Indonesia: Protests demand Freeport mine closure

Tuesday 21 March 2006, by Zoe KENNY

On February 25, the five-day blockade by several hundred West Papuan villagers of the sole access road to Freeport’s Grasberg mine was called off. The villagers achieved their modest goal of retaining the right (although formally illegal) to fossick among the mine’s tailings to collect copper and gold remnants.

However, protests have continued in Jakarta and Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. A tent city has also been set up by protesters in Timika, a town near the mine. The protesters have been demanding that the mine be closed and that Indonesian soldiers be withdrawn. Marthen Goo, a spokesperson in Jakarta for the West Papuan People’s United Front was quoted by Reuters on February 28 as saying: “This is just the beginning of our fight because we have not received anything good from Freeport. We are going to protest until Freeport is shut.”

These demands have been getting some sympathy from legislators in the Papuan provincial parliament (which is subordinate to the Indonesian central government), and a special parliamentary session will be held on March 22 to discuss the mine.

Freeport McMoRan’s Grasberg mine, of which Australian-based mining company Rio Tinto is the second largest investor, has been a long-running source of conflict and misery for the West Papuan people. In May 2000, Australia’s Mineral Policy Institute described Freeport’s Grasberg mine as having “the world’s worst record of human rights violations and environmental destruction”.

The mine’s history has been riddled with corruption. Freeport company director James Moffett gained a mining license in West Papua in 1967 after years of sweet-talking and bribing Indonesian dictator General Mohammed Suharto. Since then, the mine has made Moffett into one of the most highly remunerated CEO’s in the world. In 1995 and 1996 he earned US$83 million. Lat year, his declared income was $64.8 million.

In a special investigative report, the December 27 New York Times noted that “Freeport has built what amounts to an entirely new society and economy, all of its own making. Where nary a road existed, Freeport, with the help of the San Francisco-based construction company Bechtel, built virtually every stitch of infrastructure over impossible terrain in engineering feats that it boasts are unparalleled on the planet.”

Freeport’s Grasberg is the biggest gold mine in the world and most accounts reckon that it is the third largest copper mine in the world. It is estimated that even after more than 30 years of mining, there are still reserves to warrant mining for another 34 years.

The company contributed $33 billion in direct and indirect benefits to the Indonesian government, approximately 2% of GDP, between 1992 and 2004, and contributed $1 billion in 2005. In some years, it has been the biggest source of revenue to the Indonesian government.

However, the West Papuan people have seen very little of this largesse. In particular, the indigenous people who lived in the mining concession area have suffered numerous injustices and humiliations. The several thousand Amungme and Kamoro people who lived in the area were relocated from their traditional lands into refugee settlements, as well as gravitating to the mining town of Timika, previously home to a small population.

“Now it is home to more than 100,000 in a Wild West atmosphere of too much alcohol, shootouts between the soldiers and police, AIDS and prostitution, protected by the military", the December 27 /New York Times/ reported. This has led to what some have called “cultural genocide”. Without access to their traditional land and with little prospect of employment, the local people are losing their social and cultural cohesiveness. Alcohol abuse and drug dependencies are more common.

Freeport was not required to compensate the local people for anything other than the dwellings they had lived in, and is allowed to exploit the natural resources of the area unhindered.

Environmental devastation

Another of the horrific side effects of the Freeport mine has been the large-scale environmental destruction that it is carried out in West Papua. The mine is literally destroying the 4884-metre high Mount Jaya, which is considered sacred by the local people. Every day hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock are mined from a pit that is almost 1 kilometre deep. It is then milled in a process that uses 3.5 billion litres of water a month and the waste, estimated at 700,000 tonnes per day, is dumped into Lake Wanagon and the Ajkwa River. Since it began, the mine has already generated 1 billion tonnes of waste.

The waste that has accumulated in the highlands surrounding the mine is estimated at being up to 300 metres deep. The waste that flows down river systems into the lowlands has left a trail of destruction. An internal Indonesian government memorandum obtained by the New York Times last year estimated that the waste has killed all life in the river system.

The mine’s management has warned local people not to drink water or eat plants growing near the river, but has not explained why. The waste has also killed large amounts of vegetation growing beside tributaries of the Ajikwa River, leaving a desolate landscape. In his 2002 study, Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Issues: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Johansen, professor of Native American studies at the University of Nebraska, quoted an observer describing the scene as, “Dead and dying trees are everywhere, their broken branches protruding from tracts of gray sludge... Vegetation is being smothered by accumulated sludge that is several yards deep in some places.”

The waste has also accumulated in the lowlands and has now buried 233 square kilometres of once-abundant wetlands as well as destroying at least 130 square kilometres of rainforest.

It is estimated that by the time the mine is exhausted in 2040, it will have generated 6 billion tonnes of waste.

The environmental record of the Freeport mine is so bad that in 1995 the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which insures US companies against political risk, revoked Freeport’s insurance. No other company had ever been cut off before.

Local resistance

The environmental devastation wreaked by the mine and the lack of adequate compensation and benefits from the mine’s operations has fuelled support for the Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has waged a low-intensity guerrilla war for many years. It has also led to sporadic uprisings by local people, many which have been violently suppressed by the Indonesian military (TNI).

In 1977, the OPM and other local people expressed their anger and frustration at the mine by blowing up an ore pipeline. The response by the TNI was Operation Tumpas (annihilation), in which attack jets fired on villages. An unknown number of people died. The Indonesian government admits that 900 were killed. Local people believe that the number was in the thousands.

Although the TNI’s suppression of the OPM “insurgency” and uprisings by local people has always helped the smooth running of the Freeport mine, the company has also maintained its own security forces.

In March 2003, Freeport disclosed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission that it paid the TNI $4.7 million in 2001 and $5.6 million for the employment of about 2300 “Indonesian government security personnel”.

According to the New York Times report, Freeport began to directly pay the military and police in Papua for this role from 1996. The NYT reported that Freeport discovered that the TNI had been involved in organising and co-ordinating a 1996 uprising of local people against the mine, which had resulted in $3 million worth of damage and the mine shutting down for three days.

After a meeting between Moffett and Indonesian government representatives, a deal was struck whereby Freeport would begin making direct payments to the military.

Between 1996 and 2004 at least $50 million was spent by Freeport, officially on providing vehicles, accommodation and food for TNI personnel. Some of this money was also directed to the police’s Mobile Brigade, notorious for its human rights abuses and murders.

The NYT reported that company documents it had obtained revealed that some individual commanders received tens of thousands of dollars, in one case up to $150,000.

An estimated 160 people were killed by the TNI in the mine area between 1975 and 1997, and there have been reports of torture taking place in buildings owned by Freeport.


From Green Left Weekly, March 8, 2006.

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