US Mine Gouges for Gold

By Kennedy, Danny | Earth Island Journal, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
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US Mine Gouges for Gold

Kennedy, Danny, Earth Island Journal

Timika, Indonesia -- 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 operationing 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 floodplain, 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 rainforest. The zone most likely will become a source of acid mine drainage that could contaminate the surrounding watershed, including the nearby Lorentz Reserve, which contains mangrove forests, wetlands, and one of only three equatorial glacier zones in the world.

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