The mine at the centre of West Papua’s colonisation

May 20, 2023
Grasberg mine West Papua
Background: Grasberg mine in West Papua. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Foreground: Indonesia's Detachment 88 shock-troops. Photo: AK Rockefeller/Flickr

Grasberg mine — the largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine in the world — is central to the story of West Papua’s colonisation. The mine, in West Papua’s Waa Valley on traditional lands (tanah adat) belonging to the Amungme and Kamora people, is a site of extraction, violence and profit.

Understanding Grasberg’s existence involves understanding United States mining company Freeport’s entangled history with former Indonesian President Suharto’s military regime.

In their article, “Development, Power, and the Mining Industry in Papua: A Study of Freeport Indonesia”, PA Rifai-Hasan notes that by 1962, the US believed the only permanent solution to avoid Jakarta being “driven into the arms” of the communist bloc was Indonesian control of West Papua.

This set in motion two key events.

First, the US provided support under the New York Agreement of 1962 for the Act of Free Choice (Penentuan Pendapat Rakyat), also known as the “Act of No Choice” — a 1969 plebiscite ceding West Papuan sovereignty to Indonesia following a vote, held under duress, of just 1025 West Papuans.

Second, a US-supported coup brought Suharto’s self-described “New Order” regime (Orde Baru) to power in 1967.

Having politically secured the “open veins” of West Papua, Suharto’s Orde Baru saw Grasberg as what Macarena Gómez-Barris describes as an “extractive zone” in her book of the same title — a site where the existing life forms exist under the gaze of economically rationalised state and corporate mega-projects.

Freeport and Suharto’s regime agreed to a 30-year contract in 1967 (talks had begun in 1965), which included no obligations to traditional landowners and no environmental regulations. Freeport’s mining operations moved three kilometres in 1988, from the depleted Ertsberg to the current site at Grasberg mountain (then-valued at US$40 billion).

The inflow of foreign capital helped stabilise Suharto’s regime in the early years and maintain the dictatorship for three decades.

Profit or livelihoods?

In the cosmology of the Amungme people, Grasberg mountain is the sacred head of their mother and its rivers her milk; to them, Freeport is digging out her heart. By contrast, at an annual meeting in 1997, Freeport CEO James Moffett told shareholders that Freeport’s operations were like taking “a volcano that’s been decapitated by nature, and we’re mining the oesophagus”.

The colonial extraction at Grasberg has created huge short-term profits for Freeport, while leaving local communities to deal with the long-term social and ecological effects. As a result, the mine is a centrepiece in the bloody struggle for West Papuan independence; a site of resistance to Freeport and Jakarta’s exploitation.

The Free Papua Movement (OPM) has attacked the mine multiple times, fuelled by outrage over the dispossession, environmental degradation and lack of political participation that underpin Grasberg’s operations. The OPM blew up the main slurry pipe in 1977, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. In response, the Indonesian military massacred at least 800 people, although other estimates are much higher.

The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the OPM, recently took New Zealand pilot Phillip Mehrtens hostage to draw international attention to the ongoing colonisation of West Papua.

Freeport relies on the Indonesian military to protect its operations — it has spent more than US$20 million every year since 2010 on military and police. This is documented in the company’s euphemistically named “Working Toward Sustainable Development” reports.

International attention has slowly increased following successive human rights reports exposing the military’s intimidation, brutality and torture. The reports and investigations have given locals a platform to voice the impacts of their dispossession, which otherwise goes unheard.

Amungme community organiser Yosepha Alomang described the abuse she suffered to the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights in the US House of Representatives in 1999. “I myself have experienced torture at the hands of Indonesia and the giant mining company Freeport,” Alomang said.

“I have been kidnapped by security forces ... and carried in a Freeport automobile, and held for one month in a ‘bathroom’ which was full of human faeces.”

Mining waste

Mining at Grasberg runs day and night, and requires satellite tracking of the mining trucks that operate shrouded in cloud. This has generated millions of tonnes of mine waste, or tailings, over its lifetime, which are toxic to people and ecosystems.

By 1990, Freeport’s tailings had polluted 84,158 hectares of offshore river systems and 35,820 hectares of onshore systems. About 700,000 tonnes of earth are sifted through every day, with more than 230,000 tonnes of tailings dumped into the local Otomina and Aikwa river systems.

A 2016 study published in Nature found that tailings had smothered and destroyed 13,800 hectares of forest in the adjacent world heritage-listed Lorentz National Park. Rifai-Husan writes that, apart from toxicity and destruction of the river and forest systems, the dumping of tailings has “consumed local population gardening, fishing, and hunting areas and wildlife, and separated people from their resources and livelihood”.

Social scientist Kjell Anderson labelled the violence and displacement a “slow motion genocide”, in which West Papuans have had their “identity, autonomy, and physical security substantially undermined through the neo-colonial policies of the Indonesian state”.

Freeport’s exploitation and extraction is an extended arm of the Indonesian state, linking Suharto’s Orde Baru with their new development plans. For example, the Indonesian government often claims that traditional land is not being “effectively used”, and seizes it to supposedly provide for “the greatest welfare for the people”.  

As Amungme tribal leader Tom Beanel asks: “Could it be that the Indonesian government is drawn to Irian Jaya (West Papua) not by its people, but by its natural resources?”

Indonesia’s colonialism has sidelined First Nations’ perspectives and follows the same logic applied in settler colonies, from Australia to Palestine. West Papuans have been forced to abandon the living-with-land practices that have existed for thousands of years.

With communities no longer able to survive off polluted rivers and soil, Papuans migrate to the downstream flows of the Aikwa delta to scrape a living. They use handmade sifters to search for scraps of gold, exposing themselves to pollution with often-unknown effects.

By mapping long-term harm, Freeport can be held accountable for the dispossession and environmental damage they seek to hide. At the Grasberg mine, a US company is working to stabilise and benefit a military regime through extraction and exploitation.

Since “The Act of No Choice”, Indonesian governments have profited from exploiting the natural wealth of West Papua, and this extraction is closely tied to foreign capital and aided by military control. Since Suharto, Freeport’s operations have morphed; where once they could escape questioning of killings and land degradation, they now use development discourse as cover.

While we can only hope for the safe return of Mehrtens as soon as possible, this is an opportunity to raise awareness around the continuing colonisation of West Papua.

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