'The Incredible Hulk on cocaine'


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


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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