Mining for Destruction

Picture by Indymedia Perth

Grasberg Mine (picture by Indymedia Perth, http://perth.indymedia.org/)

A small snippet in today’s NZZ newspaper made me aware of this incident:

Eight Papuan men have been arrested over a deadly ambush on a security convoy near the giant Freeport gold and copper mine in Indonesia’s Papua province, police said Tuesday.

I really didn’t know one bit about West Papua, except for a few pictures I had in mind from anthropological documentaries about the region. So I decided to read up on the story and found another saddening example of  how corporate greed and recklessness work to destroy the environment of  the most valuable landscapes and the lives of the people living there along with it.

It all started when West Papua – a former colony of the Netherlands – was handed to the UN under The New York Agreement in 1962 and then to Sukarno’s Indonesia following a referendum, the Act of Free Choice, now known as one that was stacked, and railroaded by Indonesian interests. (more about this here)

Once the Act of Free Choice had taken place, the extraction of oil once again got going and the copper already discovered in the Carsztens mountains before the war could be exploited under the more stable conditions of the Soeharto administration by the American mining company Freeport. This constituted a rich source of income for the Indonesian treasury and for the elite in Jakarta, insofar as the latter was involved in the management and central administration of the company. The positive effects on the local economy remained negligible, however; the disadvantages, in the form of pollution and land loss, were therefore all the greater. The Papuan population is one of the poorest groups in Indonesia. (read more)

This is where the July 2009 attacks have their roots. First of all Mining in rainforests has a devastating effect on the environment of the region and thus on its people. Secondly there is a huge amount of money to be made and there is no way to reconcile the two.

Freeport mines 78,000 tonnes of ore/day, plus additional overburden. Virtually all of this is dumped as mine waste and tailings into the rivers surrounding Freeport, making the water toxic and thick with silt, smothering and killing all plant life along the previously fertile river banks. (Other mines like Bougainville and Ok Tedi in PNG have had similar effects). The Komoro people in the Koperapoke area have been ordered to stop consuming sago, their staple food. Freeport has distributed 78 drums to families to catch rainwater for drinking since the water has been contaminated. Plans to expand Freeport’s operations within a recently granted additional 2.6 million hectare concession causes great concern for other communities and their environment. (read more)

Freeport is aware of the rising concerns about the devastating environmental and social effects of its operations. Even some of Freeport’s investors are worrying, but the company will not answer to requests of information. In a hair-raising story in 2005 the New York Times outlines the  practices of Freeport in their endeavour to exploit the riches of  West Papua including spying, bribery and setting up ineffective fig leave funds for the Papuan people.

The closest most people will ever get to remote Papua, or the operations of Freeport-McMoRan, is a computer tour using Google Earth to swoop down over the rain forests and glacier-capped mountains where the American company mines the world’s largest gold reserve.

With a few taps on a keyboard, satellite images quickly reveal the deepening spiral that Freeport has bored out of its Grasberg mine as it pursues a virtually bottomless store of gold hidden inside. They also show a spreading soot-colored bruise of almost a billion tons of mine waste that the New Orleans-based company has dumped directly into a jungle river of what had been one of the world’s last untouched landscapes.

What is far harder to discern is the intricate web of political and military ties that have helped shield Freeport from the rising pressures that other gold miners have faced to clean up their practices. Only lightly touched by a scant regulatory regime, and cloaked in the protection of the military, Freeport has managed to maintain a nearly impenetrable redoubt on the easternmost Indonesian province as it taps one of the country’s richest assets. (read more)

Just because the NYT’s story is five years old, doesn’t mean things have changed for the better since then. Just take a look at Freeport’s website. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc.’s Second-Quarter and Six-Month 2009 Results don’t show any departure from the practices mentioned in the NYT story. The Indonesian mining, namely the Grasberg mine, is still a growing project. No word on environmental measures. The fact, that in the above mentioned incident Freeport employees were victims of the attack along with Indonesian police suggests that nothing much has changed in the “special relationship” between the company and the Indonesian security forces as well.

Trust the Indonesian government, however, to make the best of the attacks mentioned above. Concerned that West Papua might go the way of East Timor and gain sovereignty over its own riches, they deployed anti-terror troops to the region.

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