Mining takes its toll on West Papua
Mining takes its toll on West Papua
In the shadow of glacier-capped Puncak Jaya in West Papua the US-owned Freeport Mining Company is extracting ore from the largest gold reserves and above-ground copper deposits in the world. The mine earns more than US$l million per day and is Indonesia's highest taxpayer. TERRY MAHNEY, recently returned from West Papua, describes the social and environmental devastation he witnessed there.
The travel guide rated it as "one of the greatest engineering achievements of our time". But, for the environment and the Amungme and Komaro people of West Papua, it is a tragedy.
On arrival in Timika (the nearest township) I found the environmental and social facts to be as horrifying as the technological feats astounding. The mine is located in the country of the Amungme people who were removed from the Waa Valley at gunpoint to make room for the company town of Tembagapurra. This town is now surrounded by an eight foot fence to deter the "natives" from entering in search of food scraps.
The relocated villages are in the malaria-ridden lowlands. Being highlanders, the Amungme have little resistance and many die. Conditions are cramped; inadequate housing forces up to four families to share a tin hut. The mine employs about 7500 people, but there is little opportunity for the unskilled locals; less than 100 West Papuans have jobs.
Freeport and the Indonesian authorities "justify" the dispossession of the indigenous peoples on the basis of an agreement which was signed under duress by people who could not read or write and did not understand what they were signing. For signing this agreement, they were paid with rice, tobacco and corn beef. The company is taking a further 10,000 hectares of rainforest to make room for a new town for company employees without any consultation or compensation.
The Amungme are angry at these injustices. In 1977, they decided to fight back by sabotaging the slurry pipeline. In response, Indonesian fighter planes attacked villages killing 3000, including women and children.
An ex-Freeport employee described the futility of the situation: "For a period a small native used to follow the miners to the mine tramway and scream that he wanted his mountain back ... Everyone used to laugh at him, then one day I was told the army took him away".
The environmental problems caused by the mine are also deplorable. Approximately 60,000 tonnes per day of untreated tailings are devastating the Ajikwa River and rainforest. In some places the mud is yellow from chemicals and fine silts. Sediments are slowly choking the river and it runs muddy and deathlike. No fish remain in it. The Komaro people, who once followed the migrating fish up and down the river, can no longer fish here.
Entering the forest is like entering a graveyard. Most the large trees are dead and provide no canopy cover for the understorey plants which are also dying. Very few animals live there — no tree kangaroos, cuscus or echidnas and very few birds. People could no longer survive and were forced to move to Timika where they find it difficult to find work.
Freeport claim the sedimentation of the river is a natural process. However, a visit to the Iwoka River — an unpolluted river — proves this to be a lie. Except for the fastest flowing sections of the river the water is clear. It is not the heavy, mud-laden grey of the Ajikwa River. The forest is healthy, lush and impenetrable and people fish and swimming in the river. There is ample evidence of animal life with many colonies of flying foxes and majestic Blythe's Hornbills.
Australia has a role in all this. Many Australians are employed by Freeport. Some Australian companies have lucrative contracts to support the mine. Much of the technology to operate the mine is Australian; nearly all the produce (including large quantities of Fosters) required to feed the work force which is flown in from Cairns. With all this at stake, as well as many other investments in West Papua, the Australian government is not willing to speak out against what is happening.
Human Rights and environmental abuses by multi-nationals which would never be tolerated here, proceed, with the full support of the Australian government, in other countries. In addition, the Australian government continues to recognise Indonesian's illegal occupation of West Papua. Indonesia has no geographical or ethnographic ties there. In occupying West Papua, it is propping up the colonial boundaries. The "Year of the Indigenous People" has made little difference to the Amungme or Komaro people of West Papua.
You can make a difference
Many West Papuans are trying to establish community-based education programs and small independent ecotourism and business enterprises. Such activities will give them some degree of independence. If you have information or experience which you think could help please contact the author at PO Box 902, Alice Springs. Phone (089) 555 505 (h) or (089) 529 372 (w).