It Takes a Village: One Community’s Journey Toward Peace in Papua New Guinea

September 30, 2016


Men and women of Oria, a small village in southern Bougainville, sit separately during Saturday morning Church service. The number of women far outweighs the number of men in Oria. Violent conflict between combatants from the village - Wilmo Liberation Movement (WILMO) - and the neighbouring Me'ekemui tribe killed 49 men, leaving many women widowed.

© World Bank / Alana Holmberg

The Oria church doesn’t get many outside visitors. Located in a remote area (population 2,000) of southern Bougainville, visitors would have to travel four or five hours from the island’s largest town, Arawa, to get there. The corrugated gravel road is suitable only for four-wheel drives and passengers immune to motion sickness.

But if a visitor were to find themselves at the regular Saturday service, the disproportionate ratio of women compared with men would be unmissable. Of the three sectioned rows of pews, the men and boys fill one row and the women and girls fill the other two.

Konnou’s Widows

The Konnou conflict (2007–2011) claimed the lives of 49 men and boys from the Oria community. Neighboring ethnic groups — the Wisai from Oria and the Me’ekemui from Mogoroi — began a war of payback killings for events that happened in the Bougainville Crisis (1989–1999). Fighters on both sides left behind widows, mothers, and sisters; women who first cried for revenge and reprisals against the enemy, encouraging the violence, then pleaded for peace as more and more of their men were buried.

“A lot of people were against us,” said Joelina Potoura of the Oria women’s attempt to convince Wisai Liberation Movement (WILMO) combatants to start peace negotiations with the Me’ekemui. In their mind, the women weren’t involved in the fighting so shouldn’t have a say.

“But we said, ‘Yes, we don’t carry the guns and fight but we tell our sons and the men in our community to hate and to take up arms’.  We knew that we had influenced the men here to hate our brothers outside, to go and kill when someone is killed from our community.”

“If the mothers didn’t get involved, we’d still be fighting each other,” says Veronica Naisy, the widow of Jacob Naisy who still struggles to talk about her husband’s death, more than a decade ago. Jacob’s murder, a revenge killing by the Me’ekemui for his support of the PNG Government during the Bougainville Crisis, sparked the Konnou Crisis in 2007.

Four years later, following the deaths of some 500 people across the district, a group of widows and mothers, sisters and daughters of slain men from both sides came together in an official reconciliation ceremony. They shared stories, shook hands and hugged.

“We were all relieved and a lot of tears were shed,” remembers Joelina.



Elsie Konuvai (right, pink top), Joelina Potua (far right) and other widowed woman watch the women's football team train as the sun slips behind the clouds in Oria, Bogainville, Papua New Guinea. The village has a high number of widowers following the Konnou conflict (2007 - 2011) when 49 of the local men died as a result of fighting with a neighbouring group.

© World Bank / Alana Holmberg


Timothy Koluvai, Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (PPAP) Senior Field Officer, tends to his cocoa tree clones in his nursery in Konnou District, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Where non-clone trees balance themselves naturally as they grow, cloned seedlings must be pruned regularly as they grow to ensure the branches are balanced around the trunk.

© World Bank / Alana Holmberg

Women Forge a Pathway to Peace

Joelina trained as a peace negotiator during the Bougainville conflict in the 1990s and was passionate about peace for Konnou. After the women’s reconciliation, she turned her attention back to the Wisai combatants and staged a seated protest in the WILMO headquarters, refusing to move until they agreed to discuss peace. Her actions, combined with the voices of many women in both villages, had the desired effect. On November 29, 2011, with the assistance of the United Nations and the Konnou Peace Committee of which Joelina was part of, a ceasefire agreement between WILMO and the Me’ekemui was reached.

Rex Naisy, the only surviving brother of Jacob Naisy, describes the day as very emotional.

“We were so happy because we realized that the day had finally come. Instead of our community members losing lives, we had peace,” he said.

Rex was an ardent promoter of peace in the community in spite of the personal cost he had paid through the conflict. All three of his brothers were killed, targeted because of their education, entrepreneurial skills, and support for the PNG Government through the Bougainville Crisis, according to Rex.

“I was tempted to join combat when my brother was shot,” he admits. “I actually held the weapon but did not join the fighting. I worked hard and stood firm for what I believed in.”

Cocoa Supports Shared Futures

In the 1980s, Bougainville produced the most cocoa of any province in Papua New Guinea. Alongside copra, this was the backbone of a thriving rural economy, and it provided critical income for thousands of people.

The Bougainville conflict crippled the local economy and decimated the cocoa industry. After 1999, the region slowly started to rebuild in terms of cocoa production - though ravaged by pests - but the economic recovery of the Konnou constituency stalled again when plunged into a second conflict. The area was declared a ‘no go zone’ by the warring tribes, roads and services to the communities were blocked off. Authorities largely ignored the situation. After peace returned, the community faced enormous hardship, with few opportunities for work hindering recovery.

“After the Konnou Crisis ended, a lot of us began looking for work,” says 52-year old ex WILMO combatant Timothy Konovai.

“The constant fear of the fighting erupting again made me scared to move away from my family and the village. So I decided to go back to something I was familiar with and that was growing cocoa. I can now say I made the right choice,” he grins.

Supported by the World Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the European Union, the Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (PPAP) engages Bougainville communities in cocoa; providing farming skills, tools, pest-resistant seedlings, and other resources to get individuals and the industry back on strong, economically viable feet after decades of struggle.

The project will support more than 60,000 cocoa and coffee growers across Papua New Guinea by 2019. More than 3 million cocoa trees have already been replanted or rejuvenated across Bougainville and Papua New Guinea

In Oria, Rex was the first cocoa farmer in his community to plant pest-resistant cocoa trees, and now has one of the largest cocoa plantations in the area. Timothy, along with his nephew and other Wisai farmers, are also helping the Me’ekemui community grow cocoa, extending the PPAP Program to former enemies and in doing so strengthening the peace process through shared knowledge.

Timothy explains: “Once we plant cocoa and we enjoy the benefits of it, and there are plenty of people working in it, there will be no interest in holding onto the guns and things like that – because it’s helping us and them, and making us stronger.”

“Growing cocoa is helping us take care of our children and paying for their education, we’re realizing that now,” says Joelina. “I’m involved. I got my first 50 clone cocoa trees last year and this year they’re flowering.”

After Saturday mass, the congregation gathers outside to discuss community matters for the week: how to keep the river clean from waste, details for the upcoming peace football friendly match, and a lengthy explanation about the recent outsider visitors to the church, part of the PPAP Program.

While peace is still fragile in Konnou, projects like the PPAP are helping communities make their dreams for the future a reality, bolstered by an increasing international demand for the unique Bougainville cocoa flavor.