Protests halt West Papua mine operations

The latest escalation of the secret war in West Papua is even more eclipsed from the news than usual by the current hideous escalation in Iraq. But, as we witnessed in India last month, tribal peoples armed with bows and arrows are confronting state security forces with automatic weapons to defend their lands. You can be sure they are paying closer attention in the board rooms of Freeport McMoRan

From Reuters, Feb. 24:

Operations at a huge U.S.-owned mine in Indonesia’s remote Papua province remained suspended for a third day on Friday as the government put the military in charge of security there.

The Grasberg mine, owned by a unit of U.S. firm Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. that is Indonesia’s biggest taxpayer, is believed to have the world’s third-largest copper reserves and one of the biggest gold deposits.

Operations were suspended on Wednesday after illegal miners armed with bows and arrows clashed with security officers and police the day before.

The violence erupted after security officers and government officials tried to force out the illegal miners, who then blockaded access to the mine.

“The Freeport plant is still shut down this morning,” said M.S. Marpaung, deputy director of investment at the mines and energy ministry.

He said copper shipments had not been affected, but was not sure how long stocks would last.

Indonesia’s mines and energy minister said the military would handle security over protests at the mine, but it was unclear how many troops would be assigned to the mission.

“Police can’t handle the security alone. The chief security minister has asked the military to handle the security and it will be returned to police after things are back to normal,” the minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro, told reporters.

Papua police said negotiations were on and their priority was to open the road to the heavily guarded mine.

“Although we are in a deadlock, we will not take repressive measures,” said Papua police spokesman Kartono Wangsadisastra. “Our immediate target is opening the road to give Freeport employees access.”

From the BBC, Feb. 23:

A protest at a huge gold and copper mine in the Indonesian province of Papua has halted production for a second day.

A crowd of around 500 people gathered outside the mine complex, its ranks swelled by dozens of curious onlookers. The demonstrators want the right to prospect for gold among waste rock left behind by the main mining operation.

They are also demanding a meeting with the American executive in charge of the mine.

But it is understood the man in question is currently out of the country.

Five people hurt

One of the protestors contacted by the BBC said he and his colleagues were prepared to wait as long as it took.

He said they had been mistreated by paramilitary police, who, he said, had fired rubber-coated bullets, injuring five people during the operation to remove illegal miners from the site on Tuesday.

The police deny the allegations.

Negotiations to try to resolve the dispute are continuing but there are no signs of an early breakthrough.

A spokesman for Freeport told local television that the suspension of production at the Papua mine could cost the company up to $12m a day.

Earlier, in Jakarta, a group of around 20 Papuan students attacked the building where the Freeport offices are based.

They smashed windows and set a ground floor travel agency on fire. Thirteen students have since been detained by police.

Further details are provided by this press release from the UK-based Free West Papua Campaign (apparently not yet posted elsewhere on the web):

‘My people urgently need the world’s help’ says Papuan tribal leader.

The Freeport Mine in West Papua – the biggest gold and copper mine in the world – is today in a state of chaos, as Indonesia soldiers reportedly use tear gas and live rounds to attack protesting tribal people. Reports from inside West Papua suggest that at least one person may have been killed.

Last month, West Papua made the news when a ‘lost valley’ containing numerous new species was discovered. This week, its people are suffering brutally – it needs to make the news again.

On Tuesday, paramilitary police used rubber bullets to disperse local people who were scavenging on the corporation’s tips for waste gold. Since their land was taken from them by Freeport, such scavenging has been their only way of making a living. A crowd of 500 people gathered to protest, and blockaded the roads to the mine, shutting down its operations.

Today the mine remains closed – but reports from inside West Papua suggest that up to 500 soldiers have moved in to disperse protesters with tear gas and live rounds.

Papuan tribal leader Benny Wenda, who now lives in exile in Britain, says that urgent action is needed now, before the situation gets worse.

‘The Freeport Mining Company already has the blood of my people on its hands’, says Benny. ‘The company must take responsibility for all the deaths and pain it has caused since 1967, and it must withdraw from our land.’


West Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea. It is currently occupied by Indonesia, whose soldiers have been responsible for the deaths of at least 100,000 people there. The Free West Papua Campaign exists to support the Papuan peoples’ struggle for freedom. US company Freeport McMoran has been operating in West Papua since 1967. It has been implicated in widespread human rights and environmental abuses. Recently it admitted having paid $US20 million to Indonesian military and police officials between 1998 and 2004.

See our last post on indigenous struggles in Indonesia.