The aspiring nation of West Papua has one of the most extensive and pristine stretches of tropical rainforest in the world, home of incredible natural and linguistic diversity.
Yet of all the places in the world, few have had as traumatic a recent history.
Having finally been released from colonial occupation by the Netherlands in 1962, West Papua was to enjoy its freedom for a mere two weeks. Indonesia, backed by tacit support from Washington, invaded and staged a fraudulent election which, though everyone involved knew well what was really happening, was clearly enough for the U.N. to shamefully ratify Indonesia’s sovereignty. What happened next should haunt all those complicit to this day: over 40 years of slow-motion genocide and environmental devastation.
As is so often the case in places with tumultuous histories, West Papua is incredibly rich in natural resources: vast logging potential, Uranium and huge reserves of Copper and Gold. It didn’t take long for business to come Indonesia’s way. Remarkably, Indonesia didn’t even wait until the ironically titled ‘Act of Free Choice’, selling mining rights to Freeport McMoran, a U.S mining company, two years before. Since then, logging (both legal and illegal) and mining industries have been given a largely free reign under an Indonesian government grateful for the tax revenue. Freeport estimates that it has contributed a total of $33billion in tax revenues in total, a testament to their leading role in the plunder of West Papua.
I first came across Freeport’s legacy in West Papua not through the media or an NGO but through Google Maps. I had read about the political situation there and wanted a closer look. Focusing on the island, I zoomed into the western half and was immediately struck by a vast, barren scar cutting through the forest. Following its trail up seemingly blackened rivers, I found myself inspecting the Grasberg mine, a vast quarry where once a mountain had stood*. This mountain, it transpired, was once a God to the tribesman in its shadow. Now its death was choking their rivers, killing the fish and repeatedly flooding larger and larger areas of lowland forest with billions of tonnes of toxic waste sediment that is growing by around 300,000 tonnes a day. It is estimated that a further 30 billion tonnes of waste is yet to come in the remaining thirty years of expansion the mine has left. That even puts the golf course at risk…
In 1995 Freeport finally came under serious scrutiny. Following an independent review of the Grasberg Mine, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation cancelled Freeport’s insurance policy for environmental violations that would have been a crime in the United States. The ‘tailings’, as the waste is called, has had a devastating effect on the environment, with an Indonesian Internal ministry memorandum stating that the mine had killed all life in the rivers, violating the criminal section of the 1997 environmental law. With an estimated one third of the material being swept into the estuary, even this important breeding ground is at threat. Another worry is that with such heavy rainfall, acids could work their way through the honeycomb of caverns beneath the mountains contaminating a large area of fresh water.
One geochemist, who worked at the mine at the time, told a mining conference in 2003 that bright-green coloured pools have been seen forming several miles away from the mine.
Access to the mine area is restricted. Visas are granted only to employees of the mine and all journalists are banned. Infrastructure in the area are owned and controlled by Freeport and the Indonesian military provide an extensive security force. For this protection, Indonesian officers were paid an estimated $20m dollars directly by Freeport between 1998 and 2004. The value of the mine to those in power, together with both the moral and physical destruction it represents, has necessitated a wide array of human rights abuses including forced resettlements, political imprisonment and torture.
This is clearly unjust, the impunity of power making hope seem distant. That the Indonesian people themselves come to realize the true nature of the situation and pressure their own government to change may represent the best chance for peace, so says @akrockefeller, the prolific West Papuan human rights activist:
“An uphill battle to be sure, but [with] plenty of corruption & reasons for Indonesians to distrust their government and Freeport, and with revolution in the air – who knows?”
Take heart, for with an emerging global consciousness beginning to form, it has become a matter of when, not if, Freeport face justice and the people of West Papua finally have their day in the sun.
* Annoyingly, Google seem to have recently made searching for the mine itself rather hard, with the search function failing to find it. Tip: use the wikipedia search layer.
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