Australia's role: Mining giant's war on West Papua


Thirty-seven people — 22 civilians and 15 alleged guerillas — were killed by the Indonesian army in West Papua between June 1994 and February 1995, according to a report released by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) on April 5. According to the report, Trouble at Freeport, an unknown number of other West Papuans were arrested, beaten and tortured. Houses had been burned and gardens destroyed, forcing villagers to flee into the jungle.

The ACFOA report said that the Indonesian military had been assisted by "security" forces employed by the US-owned Freeport-McMoRan at the giant copper and gold mine located at Tembagapura in the Grasberg mountains. Guerillas from the OPM (Free Papua Movement) are known to operate in the area.

The article printed here was researched independently of the ACFOA report, but it confirms much of the background to that report. It also contains new details about Australian involvement in West Papua, including through operations of the Special Air Service (SAS). The article is by an Australian who visited West Papua in January-February.

In response to a series of disputes over social and environmental justice for the displaced Amungme people who used to live in the vicinity of the Tembagapura mine, two devastating media statements were issued by ABRI, the Indonesian armed forces, in February.

On the evening of February 9, an order was received by the Amungme people from Freeport security, who work in conjunction with ABRI.

The statement was to the effect that some 2000 indigenous and other people living around the mine in the Waa valley, the Tsinga valley and the Arwaa valley were to be removed by the government in the next three months. Some of the indigenous Amungme claim to have been living in these areas for possibly longer than 25,000 years.

At the time, no reason or explanation had been given to the representatives of the Amungme. The people in question are to be relocated to three new localities away from the mine. The action also involves people from other tribal groupings including Dani, Moni, Komoro and other ethno-linguistic groupings. No consultation about the plan for the people in this area was recorded. Most already displaced tribal groupings are relocated into refugee settlements.

The largest of these refugee places is Kwamki-lama, a kampung some six kilometres north-east of Timika, the service town to Tembagapura's mine since Freeport began mining in 1967. Most indigenous people who were originally uprooted by the mining activities at Tembagapura were relocated to Kwamki-lama.

The 20,000 people living in Tembagapura are fenced off by an eight-foot barbed wire fence, designed to "deter 'natives' from entering in search of food scraps" (as reported by Terry Mahney in Green Left Weekly last July).

One man among the people in the area described the latest action as the final master stroke to Freeport security's attempt at cultural genocide. "It is better they [ABRI] kill all of us [Amungme] here in Kwamki-lama, than to allow this to happen. Our people are dying now more than ever because of these disturbances ... We are so angry!"

He said the Amungme people were becoming increasingly socially dissolute and culturally disintegrated since the confiscation of their land by Freeport. Many Amungme are unemployed. Many are addicted to alcohol and tobacco. Much of their original culture has been destroyed through their inability to practice local traditions and customs, which require living on their former hunting grounds and gardens.


It is difficult to discern the true motives behind this first statement by the government. Some suspect that ABRI wish to wipe out any remaining clandestine support among the occupants of the three valleys for the rebel Free West Papua separatist movement, by forcefully removing any collaborating tribespeople.

There is a history of guerilla conflict in the Freeport mine area; in 1977 the OPM, acting out the frustrations of local people's fruitless attempts to obtain compensation for their land, blew up one of the pipelines running from the mine to a coastal port at Ammampare, using dynamite stolen from Freeport. The pipeline carries copper concentrate for export to a processing plant in Java.

In May 1994 arrests occurred after an OPM flag was raised near Tembagapura. OPM fighting was reported to have broken out the next month in the jagged mountain rainforests surrounding the mine, but resistance was quickly stamped out by ABRI.

A confidential source told me that in the same month ABRI had sold weapons to the OPM in the area of Tembagapura. Again, reasons for this are speculative. Do ABRI really need to justify their repression by supplying arms to the OPM as an excuse to continue military operations in the area?


The second ABRI media statement was made the next evening, on February 10, for a Radio Republic of Indonesia news bulletin.

Major-General I Ketutwirdana announced the capitulation of some 200 "GPK" members to ABRI overnight in the vicinity of Tembagapura. "GPK" are the Indonesian initials for "security disturbing gang", ABRI's name for the OPM.

It is also difficult to ascertain the truth behind this statement. Journalists and human rights specialists banned from independent inquiry in the area can only speculate. "GPK" may not necessarily be armed OPM rebels, but unarmed tribespeople conveniently mistaken for "GPK" by Freeport security and ABRI.

Human rights violations that would have ensued may never be made public. Few people living in the area are literate or have access to communications facilities, and many are terrorised by the authorities to remain silent when they are subject to abuses of their rights.

Freeport has recently been granted an exploration licence for a massive new contract area of 2.5 million hectares in West Papua. If new mines go ahead in the area, similar scenarios are likely to follow.

Environmental destruction

Flying south into Timika from Biak, the observer can clearly see the damage to the environment adjacent to the Ajikwa river. Far along each riverbank for a kilometre or more back on each side, almost all vegetation was either dead or dying.

This was an obvious side effect of tailings from the world's biggest copper mine. Silting was also a major problem from sediment travelling downstream. Kwamki-lama residents have been warned by Freeport authorities not to drink water from the Ajikwa river or eat sago growing next to it, but are not told why.

Results of the first environmental impact assessment from 1984, 17 years after the beginning of mining operations, have not been made public. The study was not made by independent environmental scientists, but by scientists contracted to Freeport.

Built by Freeport, Kwamki-lama has a government-funded malaria control unit, but running water, sewerage and electricity do not exist. Living standards are low even by comparison with other population centres in West Papua. Following an epidemic in 1980, child mortality in the area of Kwamki-lama (close to sea level) increased dramatically to more than 20%.

Now that the very land they once trod has literally gone overseas, the displaced Amungme are heavily dependent on foreign advisers and capital for their development. It would appear that the communication links between the indigenous people and engineers, geologists, directors of Freeport and their security apparatus are all very weak.

The fenced enclave of Tembagapura has provided very few jobs for West Papuans. Only 13% of all employees who work at Freeport are West Papuan. Technology for the mine is so complex that it prevents the West Papuans from doing work other than those jobs which are seen as menial, dirty or dangerous in the mining process. Freeport and the government are not prepared to spend money and time training West Papuans to do skilled work when it is far more economical to hire in foreigners who are already skilled. But the social costs of this seem to be greater than the economic savings.

In short, along with armed repression, Freeport's close links with the Indonesian government and narrow profit motives have generally thwarted solutions for the underdevelopment of indigenous people in the area.

Independent journalists are banned from Tembagapura. One Sydney-based Amungme, a political refugee, says this is due to the extent of the change that Freeport has created. "The environmental and social damage is so bad that they [Freeport] don't want the outside world to know the truth", he said.

He added, "PT Freeport Indonesia is the [Indonesian] government's biggest taxpayer. It collects over US$1 billion from the mine every year. I don't know where this money goes, but the Amungme see almost none of it."

Another local Amungme leader living outside Freeport and banned from entering Tembagapura said, "The indigenous people are provided with nothing at all, while they can see extreme prosperity in Tembagapura".

Australian 'contributions'

Australia has a direct and indirect involvement in all of this. I was told by three mutually independent sources that three times a month, Australian Special Air Service (SAS) specialist anti-guerilla forces are called in to work with ABRI on their "sensitive" anti-"GPK" operations in the PNG border area. Has the Australian SAS also been used to help ABRI burn down villages in the Tembagapura area, where the OPM have been active as well?

There are a large number of transmigrants in Timika. Australian aid agencies such as AIDAB also have been assisting Indonesian transmigration programs in West Papua, which often have disastrous social consequences for indigenous people, as their land is confiscated illegally to make way for transmigrants. The result is a loss of land and therefore culture, which is easily destroyed. Indigenous people are also often victims of new foreign diseases, to which they have no natural resistance.

Freeport has a base in Cairns, from where numerous Australian staff who work for Freeport regularly fly into Timika along with Australian supplies and other services. BHP and other Australian mining and petroleum companies are involved in exploration both inside and outside of Freeport's new 2.5 million ha contract area.

To quote the International Declaration of Indigenous Peoples (1987): "... without their land, the indigenous peoples are lost ... Without the indigenous people the land will be lost." Amungme people have been living in the area for at least 15,000 years with minimal environmental impact. In view of what has evolved at Freeport in the last 25 years, this declaration seems more true than ever. Human rights abuses continue and the future does not look promising unless international human rights and environmental organisations begin to look at the situation very seriously.
[In addition to the author's investigations in West Papua, information for this article came from Carolyn Marr, Digging Deep: the hidden costs of mining in Indonesia (1993); R.J. Mitchell, Experiences in appropriate technology (1980); George Monbiot, Poisoned Arrows (1989).]