Thursday, October 20, 2011

West Papua. It's a Goldmine.

SOME of the places in the world whose people play the most important part in our lives through actual wealth creation (as distinct from conspicuous consumption, or the hocus-pocus trick of transposing billions of debt owed peoples and profit bonuses for private individuals), are places seldom heard of.

There are places deep in the heart of Africa where kids are made to crawl into unsafe mines for an ore called Coltan, from which tantalum can be extracted to end up in cellphones, game players and other gadgets used by your kids, and for all I know in this laptop I am using. The UN says the trade fuels wars, but then the wars help provide the captive child labour, and somehow the Western companies involved in purchasing ore or supplying weapons manage to keep their hands clean.

Unlike the makeshift mines and holes dug out of the ground of eastern Congo, the world's biggest gold and copper mine is one gigantic hole and an underground mine which make up Freeport, in West Papua, owned jointly by US-based Freeport McMoRan, Indonesian subsidiary PT Freeport Indonesia and their Anglo Australian partner, Rio Tinto.

West Papua is the western half of the island we used to call New Guinea. Its straight
-line border shows the colonial past, when this was Netherlands New Guinea. With UN approval it was taken over by Indonesia, which has encouraged its own settlers there, while the formerly Australian-administered eastern side together with adjoining islands forms the state of Papua-New Guinea.

Papuans who don't accept the carve-up come into conflict with the Indonesian military, as seen in the report which a friend in Australia has forwarded from the news site New Matilda:

The Indonesian military and police started shooting at around 2:37pm West Papua time, yesterday 19 October. Information about what exactly transpired are still sketchy but at least one person was shot (believed dead), scores have been arrested, hundreds have fled to the hills and jungle surrounding the capital, and the capital is in a state of lockdown.

A Papuan priest who was fleeing the shooting contacted New Matilda to report that an army truck passed him carrying Papuan participants who had been present at the Third Papua Congress. According to the witness they were "covered with blood" and had been "beaten and shot".

The violence erupted at the conclusion of the Third Papuan Congress, a three-day gathering held at the Taboria oval (Zaccheus Field) in Abepura, during which Papuan leaders declared their independence from the Indonesian state.

As many as 20,000 West Papuans met, danced and debated how to achieve their civil and political rights. For three days the atmosphere had been tense. The venue was ringed by Armed Personnel Carriers, military trucks and Barracudas — a type of armed jeep favoured by the paramilitary police. Machine guns were trained on the participants and thousands of soldiers and paramilitary police armed with automatic weapons were present.

Published on (

Some earlier reports show an important dimension to what's happening in West Papua. Here are excerpts:

16 Aug 2011

"We are not valued as human beings. We are treated as an instrument of the company. Our goal is to get to a position where we are treated as human," says union organiser Sudiro.

According to miners interviewed in July 2011, many workers are forced to take out bank loans to pay for basic needs and to support their families. After retirement, some must seek alternative types of income. Yet when workers attempt to raise these issues with Freeport management, they have received warning letters in return.

"It seems like the company sees us as the troublemakers. But," says Sudiro, referring to workers’ contributions to gold and copper production, "we are the solution-makers."

SPSI PT Freeport Indonesia is one local branch of the national labour union federation of Indonesia. The organisation has represented PTFI mine workers in 16 Collective Labor Agreements (CLA) dating back to 1977. But until recently it functioned as little more than a rubber stamp for company policies.

Freeport has a history of suppressing workers’ rights and union organising. Under Suharto, independent labour organising was prohibited. Those that tried were often killed or spent years in jail. But over the past decade, as political space has slowly opened up, Sudiro and other workers have been quietly organising.

Campaigns to educate fellow mine workers about their rights and the role of unions in protecting workers seem to be paying off. Reflecting on worker participation in the recent strike, Sudiro says, "The workers finally opened their eyes and minds to the situation. The company cannot stop this. We have woken up. We will never go back to how we were treated before the strike."

Nevertheless, SPSI Freeport members continue to face threats and intimidation from the company. When two of the union members travelled to Jayapura to seek advice from Papuan leaders, they were followed by Indonesian security forces who have long been paid by Freeport to guard the mine.

9 Oct 2011

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