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West Papua: mining in an occupation forgotten by the world

by Nithin Coca

It is a region rich in natural resources, the biggest source of tax revenue for the fourth most populous country in the world and, under de-facto military rule, it is a place where activists are jailed, tortured, disappeared and assassinated.

<p>A protester from the Papuan Students Alliance holds West Papua's banned Morning Star flag in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.</p>

A protester from the Papuan Students Alliance holds West Papua’s banned Morning Star flag in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

(Getty/Ulet Ifansasti)

So why doesn’t the world know more about West Papua?

Quite simply, because Indonesia’s restive, easternmost region is home to “one of the least covered armed conflicts in the world,” said Bob Dietz, Asia-Pacific director for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), of the more than 50-year conflict.

There are no official statistics but estimates put the number of Papuans killed by Indonesian authorities at anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people.

Four decades of heavy restrictions on media and human rights groups’ access to West Papua has resulted in a near media blackout.

Linked to all this is a United States-based mining giant, Freeport-McMoRan.

Though its Phoenix, Arizona headquarters is almost 15,000 kilometres away from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, it is the country’s largest taxpayer.

In 2014, Freeport contributed a massive US$1.5 billion to the Indonesian state coffers.

Not surprisingly, a huge percentage of its profits and revenue depends on its Papua operations – and this has wider implications.

“Freeport needs a lot of government security support to operate,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“In remote areas like Papua, this means less monitoring and more potential rights abuses taking place in their mining operations.”

In fact, national police and military are in charge of ‘maintaining order’ so that copper and gold can be safely extracted, and tax revenues can flow into Jakarta.

Freeport’s massive Grasberg mine – one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, with a minority stake held by global mining giant Rio Tinto – is essentially closed off to outside access.

“I like to joke that even if Jesus Christ wanted to visit [West] Papua, I don’t think he would get a permit,” said Harsono, noting that official permission requires signatures from 18 separate ministries and security agencies – an impossible task.

“Any bureaucracy that requires so many signatures to get a permit means there must be something terribly wrong in the area they want to enter.”


A history of oppression

West Papua (known by the Jakarta administration simply as Papua) forms the western half of the island of New Guinea (the eastern half being the independent nation of Papua New Guinea) and has long been a crown jewel for aspiring global powers.

It has, at various times, been controlled by Germany, The Netherlands and Australia, before it was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 in a military-run election in which about 1,000 hand-picked representatives were forced to vote for ascension.

West Papua was then ruled with the strongest of iron fists during Indonesia’s ‘New Order’ era under General Suharto.

“Suharto was a brutal dictator who savagely treated Papuans like animals and ordered many bombings and massacres in West Papua,” Benny Wenda, leader of the Free West Papua campaign told Equal Times.

These attacks were aimed chiefly at destroying the region’s independence aspirations and forcing its people to become Indonesians.

Wenda currently lives in exile in the United Kingdom, travelling around the world to raise awareness of the brutal atrocities committed by Indonesia against his people.

He witnessed this personally, when, as a child, the Indonesian military bombed his village and killed members of his family.

Natural resources have played a crucial role in the trajectory of Papuan history.

Just four years after its annexation, Freeport arrived, marking the beginning of a long relationship which has proved prosperous for the company, the Indonesian government and few others.

Meanwhile, the people of West Papua have endured great pain and suffering.

There was hope when Suharto’s dictatorship fell in 1998, bringing free elections to the archipelago, and even an independence referendum in East Timor, which was itself invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975, and faced similar, bloody oppression.

It turned out to be false hope for West Papua.

“It looked as though an independence referendum was imminent but the new Indonesian government became incredibly scared of losing West Papua,” said Wenda.

“So [Papuan independence leader] Theys Eluay was murdered by the Indonesian authorities, and ever since then, the situation in West Papua has only declined. There have been no real attempts to help with human rights or self-determination from any Indonesian government since.”

What has changed, however, has been an even greater investment in resource development, and the continued inflow of migrants from Java and Sumatra, Indonesia’s two most populous islands, into West Papua to manage resource development.

“Indonesia’s in-country migration is coming close to making Papuans a minority in their traditional homeland,” said Dietz.

Of a population of 3.5 million, only about half are from the hundreds of Melanesian Papuan ethnic groups, with the remainder of the population coming from Javanese, Sundanese, Malay and Madurese migrants, nearly all of whom have arrived since 1969.

Moreover, Indonesia plans to further exploit Papua by expanding palm oil plantations into traditionally-held forested land, and increasing downstream mining revenue by building smelters and other industrial facilities along the coast.

“I’m concerned with how the government uses [all this] tax money,” said Eric Samudra, a Jakarta-based governance researcher. “Is it being used for the good of the people, especially Papuans? The answer, obviously, is no.”


Disengaged public

Despite the news of police killing four protesters in December, many Indonesians remain silent on their government’s occupation of a minority, mostly non-Islamic people who have been waging a low-level insurgency for freedom and justice.

“The problem is most people choose not to do anything about it, while some others believe that nothing can be done,” said Samudra.

However, recent documentaries such as the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing are slowly opening Indonesians eyes to the country’s troubled past, which includes a bloody repression of its nascent Communist Party in the 1960s.

John M. Miller, the National Coordinator of the East Timor & Indonesia Action Network, who publishes a monthly update on the situation in West Papua, believes that while public awareness is growing, it still has a long way to go before real change can occur.

“The silence is beginning to be broken, but a broad understanding isn’t there yet.”

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo promised to bring greater development and autonomy to Indonesia’s outer islands, and the December killings brought Papua to the forefront of his administration’s efforts.

But questions remain about whether he will really be able to change the Papua situation.

“We believe President Jokowi would like to make a difference in Papua, and he has already made some moves to do that,” said Harsono, pointing to the president’s pledge to visit Papua frequently and listen to local concerns.

“But moving the security and civilian bureaucracy over [West] Papua is not easy.”

That is one reason why many Papuan activists, including Wenda, are tired of empty words and want a referendum.

“We do not believe that any outcome other than full independence for West Papua can ever be a solution.”

On the ground, government policy seems to be going in the opposite direction.

A case in point: the recently-announced smelter, to be operated by Freeport and an Indonesian partner, will be built on traditional Kamoro lands in the Arafura coast, south of Freeport’s existing mining operations in the region.

The smelter was negotiated directly between the Indonesian government and Freeport, with no say or consultation from the local people.

Not surprisingly, locals groups oppose the smelter, which they fear will further pollute their lands and destroy their traditional way of living. If plans move forward, tensions will likely rise.

Dominikus Mitoro, acting chair of the Kamoro indigenous consultative organisation leadership council, stated publicly that “Freeport or any other investor will encounter endless problems,” and that “no business will run smoothly until it leaves [our lands]."

According to activists, now more than ever, media access to West Papua is crucial in order to bring global attention to the planned smelter, and to give the world a true understanding of the human rights situation in the region – and Freeport’s role in it.

But that access seems unlikely for now.

“Indonesia’s leaders appear determined not to lose another part of its far-flung archipelago by having troublesome reporters, international or Indonesian, expose what is happening in Papua,” said Dietz.

Freeport McMoRan declined to comment on this story.

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Your comments

  • On 21 April 2015 at 17:35, by Sarah McLaughlin Replying to: West Papua: mining in an occupation forgotten by the world

    All over the world, these multi-billion dollar extraction companies are milking the planet for everything its got. When will ’doing the right thing’ outweigh greed? It’s disgusting that an American company can sit back whilst people are being heinously murdered at the hands of corrupt government. Americans are supposed to be model, international citizens. I guess not at Freeport. What can I do? I’m only a Canadian teacher teaching at an International school in China. Next month is our Earth Day and the theme is "Save the World". I will be teaching my students about the injustice and unethical practice taking place just south of them. Thank you for educating me.
    - Sarah

  • On 30 April 2015 at 00:52, by Moorookamick Replying to: West Papua: mining in an occupation forgotten by the world

    There are two important elements to West Papua, IMO, PNG next door & McMoRan.

    McMoRan is the economic powerhouse of this region so any move to either establish
    West Papua as an independant country or annex it to PNG will have have to first convince
    McMoRan that it will be better off seperated from Indonesis.

    This is a hard ask because:
    (a) PNG at present is far from being a stable safe place to do business. Traditionally
    PNG has required a stake in major resource companies, a further interest by a local
    indiginous council and then the less official dealings og corrupt officialdom.
    And, of course, there’s always the spectre of Boganville, an incredibably rich
    mine which was taken over by PNG natives 35 years ago, thashed under the noses
    of the PNG armed forces and has been derilict ever since.

    (b) The formation of a new country in the form of West Papua would be a dicey
    prospect for McMoRan or any other form of investment because there are simply too
    many unknowns. It would be worse than East Timor because its population
    is less educated/westernised, lacks educated leadership and would be almost
    entirely dependant on McMoRan revenue.

    So, IMO, from McMoRan’s point of view," the Devil you know is probably better than the Devil you dont know". Unlike East Timor, The Indonesians have learned that the
    colonisation of West Papua with a substantial percentage of Indonesian nationals
    provides a substantial defence against an Australian led East Timor like liberation.

    So, in summary, while there may be enormous sentimental support for the West
    Papuans globally, this support is not likely to morph into action on the ground
    to free WP from the Indonesian iron grip.

  • On 3 November 2015 at 21:44, by Pete Replying to: West Papua: mining in an occupation forgotten by the world

    Great Article.

    Dear Canadian Sarah in China. You can help, as Canadian Mining Companies have stock in these mines too. Write and talk to your politicians.

    And since you are in China you can also bring up the plight of the Tibetans who’s country is also being occupied, raped and looted by China, just as bad as WP, if not worse.

  • On 21 March at 17:31, by Andrew Replying to: West Papua: mining in an occupation forgotten by the world

    West Papua seeks decolonization, and needs a voice at the United Nations to end the deception which America and Indonesia in 1962 jointly used against Ghana and the rest of the UN members.
    The illegal idea of using trusteeship to ’trade’ a colony https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1958-60v17/d203
    The Indonesian agreement on condition nobody call the trusteeship a trusteeship https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v23/d150

    West Papua had the world’s largest gold & copper deposits, wealth that the US has been looting fcx.com The deception was to replace Dag Hammarskjold with U Thant who asked the General Assembly to approve a UN Trusteeship Agreement (New York Agreement) which he then with-held from the Trusteeship Council; that is why the UN has been blind to the looting & torture of the people of West Papua for 54 years.
    To end this deception, we need a nation to put the issue of West Papua (General Assembly resolution 1752) on the agenda of the Trusteeship Council, which any UN gov’t can do at any time.

  • On 12 April at 10:01, by Tori Replying to: West Papua: mining in an occupation forgotten by the world

    What can one do in the USA? Start a Change.org petition (I can’t find one yet. Is there one?)? Who should it go to & what does one demand?

    I can write/phone my Senators & Congressional Representatives. Do you know of a group that already has an electronic template set up for contacting US lawmakers? One can better use social media for spreading the message if something like this is electronically established.

    Thanks for letting me know. Best wishes.

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