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The world's next country could be an island in the South Pacific

Referendum day in Buka, the capital. Photo: Ness Kerton/AFP via Getty Images

The people of Bougainville voted Saturday on whether they want their island to become the world's newest country.

What to watch: Results are expected by Dec. 20, and most in Bougainville (pop. ~300,000), currently an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, are expected to vote for independence.

Why it matters: The FT notes that the referendum has "sparked a scramble for political influence among foreign mining companies, which want to establish operations in an area that contains copper and gold reserves estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars."

  • Flashback: "Between 1972 and 1989 a company controlled by Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian miner, operated the massive Panguna copper and gold mine on the island, generating huge profits and almost half of Papua New Guinea’s export income. But the activity caused serious pollution and tensions to flare with locals, which erupted into civil war in 1989 and forced Panguna to close."

What to watch: The referendum is non-binding, and Papua New Guinea's leaders seem reluctant to grant independence.