West Papua Highlands

West Papua
Report By
Mimi Schiffman and Amy Corbin
February 1, 2007
February 1, 2007

The creation story of the Amungme people, who live in the highlands of the island of Papua, speaks to their close relationship with the land. The story tells of the sacrifice of an ancestral mother for her children and the transformation of her body into the island’s life-giving resources. The richly spiritual landscape of Papua was exposed for an entirely different type of resource in the mid-20th century with the discovery of gold and copper. Since then, the spiritual “mother” of the Amungme has been torn apart by the international mining giant, Freeport McMoRan, which is responsible for constructing the largest gold mine in the world on Amungme land. Tom Beanal, Amungme activist and winner of the Tides Award in 1997, said, “These companies have taken over and occupied our land. 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. Gold and copper have been taken by Freeport for the past 30 years, but what have we gotten in return? Only insults, torture, arrests, killings, forced evictions from our land, impoverishment and alienation from our own culture.”

The Land and Its People

The Amungme believe they are the descendents of a mother who sacrificed her life to become the forests, mountains and rivers that feed and give shelter to the Papuan people. According to the Amungme creation story, the lush and geographically varied landscape of Papua was once a swamp. At the center of the wetlands on a piece of dry earth, there lived a mother and her four children. The two boys and two girls shared this land with others in peace until a famine came and began to take the lives of many around them.

The mother, aware that the food supply would soon run out, told her children that she would give up her own life to save theirs. She gave them directions to kill her and disperse her body parts across the land: her head sent to the north, her feet to the river to be carried south, and her body to be cut in two, with the left side thrown to the west, the right to the east. The children followed their mother’s orders with sadness in their hearts. After they had completed the task they fell asleep. They awoke to find a mountain had formed to the north where they had thrown their mother’s head. To the east and west they found lush gardens growing with plenty of food to fill their empty bellies. In the south the swamp had filled and fertile land stretched out in front of them. The rivers were made of their mother’s tears, crying for them so that they could live.

The Amungme now live on the land that stretches from their mother’s neck to her navel. They believe that when they die, their souls travel to the mountains and that their ancestors watch over them from the mountains and glaciers. Prior to the transfer of land to Indonesia, the Amungme, as well as the dozens of other native groups who inhabited the island, lived sustainably on the land, treating it with the same respect they would their mother. The Amungme’s subsistence economy supported the small clan-based social and governmental structures that formed their society. They farmed, fished, hunted and gathered roots, berries and nuts. The Amungme also had sufficient fallow land to cultivate crops without clearing precious forestland. A deep relationship with the natural world as well as recognized taboos prevented members of the society from cutting down forest.

The United Nations brokered the transfer of West Papua from Dutch colonial rule to the Republic of Indonesia in 1962. The “Act of Free Choice” stipulated that by 1969, the Indonesian government would hold a referendum to allow the people of Papua to decide whether or not to remain part of the republic. During these years, the Indonesian government and military undertook a campaign of intimidation, cultural suppression, and violence to convince West Papuans to vote for integration, a vote which eventually included only 1,026 hand-picked citizens out of a total population of 815,906. The United States strongly supported the 1962 agreement which completely excluded indigenous Papuan landowners from consultation and awarded no compensation for the loss of their land. This land theft continued with the 1967 establishment of the U.S.-based company Freeport’s first copper and gold mine in the central highlands of Papua, which quickly began to degrade life in the region. Throughout the life of the Ertsberg mine the Amungme never received any payments for the use of their land.

In 1974, after a series of community protests, Freeport was forced to face the traditional landowners. The result of the belated consultation was the “January Agreement” which finally won the consent of the Amungme but only through strong-arming by the military who oversaw the meeting. For their forced compliance, the Amungme were given a mobile store and some other buildings.

In 1977, the Amungme joined a province-wide movement to free Papua from Indonesian rule. The military responded to the dissidence—which included the destruction of a pipeline by the Amungme and six other local tribes—with a repressive regime that devastated local communities. Security forces murdered suspected perpetrators and destroyed community gardens and homes. Government records state that 900 residents of the mining town Tembagapura were killed in the incident, but data from Papuans suggest that as many as 1,800 were actually killed. The following two decades saw an unprecedented wave of violence perpetrated by police, military and mine security.

Between 1979 and 1986, the government worked with Freeport to relocate Amungme living in the highlands near the Ertsberg mine to lowland settlements like the town of Timika. The Amungme regard the lowlands as a region of temptation and illness, believing too much time there will harm or kill them. The forced relocations indeed proved harmful to a large number of Amungme who were stricken with malaria and malnutrition due to the forced consumption of crops that were different from their traditional foods. Many of the people who were relocated found their way back home to the highland valleys. It was not only the Amungme who were sent to the Timika area. In 1985, the government established a program of transmigration that sent waves of settlers to supply the mine and other extractive industries in the area with workers. The Kamoro, the lowlands traditional owners, were barely compensated for this policy that devastated their region. More than 120,000 people now populate the region that supported only 1,000 Kamoro in the 1950s, which has turned it into a semi-lawless area with rampant alcoholism, violence, and prostitution.

In 1987, just as the Ertsberg mine was slowing down, the Grasberg ore-mountain was discovered. Freeport’s wealth and status soared with the discovery of this new resource, estimated to be worth more than $54 billion in 1995. The Indonesian government installed a permanent military detachment, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), to protect the mine, which was responsible for a multitude of human-rights abuses including rape, murder, torture and disappearance. According to anthropologists who worked for Freeport, approximately 160 people were killed by the military between 1975 and 1997 in the mine area and its surroundings. In 2000, police raided student dormitories in Abepura, killing one student and detaining over a hundred others, who suffered from torture so severe that two others died of it later. No police officers have yet been held responsible. To control protests, the number of soldiers present at the mine has steadily climbed: a study by United Press International showed that troops have increased from 200 in 1996 to over 2,000 in 2003. The troop increase began in 1996 as a reaction to a riot against the mine, which shut the mine down for three days while protestors ransacked offices, destroying $3 million of equipment. The link between Freeport and the TNI was finally made public in 2003, when Freeport released information in a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission revealing that they paid the TNI an estimated US$5.6 million in 2002 for security at their mining operations in Indonesia.

Current Threats

Papuans continue to face violence and intimidation from the TNI. Women and children as young as three years old have been raped by soldiers. Inhabitants of the villages that surround the mine are prevented from taking trips to the forest to hunt or to their vegetable gardens, which are frequently far from their homes, by the TNI, who claim that anyone leaving must be associated with the Free Papua Movement. Many of the residents face starvation and malnutrition without their staple gardens and hunted meat. This situation is part of a larger system of oppression by the Indonesian government of the West Papuan people since the “Act of Free Choice.” Citizens who express cultural identity such as singing songs in the local language or advocating for the preservation of traditional lands are labeled “separatists” and are subject to imprisonment, torture and even murder. By 1995—only 32 years after Papua was taken over by Indonesia—between 70,000 and 200,000 Papuans had been killed.

The scale of Freeport’s operations in Papua is enormous: the company moves more than 700,000 metric tons of earth a day. At this rate, Freeport could move Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Cheops in a single week. Freeport’s operations began more than 13,500 feet above sea level in the central highlands of Papua. To date, they have dug more than 400 feet into the Amungme’s “mother.” When the mine’s 40-year expected lifespan is up, Freeport plans to leave a 1,500-foot-deep crater in the earth where the mountain once stood. Freeport has prevented independent studies from taking place on the ground to determine the impact of their mine on the environment. A study conducted using the photos taken by the Landsat satellite in 2000 determined that the mining operations in Papua have contaminated 138 square miles of lowland forest and 325 square miles of the Arfura Sea.

Freeport’s operations have a direct and deadly impact on nearby waterways. Freeport disposes of waste rock known as tailings directly into the rivers, polluting the precious water and causing devastation downstream. The process, known as riverine tailings dumping, is illegal in the United States and all developed countries that have significant mining sectors because of the long-term environmental destruction that it causes. More than 200,000 tons of tailings are dumped into the Aghwaghon River every day, nearly one billion tons since the beginning of the mine. Mine officials estimate that the waste will total six billion tons before it closes. The waste rock, rich in heavy metals and other pollutants, is carried into the Otomona and Ajkwa Rivers, which connect to the Aghawaghon. Some of the tailings find their way to the Arfura Sea.

The massive accumulation of tailings has turned the rivers and wetlands, once a rich freshwater habitat, into a wasteland; a report commissioned by Freeport itself describes the waterways as “unsuitable for aquatic life.” Residents report that they rarely find the traditional fish they used to catch, such as the yuaro, lifao and ufurao. An official of the Indonesian regional government warned Papuans against drinking the water in the Ajkwa River system, giving it a “D” public health rating. Water samples taken at Timika contained significant heavy metal concentrations above the limit recommended for human consumption including copper, iron, zinc, lead and mercury.

Some of the tailings from the mine are sent to the sacred Lake Wanagon and the Wanagon Valley that has been turned into a highly toxic and dangerous dump for the mine. In October 2003, a landslide at the lake killed eight workers and injured five others. Heavy rain (an average of 10 to 20 feet per year), seismic activity, overfilling (the mine is approved to dump only 300,000 tons of waste a day into the lake, but the current rate is 650,000 tons per day), and high elevations make the site a poor choice for a tailings dump. The mine intends to fill the Wanagon Valley with 1,476 feet of toxic tailings. To the west, Freeport is disposing of waste in the Carstensz Weide valley, which will be left 800 feet deep in waste.

The West Papuan rainforest is also heavily impacted by illegal logging, which dramatically increased in volume owing to an order of 800 million cubic feet of Merbau wood for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The scope of the logging violates Indonesian forest law and threatens the biodiversity of the rainforest and the subsistence of farming cultures that exist within this ecosphere, in addition to increasing the likelihood of flooding.

The environmental impact of the Grasberg mine also reaches the nearby Lorentz National Park, where the ecosystems span from a rare equatorial glacier to a tropical marine environment, the only park like this in the world. Copper and acid from mine waste are showing up in springs within the park, and prior to its designation as UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, Freeport had begun exploratory trips into the area. Geologists have dubbed Mamoa, the potential mining area, the “Son of Grasberg” because of its tremendous copper and gold deposits. However, Freeport is one of the 15 large international mining companies that signed an agreement not to operate in World Heritage sites. While this means that Freeport abandoned its project in Lorentz, in 2004, the Papuan provincial government issued a prospector’s license to a British businessman, invoking local authority over the protests of both traditional land owners and the Indonesian Department of Mines and Energy.

The environmental devastation of Papuan land for profits sent abroad is intimately linked with the political repression by the Indonesian government and the military. A 2003 Yale University report finds strong evidence for the accusation that the Indonesian government’s practices are genocidal, and are without a doubt “crimes against humanity.” In 2005 the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies wrote: “A ‘culture of impunity’ exists in Indonesia which sees its highest manifestation currently in Papua and Aceh. Military operations have led to thousands of deaths and continue to costs lives, yet the Republic’s armed forces act as a law unto themselves with no real accountability for crimes against the Papuan population.” The military has an interest in maintaining operations like the Grasberg mine: it can prove its need to exist by controlling conflicts around the mine, and it receives significant revenue from Freeport. Indonesia requires the military to raise 70 percent of its revenue itself, which it does largely through its own illegal logging and mining operations as well as providing “security” to companies like Freeport. According to a 2005 New York Times investigative report, “From 1998 through 2004, Freeport gave military and police generals, colonels, majors and captains, and military units, nearly $20 million [and] individual commanders received tens of thousands of dollars,” payments which suggest widespread bribery.

Freeport’s chairman, James R. Moffett, has a long history of collusion with the Indonesian government, a relationship which has allowed Freeport to operate with much greater impunity than other mining companies in Indonesia. Moffett gave large gifts to former dictator President Suharto and his family, and after Suharto’s fall, struck a deal with the Indonesian military, according to which Freeport would buy $35 million dollars worth of equipment for the military and make payments to individual commanders in exchange for their noninterference in mine operations and assistance in suppressing local protest. In the mid 1990s, as local and international campaigns against Grasberg began to heat up, the company even monitored activists’ emails and set up a website for a fake environmental group to collect information on activists.

Thanks to the average $2.75 billion a year Freeport has paid to the Indonesian government in taxes and indirect benefits since 1992, the company gets what it wants, despite protests from locals and the country’s own Environment Ministry. (While the Environment Ministry recently sued Newmont Mining Corp., the world’s largest gold company and subject of our reports on Mount Quilish in Peru and the Western Shoshone territory near Yucca Mountain, Nev., it is paralyzed in its dealings with Freeport because of the company’s long-standing presence and the revenue it contributes to the country. Freeport does not even hold a permit to dispose of mine waste because it has been operating since before the law was passed.)

Preservation Efforts

The majority of Papuans do not consider the 1962-3 transfer of land from the Dutch to the Republic of Indonesia to be legitimate. The Free Papua Movement sprang up in the 1960s to recognize Papuan independence from Indonesia. Early on in the campaign, most of the resistance was physical; poorly armed tribal people attacked colonists using spears, bows and arrows. While supporters are still willing to take up arms to defend their land, the organization has also taken on a political face. In 1988, the group initiated an international diplomacy campaign that elevated the profile of their struggles. The Free Papua Movement has a foreign policy of mutual understanding and respect that they hope to use as the basis for a sovereign democracy within Papua.

There have been scattered periods of protest against Freeport in the last 10 years, the most recent of which were in February and March 2006. Residents of the communities around Grasberg shut the mine down for several days while students demonstrated in the provincial capital of Jayapura and in Jakarta. Fortunately, clashes with police resulted in injuries but few deaths. In 1999, Amungme activist Mama Yosepha created the women’s group HAMAK, dedicated to collective action, human rights, the environment and preserving traditional culture through nonviolent means. For her courage in speaking out against human rights abuses in Papua and her commitment to organizing her community in the face of torture and detainment, Yosepha received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2001.

After the costly riots that occurred in 1996, Freeport attempted to improve its public image by planting trees, funding other environmental programs, and giving 1 percent of its annual revenues to a community fund that pays for schools, medical clinics, and roads. It has also instituted human rights training for its employees and has significantly increased the number of Papuans employed by the company. The current Indonesian Environment Minister, Rachmat Witoelar, has followed his predecessor in issuing tough words against Freeport, but the ministry still seems paralyzed by Freeport’s unparalleled economic clout.

Growing awareness of Freeport’s disdain for environmental regulations led the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government agency that insures American corporations when they operate in unstable parts of the world, to cancel Freeport’s insurance policy in October 1995 because of its treatment of the environment, the first time they had ever revoked insurance for such a reason. Freemont then went to court to prevent public release of OPIC’s report. In 1996, two journalists petitioned the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act to release the uncensored report, and Freeport responded with a lawsuit against the journalists.

WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) won a landmark case against Freeport in 2001. The case, filed in the South Jakarta District Court, found the company guilty of violating Indonesian environmental law for their role in the May 2000 landslide at the Wanagon Dam. WALHI accused Freeport of deliberately concealing information about the landslide and giving false and inaccurate explanations to the public. Freeport’s press releases blamed the slide solely on heavy rainfall, but Indonesia’s environmental protection agency, Bapedal, found that Freeport had been dumping twice the permitted amount of waste at the dam prior to the slide. The court ordered Freeport to minimize the risk of more rock slides at Wanagon and to reduce the creation of toxic waste to comply with water quality standards.

Dozens of human rights, environmental, peace and indigenous rights organizations have joined the movement to bring about change in West Papua. Support has sprung up across the globe from the Mining Advocacy Network in Indonesia and Mineral Policy Institute in Australia, to West Papua Action in Ireland and the United States, to MiningWatch in Canada. International organizations such as Survival International, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, and Human Rights Watch have joined Indonesian and Papuan civil society groups to generate press, spread information, organize protests, and direct attention to the ongoing environmental, cultural, and spiritual destruction in Papua.

One visible impact of this publicity is the reactions of governments which invest in Freeport. In 2005, shareholders of the New York City pension funds questioned Freemont about its payments to the Indonesian military, suggesting that the practice could violate the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids American companies from paying bribes to foreign officials. Freeport rejected shareholders’ call for an investigation, which shareholders have renewed in the last two years. The Norwegian government’s pension fund followed with a June 2006 decision to give up its Freeport stock due to what it called “extensive, long-term and irreversible” environmental damage and “considerable negative consequences for the indigenous peoples residing in the area.”

What You Can Do

Write U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and urge him to get involved in the struggle for West Papua’s independence, including reviewing the legitimacy of the original vote which kept West Papua under the Indonesian government.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
United Nations Headquarters
First Avenue at 46th Street
New York, NY 10017

An online petition to the UN is available at http://www.petitiononline.com/unreview.

You can also write Freeport to let them know that U.S. citizens are watching their actions and urge them to become accountable for the human and environmental impacts of their operations in West Papua. A good start would be to develop alternate methods of disposing of mine waste instead of dumping tailings into pristine waterways.

Jim Bob Moffett, CEO
Freeport McMoRan
1615 Poydras St.
New Orleans, LA 70112
phone: 504-582-4000
fax: 504-582-4028

For additional information, visit the websites of the NGOs listed below.


West Papua Action. West Papua Action.

JATAM. Mining Advocacy Network.

Below a Mountain of Wealth, a River of Waste.” New York Times, December 27, 2005.

AWPA. Australia West Papua Association Sydney.

Solidarity South Pacific. Solidarity South Pacific.

West Papua/Papua.” Mines and Communities.

List of documents on the Freeport situation

Leith, Denise. The Politics of Power: Freeport in Suharto’s Indonesia. University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Kennedy, Danny, Pratap Chatterjee and Roger Moody. Risky Business: The Grasberg Gold Mine; Independent Annual Report on P.T. Freeport in Indonesia. Project Underground, May 1998. (PDF)

Ballard, Chris. “The Denial of Land Rights in West Papua.” Cultural Survival Quarterly Vol 26 No. 3, Fall 2002

Abrash Walton, Abigail. “Mining a Sacred Land – Freeport in West Papua.Mines and Communities.

“Freeport-McMorRon Admits to Funding Millions to Indonesian Military.” Project Underground, Drillbits and Tailings Vol. 8, No. 3, April 11, 2003.

Wing, John and Peter King. “Genocide in West Papua? The role of the Indonesian state apparatus and a current needs assessment of the Papuan people.” Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, and ELSHAM Jayapura, Papua, August 2005. (PDF)

Lowenstein, Allard K.“Indonesian Human Rights Abuses in West Papua: Application of the Law of Genocide to the History of Indonesian Control.” a paper prepared by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School, April 2004. (PDF)