|The Mining Menace of Freeport-McMoRan
by Pratap Chatterjee
The Multinational Monitor (April 1996)
KOPERAPOKA, New Guinea -- On Friday, March 8, 1996, a vehicle belonging to mining company Freeport McMoRan knocked down William Kogoya, a Dani person from Waa, near the company's giant mine site in Indonesian-controlled Irian Jaya, the western half of the island of New Guinea.
Freeport says that Kogoya was hurt in an accident, but other sources claim that they heard Kogoya was beaten and tossed into a creek where he was later found by a Freeport expatriate worker.
Rumors spread rapidly that Kogoya had died, stirring unrest among the local people. Two of his relatives -- Guarimo and Binut -- were reportedly denied access to the hospital.
Two days later, local residents heard more reports of rough treatment at the hands of Freeport staff. "We heard that a woman and her son, from the village of Banti, were pushed out of a shopping center in the mine site on Sunday by Freeport security officials," says a local human rights activist, who asked not to be named.
"They were very scared and they tried to run. One of them fell and was bleeding in the head. They returned to Banti, which is about five minutes drive from [Freeport company town] Tembagapura to tell other villagers."
The early March events ignited long-smoldering embers of resentment among indigenous people in the area surrounding the Freeport mine. "A crowd of men, women and children who were really mad marched to Tembagapura at about noon to confront the Freeport security," says the activist, who estimates that there were approximately 3,000 protesters.
"They were armed with bows, arrows, sticks and stones and they attacked the security office. The violence continued on Monday morning when they attacked offices, schools and the shopping center breaking windows, throwing out files and computers and damaging cars."
"We fight against [Freeport Chief Executive Officer] Jim Bob Moffett, Freeport and the government," says a statement issued by the protesters. "We fight because our rights are not recognized, our resources are extracted and destroyed while our lives are taken," it reads.
Freeport closed down its mine for most of the week as the violence spread to Jayapura, the capital of Irian Jaya, when army officials refused to allow local people to see the body of a freedom fighter who died mysteriously in prison in Jakarta. Five people were killed in the riots before the army restored calm.
"Due to vandalism and sporadic violence in Timika, Freeport shut down operations for a few days. Operations resumed on Thursday, March 14 at about 4 p.m. and returned to normal levels about four hours later, says Kristin Lamkau, a Freeport spokesperson at the company's New Orleans headquarters.
Lamkau confirms that some windows and testing equipment were damaged at the company environmental laboratory, but denied that any other damage had occurred.
The newspaper The Australian estimates that Freeport lost $9 million in production and that $2 million worth of damage was inflicted on company property.
The day the mine was re-opened, Moffett, accompanied by heavy security, met with local leaders and promised to develop a plan of action to solve local grievances. The plan, together with an independent environmental audit, is to be made public in April.
Wasting the waters
Local grievances are rife in the area around Freeport's mine, probably the world's most controversial. Allegations of major environmental damage and human rights abuses have provoked investigations and protests in the United States and riots on the island itself.
Freeport McMoran has shaved off more than 120 meters of the 4,884 meter-high Puncuk Jaya Mountain -- the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes, lying approximately 90 kilometers to north of Koperapoka -- to extract copper and gold.
Vast quantities of ore-bearing rock from the world's largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine are ferried by an aerial tramway to a mill, where the ore is crushed and mixed with water and other additives to allow the metals to float to the surface. The concentrated slurry is then piped 112 kilometers away to the coastal town of Amamepare, where ships carry the precious cargo for further processing in Spain and Japan. Further refining yields some $7.2 million worth of metals every day.
The remaining waste from this operation -- more than 110,000 tonnes a day -- is dumped into the rivers that course down the mountain into the swamps below, where the indigenous Komoro peoples have lived in the village of Koperapoka for centuries. The name of the village is ironic because it is a Dutch bastardization of two Komoro words which mean "the place of the palm tree."
Environmentalists say that the palm trees were killed by the waste from the Freeport mine. And the Komoro say that that this is not the only impact of the waste. This January, Agnes Amai died in a small two-room shanty house in Koperapoka. Her brothers say that abscesses developed on her face and armpits a day or two before she collapsed.
"It happened just after she collected some food at Payefe where the contamination from the Freeport's copper and gold mine is very heavy," claims Amatus Amai, her brother.
Freeport vehemently refutes this account. "The reports of `mystery diseases' have been investigated by our medical experts, by government medical experts and by journalists such as yourself," wrote Edward Pressman, spokesperson for Freeport Indonesia's head office in Jakarta in a faxed statement.
"In each authoritative investigation, there has been no evidence that anything Freeport is doing in carrying out its mining operations has anything to do with real or perceived health problems."
Pressman says in addition to providing free medical care to those in need, Freeport conducts "comprehensive monitoring programs that constantly analyze water quality." The results are "conclusive ... the tailings [mining waste] are not toxic and pose absolutely no health threat to the local population whatsoever."
Amai disagrees. "Many people have stomach aches, skin rashes and they often cough up blood. Freeport set up a clinic for us a year ago but sometimes -- as in the case of my sister -- there is no time to go there. She died a day after complaining of problems," he says.
The Komoro say the mine has changed their lives in many ways. For centuries they have lived off "eraka" and "amena" -- the local words for fish and sago palm.
"Today it is hard to find the yuaro, lifao, mufao, irao and ufurao -- the traditional fish that we used to catch," says Agapitus Maerimau, another Komoro person who lives in Nawaripi, a small community of 160 people, some eight kilometers away.
Maerimau and his family, who used to live in Koperapoka, moved here 14 years ago when Freeport built them new houses to replace their own which were sinking as a result of the mining operations. "The fish that we find tastes bitter, like malaria medicine. The only fish that thrives is the mujahir, a fish from Java. The sago tastes like sand," he says.
"We have to walk 20 kilometers from here to find food. The fish we have to buy in the Timika markets where it costs 2,000 rupiah (90 cents) for five small fish. But we have no jobs to get money," he adds.
The Komoro peoples are not the only ones to complain about the mining activity. Also angry are the Amung peoples (also known as the Amungme, the name for a male Amung) who live in the 17 valleys of the highlands, where Freeport's mine is located.
The Amungme depend on "erom," "mow" and "baw-eh" (sweet potato, taro and pig) for their food. Today, say the Amung, the leaves of these vegetables and the skin of the pigs show strange discoloration.
"We call this `aspal' because it looks black like the color of the asphalt on the road," says Tom Beanal, who works for Lemasa, a non-governmental organization set up by the Amung. "We don't have any word for this in our language because we never saw anything like this before," he adds.
Freeport insists all of these charges are baseless. "The allegations of serious health problems resulting from the tailings, lodged by whomever you spoke with, are utterly false," says Pressman.
"Regarding the knowledge of aquatic life, while the local people may possess superior knowledge of local wildlife, our diversity surveys (show that) the Ajkwa river is very similar to other river systems tested in the number of aquatic species present and the abundance of those species," he adds.
The Study and Information Centre for Papuan Peoples (PaVo) in Delft, the Netherlands, says that there is no concrete evidence one way or another on whether Freeport's operations are toxic.
This is because there have been no independent tests for environmental quality, says PaVo. Freeport itself only began testing water quality a few years ago.
But based on Freeport's reports of its mining activities, PaVo estimates that 20 to 40 kilometers of the Ajkwa river here will be hazardous to fish and humans for about 15 years. PaVo also projects that a 35-square-kilometer area in the floodplains will be poisoned over some 35 years, while a 100-square-kilometer area of the estuary and delta will be contaminated for the same period.
Environmental experts -- both at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and at Freeport's laboratories -- agree that minute concentrations of waste metals can be toxic.
"One part per million of dissolved copper can present a significant health threat to humans and animals [but] the copper concentration in the Ajkwa river has been shown to be roughly 0.007 parts per million," says Pressman.
Controversy comes home
The complaints of the indigenous people have won support in faraway Washington D.C. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) -- a political risk insurance agency owned by the U.S. government -- withdrew a five-year-old, $100 million insurance policy for the mine last November.
By way of explanation, Robert O'Sullivan, a lawyer for OPIC, cited environmental problems associated with "acid mine drainage, ... toxic metals ... and the mismanagement of solid and hazardous wastes at the site," in a letter to Freeport.
Freeport immediately brought in the heavy hitters. Days before the decision, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the State Department to stop the cancellation, according to the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper reported that Kissinger and his consulting firm received $600,000 from Freeport in 1994.
Indonesian president Suharto also made a personal appeal to U.S. President Bill Clinton, when they met at the White House, to no avail. James Woolsey, a former Central Intelligence Agency chief, is now representing Freeport in arbitration proceedings regarding the OPIC cutoff.
Concerned about news reports concerning Freeport's operations, the World Bank, which has sold a $50 million insurance policy to the New Guinea mine, recently asked its staff to conduct an internal investigation into the matter. Freeport was more than cooperative. This February, Jim Bob Moffett, Freeport's chief executive, flew to Washington to offer Bank officials a free trip to the mine site in his personal 747 jet.
Bank officials have not taken up the offer to date, but other financial analysts have been happy to do so. In November, 21 representatives of major investment companies -- 15 from the United States, three from England, two from Canada and one from France -- were taken to the mine site in Indonesia and to Spain to visit the processing plant.
"I think the OPIC letter is a crock. I looked at the river and I looked at other rivers nearby and they looked just the same to me. I think Freeport is one of the most environmentally responsible companies in the world," says Chuck Bradford, a mining analyst at Union Bank of Switzerland in New York.
"Mind you, I'm not an environmental expert, but I've seen a lot of other mines around the world. I think that OPIC pulled out because of reports of human rights abuses. But we were told that they happened 90 kilometers away," he adds.
Corporate rights or human rights
These abuses, blamed on Indonesian army officials guarding the mine, took place over a variety of occasions and have been documented from eyewitness accounts by H.F.M. Munninghof, the Catholic bishop of Jayapura, the capital of Irian Jaya. The report was translated and published by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) last August.
According to the bishop's report, on Christmas day 1994, people from three churches in the villages of Arwanop, Banti and Waa gathered near the mine site to pray after a major peaceful demonstration protesting the mine.
After the religious ceremony, a group of 15 people left to go to the Freeport company town of Tembagapura but were arrested on the way by a group of soldiers who accused them of being thugs.
One of the 15, who requested anonymity, says that the group were beaten and locked into a Freeport "container" at eight o'clock in the morning on Christmas day.
"The 15 of us were beaten with sticks and rifle butts and were kicked with boots by the troops ... until about noon. They stripped us stark naked and took our belongings such as beads and money," says the member of the group.
The group was released from the container and escorted by soldiers on to a Freeport bus which was on its way to Timika.
One of the group -- Wendi Tabuni, a 23-year-old man from Timika -- "tried to jump out of the window but one soldier quickly jumped up and stabbed him in the belly with his bayonet ... [but he] still jumped out of the window and ran away," says the group member who requested anonymity.
"The bus stopped at once and a number of soldiers jumped down and without warning shot Wendi in the head. The soldiers took his body and threw it in a ravine," he adds.
The other 14 were taken to the Freeport workshop in Koperapoka at about two o'clock in the afternoon where "we were beaten and tortured one by one by the soldiers."
Three people -- Yoel Kogoya, aged 27, Peregamus Waker, aged 28, and Elias Jikwa, aged 28, -- "were tortured by being beaten with sticks on the neck from behind, left, right and from the front, till their necks were broken and they died," says the member of the group.
The following day, Yunus Omabak, a 33-year-old Amung tribal chief from Waa, says he was summoned to a military post in Tembagapura together with three other elders from his tribe, to report on the religious service.
Omabak says he was put on a Freeport bus and taken to a Freeport "security cell." There the soldiers accused them of raising an Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement) flag at the Christmas day protest and supplying the rebels with rice and cigarettes.
"They hit me over the head with a big stone till blood streamed over my body. They put an iron bar in the hollow of my knees and forced me to squat and lean against a chest for hours. I was screaming in pain," he says.
"Meanwhile my friend Octo was stabbed with a bayonet in his left shoulder and armpit till he screamed out loudly. His hands were put on the cement and stamped on with boots and hit with gun butts. I thought he was dead," says Omabak.
Freeport representatives say that none of their officials were involved in the incident. They refused to comment on the allegations of torture by the Indonesian military. "Freeport operates under its host government laws and respects the jurisdiction of the military, which is responsible for the safety and security of its people," says Greg Probst, a Freeport spokesperson.
Some 37 people were killed in such abuses in 1994 and 1995 -- no real surprise to local people who have watched thousands of people die at the hands of army officials in the past decades. But placing documentation of these incidents into the hands of the priests appears to have paid off. Since August, no further deaths stemming from army activities have been reported, and this February army courts sentenced four officers for their role in the massacre.
The reports of environmental damage and human rights abuse at Freeport's mine in Irian Jaya have struck a chord in the United States.
Students at Loyola University in New Orleans and the University of Texas in Austin, both of which receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from Freeport, have held demonstrations to protest the company.
Following the OPIC decision in November, Loyola students and faculty demonstrated outside Freeport Chief Executive Officer Jim Bob Moffett's New Orleans mansion. They were joined by Catholic peace activists from Pax Christi.
The protest was organized by John Clark, a philosophy professor. Clark also works with an environmental group called the Delta Greens, which has protested the dumping of radioactive gypsum waste into the Mississippi river from Freeport's phosphate processing plants in New Orleans. Freeport is the worst polluting company in the United States, based on the quantity of pollutants discharged into the land, air and water, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.
Freeport is also a major sponsor of the University of Texas Geology Department, from which Moffett graduated in 1961. The company gives the department $1 million a year to send students to study the mine site in Irian Jaya.
Freeport has also given over $2 million to the university for a new molecular biology building. In return, the university proposed to name the building after Moffett and his wife, although the faculty voted to name it after Barbara Jordan, a civil rights activist who recently died.
In November, a group called Students for Earth Awareness (SEA) held a 37-hour sit-in at the main university building to protest the university's connections to Freeport. Steven Feld, a professor of ethnomusicology, quit his job in protest against Freeport.
"We have 3,200 signatures from students calling for Moffett's name to be dropped. Considering that 4,100 students voted in the last election, we think that's pretty impressive," Hannah Gould of SEA says.
-- P. C.
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