Precious metals - struggle and repression in Papua

The battle over Papua’s copper and gold deposits is heating up as locals fight back against their exploiters, reports Rob Ray

Mining giant Freeport-McMoran have violently cleared roadblocks thrown up by locals in protest at the company’s exploitation of Papua’s vast mineral resources and treatment of the indigenous population.

The Freeport mine in West Papua had been closed down on 22nd February by a crowd of over 400, but was reopened the next Saturday after discussions, according to the company. Locals manned roadblocks demanding the ending of the Indonesian occupation and the expulsion of Freeport-McMoran, after police shot a local dead for trespassing on company land.

Papuans working inside the mine have also allegedly carried out acts of sabotage against the mine’s pipeline system, which according to one correspondent, saw the river run clean for the first time in 30 years. Locals in villages near to the Freeport mine had been combing the company waste tips for decades to relieve some of the grinding poverty in the community.

A decision was taken to clear the area, police were sent to the site, and found a large number of prospectors. President and CEO of Freeport McMoRan Richard Ackerson said: “The area they were doing this in is very dangerous; there have been mud slides and water events where people have drowned.” During the ‘health and safety’ based clearance, rubber bullets were fired, and tear gas used to disperse people, leaving five injured and one dead, according to local sources. Further reports from inside the country have said that up to 500 heavily armed police then attempted to break up the resulting popular road blocks using live rounds.

Adkerson, in a speech designed to reassure investors, said: “This is just part of the scenery of being in the mining industry today.” Benny Wenda, a Papuan campaigning for Indonesian withdrawal from the island, said: “This was a spontaneous demonstration, fired by the frustration and anger of ordinary people denied even the opportunity to pick over the rubbish left behind after the illegal exploitation of their homeland.”

Freeport-McMoran have been repeatedly criticised on their work in West Papua by environmentalists, civil rights groups and international NGOs, and have for several decades been engaged in a major conflict with indigenous Papuans fighting to remove the company. Freeport are alleged to have paid around $20m to Indonesian military officers between 1988 and 2004 for their continued protection of the mining complex. Environmental group Global Witness have further claimed that one general was paid $250,000 directly to protect the mine. Adkerson has admitted the payments, and responded by saying that any payments were entirely within the law and pitched the figure for protection at closer to $100m over the same period. Lawyers in America are investigating whether the payments may have broken international anti-corruption laws. Even the Indonesian government have begun deliberations on whether to prosecute the company, this time for allegedly causing an environmental disaster through dumping into the Papuan river system.

Indonesia have nevertheless been accused of collusion with the Freeport mine in the course of its own crackdown in the country, which has seen hundreds of violations of international human rights law, according to campaigners. West Papua is currently under military rule after Indonesia invaded in ***. The International Federation of Journalists renewed their campaign to force the government to allow foreign media into the area after a blanket ban was imposed by the Indonesian government 18 months ago. The Indonesion Minister of Defence, Juwono Sudarsono, claimed at the time that the ban was required because an international presence might "encourage Papuans to campaign on issues of human rights".

The Freeport mines, on the Grasberg mountain in Papua, are thought to sit on the largest gold deposit and third largest copper deposit anywhere in the world.