US Mine Gouges for Gold
by Danny Kennedy
The world's biggest gold mine is a lucrative investment for
New Orleans based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. The 5.75-million-acre
mining concession is worth an estimated $50-60 billion, and, last
year alone, the company netted $400 million. But for the Amungme,
the indigenous people who live around the mine, and the Koperapoca
Komoro, who live downstream from it, Freeport is nothing less
than a nightmare.
"These companies have taken over and occupied our land,"
says Tom Beanal, leader of LEMSA, the association of the Amungme
people, traditional landowners of the mine site. "Even the
sacred mountains we think of as our mother have been arbitrarily
torn up by them, and they have not felt the least bit guilty....
We have not been silent. We protest and are angry. But we have
been arrested, beaten and put into containers (shipping containers
used as holding cells); we have been tortured, even killed."
The mining concession is now the most militarized district
in all of Indonesia. The military presence surpasses even that
of occupied East Timor, where invading Indonesian forces have
been fighting a popular resistance for more than 21 years.
Since the first mine began operating in 1972, repression of
the local population has grown to hideous proportions, leaving
hundreds of people dead. In 1977, the Indonesian army killed 900
people in reprisals after local protesters sabotaged a Freeport
There is little question that Freeport is involved directly
in these ongoing atrocities. The Indonesian government owns a
9 percent share in the mine and supplies soldiers-who are fed
and sheltered by Freeport-to guard mining areas. And in its 1995
report on Indonesia, the US State Department reported that "where
indigenous people clash with development projects, the developers
almost always win. Tensions with indigenous people in Irian Jaya,
including the vicinity of the Freeport McMoRan mining concession
near Timika, led to a crackdown by government security forces,
resulting in the deaths of civilians and other violent human rights
There are also environmental abuses. Every day Freeport removes
125,000 tons of ore from the earth, and far less than 1 percent
of it contains precious minerals. The company dumps the remaining
rock waste, or "tailings," into the Ajkwa River.
In the US, it is illegal to dump mine waste into rivers, but
in Indonesia, Freeport's expansion plans call for dumping nearly
190,000 tons per day into the Ajkwa. The plan for handling mine
wastes also involves diverting the river into an enormous settling
pond. In the last 18 months, Freeport has constructed giant levees-some
as high as 10 or 12 meters (33-40 feet)-to contain the Ajkwa's
Over the projected 40-year life of the mine, the company plans
to dump 1.5 billion tons of rock into the downstream flood plain,
suffocating the roots of the tropical forest and decimating the
watershed. These tailings will flood more than 130 square kilometers
(50 square miles) of forest.
Already, tailings pollution has begun to kill the rain forest.
The zone most likely will become a source of acid mine drainage
that could contaminate the surrounding water shed, including the
nearby Lorentz Reserve, which contains mangrove forests, wetlands,
and one of only three equatorial glacier zones in the world.
Freeport claims that its tailings and river management plan
was "the best of many alternatives evaluated." Clearly,
the company did not consider the "no go" option, which
the downstream community would have preferred-but, sure enough,
they weren't asked.
Dozens of Koperapoca villagers living about 80 miles downstream
were told in January that they would have to abandon their homes
and relocate into settlements on the outskirts of Timika-a squalid
mining town established by Freeport in the 1970s-as the settling
pond fills with wastes. "God gave me this land and I will
not be moved from it. If I go to Timika, what is there for my
children?" asked Theo, a villager from Nuaripe. But as the
water builds up behind the levees, he may have no choice. Nuaripe,
in a precarious location on the leeward side of one of the levees,
risks devastation if the barrier were to burst under the weight
of Freeport's tailings.
The people of the region have not been compensated fairly
for the environmental damage to their land, nor for relocation
and resettlement. Freeport is offering 1 percent of future profits
to the communities, which could amount to $10-15 million a year
spread among 30,000 people, but the company has offered nothing
to clean up damage that already has been done. The 1 percent offer
is a subject of much contention among villagers and has been rejected
by the Amungme and Komoro peoples.
Although Freeport's CEO, Jim Bob Moffett, once dismissed the
mine's environmental impact by stating that it "is the equivalent
of me pissing in the Arafua Sea," it is increasingly apparent
that the company will have to respond to these concerns.
There is ongoing pressure from a range of groups, including
the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and Friends
of the Earth, to put a stop to human rights abuses and Freeport's
horrendous pollution. Meanwhile, there is also a $6 billion lawsuit
before a federal court in Louisiana. Tom Beanal filed the class-action
law suit on behalf of 2,000 Amungme villagers.
At Freeport-McMoRan's April 29 annual shareholders in New
Orleans, the Seattle Mennonite Church will present a resolution
calling on the company to "postpone the expansion of mining
operations until a just, accepted, peaceful and permanent resolution
of local indigenous concerns can be reached in consensus-based
process with all stockholders."
The question now is if a change will come in time to prevent
more deaths and halt further destruction. Recently, violence has
been escalating around the mine as the Amungme, Koperapoca Komoro
and other indigenous groups hold out against Freeport McMoRan's
attempts to buy their silence.
For Bertha Urmame, a mother from Nuaripe, one thing is certain.
"If the military comes," she says, "they will have
to kill me here. It is my land. We are only different by the skin
and hair, so Freeport cannot continue to treat us like animals."
from Earth Island Institute Journal, Spring 1997
Danny Kennedy, Project Underground's coordinator, campaigns
against Freeport's Indonesian operations. For more information,
contact Project Underground, 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703,
(510) 705-8981, www.moles.org.