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West Papua: a long history of grim exploitation


Grasberg CONTROL OF West Papua has proved a lucrative business deal for the Indonesians.

Two years prior to the Act of Free Choice - coincidentally on the same day the plight of Papua was raised in the House of Lords - Freeport signed a contract of work with the Suharto government entitling a jointly owned company, PT Freeport Indonesia, full rights to the Ertsberg mine.

In return, Indonesia would derive significant tax revenues and fees as well as a minority 9.36% shareholding. Without the authority to do so, Indonesia nevertheless cut itself into a deal that sold large tracts of West Papua to the US company, intent on sifting it for copper and gold.

Although Ertsberg fulfilled its promise, as production slowed in the mid-1980s Freeport-Indonesia began to explore surrounding mountains and ridges for other reserves.

As is often the case, the best place to establish a new mine is next to another. Sure enough, significant copper and gold reserves were located at Grasberg only a couple of miles southwest of Ertsberg.

Grasberg has the largest recoverable reserves of copper and gold in the world. It's also Indonesia's economic beachhead.

Observing the Grasberg mine via Google Earth, one sees a scar like no other: Located about 4,000 meters above sea level, open-pit mining has bored a hole through the top of the mountain more than 1 km wide.

What they're digging for is more than $40 billion worth of copper and gold. Every day the operation discharges 230,000 tons of tailings into the Aghawagon River. This process is expected to continue for up to six more years, at which point exploration will go underground until there's no value left. Freeport estimates that will occur by 2041.

The operation is so large that it has shifted the borders of the adjacent Lorenz National Park. Listed as a World Heritage site by the UNESCO in 1999, the park is "the only protected area in the world to incorporate a continuous, intact transect from snowcap to tropical marine environment, including extensive lowland wetlands".

For the Amungme and Kamoro indigenes, corporate imperialism had replaced European colonialism.

The social and economic condition of the indigenous Amungme and Kamoro poses fundamental human rights concerns.

Although Freeport-Indonesia directly or indirectly employs a large number of West Papuans and is regularly Indonesia's biggest taxpayer, in 2005, the World Bank found that Papua remained the poorest province in Indonesia.

With a marked rise in military personnel and foreign staff has come a number of social issues, including alcohol abuse and prostitution such that Papua now has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Indonesia.

Indonesian control of West Papua has been characterised by the ongoing and disproportionate repression of largely peaceful opposition.


Few sustained violent interactions have occurred; however, in one major conflict in 1977, more than 1,000 civilian men, women, and children were killed by the Indonesian military in Operation Annihilation after a slurry pipe was severed and partially closed the Ertsberg mine.

While the level of violence is difficult to establish, academics at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney maintain that up to 100,000 West Papuans may have been killed since Indonesian occupation. They call what's happening to West Papua "slow-motion genocide".

There are also two primary environmental concerns over Grasberg. The first is that the mine discharges 230,000 tons of waste rock a day into surrounding waterways; given the escalating rate of processing, this rate is arguably above that allowed by national law.

Secondly, acid rock drainage - the outflow of acidic water - has resulted from the disposal of a further 360,000 to 510,000 tons a day of overburden and waste rock in two adjacent valleys covering 6.5 km, up to 300 metres deep. The mine operators dispute both claims.

Riverine methods of waste disposal are banned in every developed country on Earth. The World Bank no longer funds projects that operate this way, due to the irreversible ecological devastation, and the International Finance Corporation requires that rock be treated prior to disposal, which is not a practice carried out at Grasberg.

 Since the mid-1990s, a number of independent environmental assessments have found unacceptably high levels of toxicity and sediment as far as 140 miles away.

Freeport and Rio Tinto maintain that riverine tailings disposal is the best solution, given the difficult terrain, the threat of earthquakes, and heavy rainfall.

Grasberg's reserves are so vast that extracting them is expected to create 6 billion tons of industrial waste.

Extract of a chapter from the book Evolutions in Sustainable Investing: Strategies, Funds and Thought Leadership to be published by Wiley in December. NAJ Taylor is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland

Photo: The Grasberg mine has damaged surrounding river systems, such as the Ajikwa river above [West Papua Media]

Source: Aljazeera, 21 September


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Leonard Roka

Exploitation ... like my Panguna area of Bougainville before the conflict. You know, in itsb17 year life 1972-89, the majority of revenue went to BCL and PNG, Bougainville (NSP) had 4 percent and my people had 0.02 percent.

Sad, you know, that's why I sometimes go extremely nasty.

The photo makes me remember my childhood days watching the dirty Kavarong River following down the Tumpusiong Valley (Jaba).

Economic development need be localised and not subjected to globalisation.

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