'The Incredible Hulk on cocaine'

Issue 

Moving Mountains: Communities confront mining and globalisation

Edited by Geoff Evans, James Goodman and Nina Lansbury

The Mineral Policy Institute and Contemporary Otford Series

Sydney, 2001

301 pages $34

REVIEW BY SEAN HEALY

Mining companies must certainly be the archetypal predatory beasts
of contemporary global capitalism: huge in size, they roll into developing
countries, form partnerships with corrupt and militaristic local regimes,
rip the tops off mountains and the hearts out of forests, pollute local
ecosystems, exploit and degrade indigenous populations, contribute little
of value to the countries they invade and then report large rates of return
to shareholders.

In many cases, the countries which “host” mining companies have little
choice but to go along. Without them, their revenues would be even smaller.
The Ok Tedi mine in western Papua New Guinea, for example, contributes
10% of the country's gross domestic product, while for decades the Grasberg
mine in West Papua has been the single largest contributor to the Indonesian
government's revenues.

For impoverished countries, opening up to mining is the devil's pact.

The classic example, outlined in its hideous detail in Moving Mountains,
is Grasberg, the enormous copper and gold mine run by Freeport McMoRan
on the lands of the Amungme and Kamoro peoples in West Papua.

“If a mine can be personified”, write Abigail Abrash and Danny Kennedy,
“then Grasberg is the Incredible Hulk on cocaine, driven mad by the demands
of its owners on the other side of the planet, and set to destroy all in
its path.

“The world's largest operating copper and gold mine has many of the
ingredients that make resource development under globalisation problematic:
private ownership by absentee landlords who have little connection or shared
interest with local people; a rate of production so rapid its consequences
cannot be measured let alone mitigated, and extreme physical and political
force to allow the wheels of this 'progress' to turn over smoothly.”

To get at the copper and gold, Freeport is cutting the head of a mountain
and shifting 700,000 metric tonnes of earth each day (equivalent to moving
the Great Pyramid of Cheops once a week). The “overburden” is being dumped
into two neighbouring valleys, Carstenszweide and Wanagon, which by the
end of the mine's life will be buried under 240 and 450 metres of soil
respectively.

The impact on the local peoples is not simply environmental, its also
spiritual. “The Amungme's cosmology depicts this mountain as the sacred
head of its mother and its rivers are her milk. To the Amungme, Freeport
is cutting out her heart”, Abrash and Kennedy explain.

And the impact is also physical. To preserve “security” at the mine
site, Indonesian army units have committed rape, torture and murder on
a grand scale.

But Moving Mountains, is not primarily bad news, although there
is plenty of that. First and foremost, it's a book about communities' resistance
to these capitalist predators.

Perhaps the most inspirational is the story of the people of Bougainville,
who from 1972 faced their own “Grasberg”: Rio Tinto's giant Panguna copper
mine.

After 17 years of trying to negotiate with the company and the PNG government,
the traditional landowners patience ran out. On November 22, 1988, a group
burned down mine buildings and destroyed vital electricity and communications
facilities, forcing the mine to close. They subsequently set up a Bougainville
Interim Government and declared independence.

The PNG Defence Force, backed by the Australian government, mounted
a decade-long war and economic blockade against the people of Bougainville.
But this failed. While impoverished by the war, Bougainville today is free
and Panguna remains closed.

Other stories of community struggle — and of hope — are also told in
Moving Mountains: resistance in the Philippines that has closed
mines in several provinces and all but nullified the pro-business 1995
Mining Act; the struggle of the Mirrar people of Kakadu against the Jabiluka
uranium mine; and the first internationally coordinated union campaign
against a single company, Rio Tinto.

There's even hope in a study of the industry's political economy by
Peter Colley. On closer inspection, their predatory instincts have become
almost marks of weakness. Such has been the technological advances in productivity
and the long-term decline in prices for minerals that companies find it
almost impossible to make a profit. These companies are on a knife-edge,
they are vulnerable, not all-powerful.

What the authors of Moving Mountains advance in response, with
considerable force of logic, is a simultaneously globalised and localised
strategy, attacking these giants from all sides: at the mine sites by forging
stronger alliances between workers, environmentalists and local peoples;
in the companies' home bases, by targeting their financial backers; and
on the plane of ideas, by advancing an alternative globalisation to the
one which allows such rampant destruction.

[Visit the Mining Policy Institute web site at <http://www.mpi.org.au>.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.

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