated a pro­ject called ‘The Wel­ling­ton Chocol­ate Voy­age’. The object­ive is to improve James’s cocoa dry­er to raise the qual­ity of his cocoa, buy 1 tonne of his beans at a premi­um price, sail them back to New Zea­l­and and make them into the Bou­gain­ville Bar, to be mar­keted nation­ally and inter­na­tion­ally. We decided to try crowd­sourcing via Kick­starter to help sup­port the pro­ject. After bit of time and a lot of effort, it’s now live seek­ing sup­port in a cam­paign that ends on 6 Decem­ber. Please check it out at — we’d love your support!

If you’re feel­ing adven­tur­ous, VSA comes highly recom­men­ded. Hav­ing an oppor­tun­ity to live and be a part of a com­munity in Bou­gain­ville is a truly magic­al exper­i­ence. Check out their web­site at and see if any of the assign­ments fit you. It’s a great organ­isa­tion, and Bou­gain­ville is a fant­ast­ic place.


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