MAC: Mines and Communities

West Papua: Gag Island under threat

Published by MAC on 2003-12-10

West Papua: Gag Island under threat

by Jason MacLeod, Green Left Weekly

December 10, 2003.

Abdul Teng is in his element. Teng is here to talk about his home, Gag Island in violence-ridden West Papua, the scene of a four-decade-long struggle for independence. The 56-square kilometre island is located 150km north-west of Sorong, one of hundreds of islets that make up the Raja Ampat Archipelago. And it is here, in a place that leading marine biologists believe to be "the heart of global marine bio-diversity", that mining multinational BHP Billiton is planning an open-pit nickel mine.

Teng talks animatedly about his time working for the company during its exploration phase and his hopes that the mine may soon be operational. When questioned about the company's record on the environment, Teng looks reflective, smiles, pulls back on his clove cigarette, and tells a story.

"One time a big snake came into our village. Everybody was running around in a panic. We all wanted to kill it, but one of the Australian men who worked for the company wouldn't let us. He made us catch the snake, put it in a sack and carry it to the forest where we released it.

"Also whenever we travelled on the company's boat we weren't allowed to throw our cigarette butts into the ocean. All the workers had to put out their smokes in the ashtrays provided. So you see, this is definitely a company that respects the environment."

Teng hasn't heard of Ok Tedi. He doesn't know that the same company that encouraged him not to throw cigarette butts into the ocean also pumped 80,000 tons of toxic tailings daily into the Fly River. The tailings sucked the life out of the Fly and destroyed the livelihood of those who depended on it. Self-sufficient communities are now reliant on compensation payments to buy tinned fish. Once flourishing rainforest and sago palms along the Fly River stand dead, their bony remains pointing skyward from under a blanket of tailings.

Meanwhile, the company has walked away and in a widely criticised deal, left the Papua New Guinea government to pick up the pieces. The profits are privatised, but the debt - a damaged environment and the clean-up costs - has been socialised. And local people have paid the heaviest price.

This hasn't happened yet on Gag. But it could. Gag Island is part of West Papua, a resource-rich territory on the western rim of the Pacific Ocean. It is a Melanesian nation in waiting, currently occupied by Indonesia. Formerly a Dutch colony, it came under Indonesian control after a widely condemned and fraudulent referendum for self-determination known as the 1969 Act of Free Choice.

Advised and assisted by the United Nations, which participated in and sanctioned the process, the government of Indonesia press-ganged 1022 tribal elders, less than 1% of the population, to vote for integration with Indonesia, or have their tongues cut out.

Gag Island is an underwater paradise. Raja Ampat Archipelago is believed to contain the greatest marine bio-diversity worldwide. A 2003 study by a UNESCO expedition, covering 61,200 square kilometers of the Raja Ampat Archipelago, found 1065 new fish species and an incredible 64% of the world's total coral diversity. The archipelago is being considered by UNESCO for world heritage listing. Gag Island also sits on top of the world's largest seam of nickel. BHP Billiton began exploration in 1995 and signed a contract of work in 1998. However, operations were stalled after the Indonesian government enacted Forestry Law No. 41 in 1999, which prevented open cut mining in protected forests. This legislation included Gag, offering vital environmental protection to its world-class reefs.

Since then the mine has been held in care and abeyance. Nonetheless Ian Wood, former environmental manager for the Ok Tedi mine and one of the men responsible for the Gag Island nickel mine, says that "it is a project that the company would ultimately like to see come to fruition".

If mining operations do go ahead as planned, up to three-quarters of the total landmass of the island will be turned into an open-pit mine. Mining would continue for up to 20 years and extract up to 33,000 metric tons of nickel from the 660,000 metric tons of rock dug out of Gag. Wood explained that the company favours "submarine tailings disposal", a practice outlawed in Australia and condemned by environmentalists worldwide. This practice, hard to reconcile with BHP Billiton's much lauded public policy of "zero-harm" to the environment, has been described by the company's chairperson Don Argus, as "an integral part of what the company does."

Disregarding the area's world heritage values, BHP Billiton has enlisted the support of the Australian government to overturn the protected forest legislation on Gag. Although the Australian government is normally reticent to be seen to be meddling in Indonesia's domestic affairs, especially in regards to West Papua, a special departmental position has been set up within the Australian embassy in Jakarta to lobby the Indonesian government on behalf of Australian mining companies.

Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer has publicly admitted that former Australian ambassador to Indonesia Richard Smith personally lobbied key Indonesian ministers, parliamentarians and senior officials from the Indonesian Department of Forests on behalf of BHP Billiton and other Australian mining companies. He was trying to pressure the Indonesian government to change legislation to allow open-pit mining in protected forests.

Yet at the BHP Billiton annual general meeting in London and then again in Melbourne, Argus disingenuously denied knowledge of the Australian government pressure.

A few weeks ago, I returned to West Papua to meet an indigenous Papuan woman from the Beteuw tribe, which she claims is the original custodian of Gag. Over the last few years, this woman and her husband have traversed the length and breadth of the Indonesian archipelago seeking to resolve their land claim, and the weariness of it all shows on their faces.

"Everybody on Gag knows who owns the land", she insists, backing it up by saying that when BHP Billiton paid Rp 439,000,000 compensation to the villagers of Gambir, these villagers - who she claims are all migrants from the neighbouring North Maluku - independently paid the Beteuw people Rp.30,000,000 in recognition of their prior existing land rights over Gag Island. "If the migrants living on Gag acknowledge and respect us", ask the Beteuw, "why can't BHP Billiton?"

Community leaders from neighbouring islands, and fisher folk dependent on the ocean for their livelihood, know little about the proposed mine, and nothing about the company's plans to dump toxic tailings in the ocean. One exasperated independence leader I secretly met in Sorong said that "mining corporations have brought nothing to West Papua but increased militarism and environmental destruction."

Most indigenous West Papuans living in island communities surrounding Gag, however, don't have the liberty to speak freely about their aspirations. Many local people told me that they feared any opposition to the mine might be interpreted as support for independence. It is not hard to understand their fears. Around the enormous Freeport-Rio Tinto gold and copper mine in West Papua, the company pays the Indonesian military to provide security. The military have targeted local communities opposed to the mine on the pretext that they are pro-independence. The result: killings, detention without trial, torture, the destruction of homes and food gardens, hunger, and a legacy of deep distrust and collective trauma.

Resource extractive industries in West Papua are often used as a base to wage military operations and solidify the military's economic base.

As the political situation in West Papua deteriorates, as long-term West Papua watchers expect it will, many civil society leaders fear that the huge influx of money created by the project could be a lightening rod for deep-seated tensions that could be exploited by the military. "To put an end to these dynamics of destruction and violence", says leading West Papuan human rights activist, John Rumbiak from Elsham - the Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights in West Papua, "the international community, particularly international investors, must, first and foremost, recognise indigenous communities' basic rights to chart their own development paths, to manage their own resources, to pursue their traditional livelihoods and cultures, and to say `no' to multinational operations on their lands. The failure to respect communities' basic right to `just say no' exists at the heart of the nexus of human rights violations, environmental degradation and conflict." Given BHP Billiton's refusal to rule out the use of submarine tailings disposal; its lack of security policy; endemic corruption in Indonesia; and the fact that local communities haven't been fully informed of the project - one can't help wondering if the company has learnt anything at all from its reckless misadventures at Ok Tedi. For the sake of local communities, the people of West Papua and a stunning marine environment, I hope I'm wrong.

[Jason MacLeod is an activist and researcher with the Free West Papua Collective. If you are a BHP Billiton shareholder please contact]

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