Subject: Mining grievances that run deep in West Papua

The Straits Times (Singapore)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Mining grievances that run deep

John McBeth, Senior Writer

AS WITH everything surrounding Freeport Indonesia, there is no easy explanation for the recent rash of shootings along the precipitous mist-shrouded road that leads to the company's high-altitude copper and gold mine in the Central Highlands of Papua.

The latest violence, which has claimed the lives of Australian project manager Drew Grant and two policemen, is the worst since renegade Papuan gunmen killed three teachers - two Americans and one Indonesian - on the same road seven years ago. The motive for the 2002 ambush has not been determined. Nor has there been any explanation for three blasts directed last September at Freeport's lowland facilities.

The latest shootings all took place over the same 5km stretch of road as in the 2002 incident. The shootings ended only after the airlifting on July 28 of a company of widely feared Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) troops from Jayapura and Merauke.

One thing seems clear: Much of what is happening has to do with the struggle for control of an US$80 million (S$115 million) illegal gold-mining operation involving elements of the police and military, politicians, local business interests and possibly even separatist rebels.

'The sad truth is that these tussles over patronage schemes are also happening in other lucrative resource-rich regions,' one senior Defence Ministry official told The Straits Times.

'The invisible hand of the market is always more powerful than the under-funded guiding hand of the state, whether it is the local government, police or the military.'

At least 10,000 small-scale miners and their dependants are now feeding off the rock waste, or tailings, from the world's most profitable mine.

The panning began to grow in scope in 2004, in the same period that an 800-strong military task force, which had been guarding the mine since 1996, was being replaced by 1,800 Mobile Brigade paramilitary policemen as part of Indonesia's democratisation process.

Apart from now acting as middlemen for gold sales, the police charge 1 million rupiah (S$143) to transport the panners through the company concession to different sites along a river system that carries the tailings to a lowland deposition area.

Given the often-bitter rivalry between the two services, army commanders from the provincial level down are clearly unhappy about not getting their share of the pickings. And that isn't all.

It is understood that the military's share of the US$1.6 million the security forces received in cash allowances last year from Freeport's US$8 million security budget was pared down even more during a round of a recession-related cost-cutting last November.

That, say well-placed sources, meant a cut in payments to a small Timika-based Kopassus detachment and to some of the organic territorial units which had eased out of the illegal mining operation. Whatever the reason for the seven separate shooting incidents, which occurred between July 11 and 26, the 12 people arrested so far may well turn out to be disaffected surrogates for a range of different interests.

Certainly, they were not expert marksmen. Of the 19 shots fired at a Freeport vehicle in the first fatal ambush, just one 5.56mm round penetrated the roof and broke into four pieces, fatally wounding the Australian in the neck and chest.

Sources familiar with the investigation say only one M-16 and an Indonesian-made SS1 assault rifle were used in that attack and the six subsequent hits on mainly police vehicles by gunmen operating from a string of roadside bivouacs.

Many of those arrested so far are disgruntled younger members of the Amungme tribe which, along with the lowland Komoro tribe, has been most affected by the mine since it opened in the late 1960s.

Usually expressed in the rich language of the Papuan independence movement, their complaints stem from perceptions that Freeport's so-called One Percent Fund, in which US$20 million to US$50 million of total revenues go to seven different tribes, has become a pocketbook for powerful tribal leaders.

The same grievances apply to the alleged lack of transparency in the management of the Amungme's own US$1 million-a-year Waartsing Foundation, despite the fact that cheques must be signed by all seven members of the board.

What complicates things further is the presence around Timika of Free Papua Movement (OPM) leader Kelly Kwalik, who hides in plain sight and seems to serve as a convenient scapegoat when the occasion demands.

A week before last September's explosions, the OPM distributed leaflets demanding the closure of the mine. It later transpired that Kwalik, who allegedly claimed responsibility for the attacks, had signed them the previous July.

'Everyone gains from actions such as these - all except the people who have been arrested,' said one well-placed source. 'The military gets a foothold again so they can exploit the panning, police numbers go up and the Papuans get to push their cause of being the poor and the oppressed.'

With the government allowing the whole situation to fester, the biggest loser may well turn out to be Freeport itself - even if the profits from the mine do serve to act as a salve.

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