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 pipeline.

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 abuses."

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 flow.

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,

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