MAC: Mines and Communities

On mining companies and colonialism

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

On mining companies and colonialism

Britain WSWS : Correspondence

6 February 1999

The WSWS has replied to the following letter, sent by a former employee at the Freeport copper and gold mine in the Indonesian-ruled territory of West Papua (Irian Jaya). The letter was sent in response to a series of articles and an eye-witness account on the WSWS exposing last July's military massacre on the West Papuan island of Biak.

To the editor,

Having lived in Tembagapura and personally observed the interaction between the management of PT Freeport Indonesia and the Indonesian government and its local army for five-and-a-half years (1989-1994), I can tell you that your reporting is very slanted towards your "Socialist" perspective on how the world operates.

First of all, Freeport hires and trains up to 35 percent of its entire workforce of 18,000 employees from the native peoples of Irian Jaya. These isolated, stone aged headhunters were actively involved in "revenge" type inter-tribal wars, decapitating their enemies and eating their bodies up until the late 1970s when the Indonesian Army put a stop to all their weekend "fun". The last reported acts of cannibalism occurred to a Dutch farmer and his family in 1976 in the next valley over from the Freeport mining operation.

Many of the senior staff that I worked with at Freeport Indonesia were not "accountants" but full-time missionaries, including the son of US Christian missionaries who had been on the island since the 1950's. I saw this man and his group start the first commercial fishing village with modern hospitals, proper training in basic safety in logging, home construction and fish preparation, that would have never been taught to the Irianese if the Americans had not come into their lives to build and expand the mine.

The senior staff at Freeport provided free medical access for all the local tribal peoples in "Lower Wa," a village of 300 natives just below the main townsite at Tembagapura. They built schools and health clinics in all the surrounding villages within helicopter flying distance, as well. Freeport provides agronomists from the University of Texas at Austin to assist in summer internships in these villages to educate these stone-age natives in farming and animal husbandry sciences. Freeport would purchase the excess vegetable crops after the local villagers had supplied their own needs, providing their first real income from their farming efforts. All the while the company provided free medical and educational opportunities to these local tribes.

The Indonesian government would never have provided these basic services because these natives are Christians and not Muslims! If it were not for Freeport's presence in Irian Jaya these past 30 years, I am convinced the corrupt and out of control Indonesian army generals would have totally eradicated the entire West Papuan population of 1.8-million people, decades ago. It is unfortunate that the world's largest and richest copper and gold mine was discovered on Irian Jaya in 1969. Unfortunately, no one can turn back the "hand of time".

There has been horrendous human suffering in the name of the great "Socialist" Revolution in Eastern Europe that has claimed far more human casualties than all the Indonesian atrocities combined. This is no justification to kill innocent women and children who only want their freedom to worship as they please and have a safe home and equal and bright opportunity for their children's futures. Maybe it's time the UN finally stepped into the mess in Indonesia and set up an Atrocities Review Commission and high court to hold the Indonesian officials responsible for their human rights abuses. This should have occurred 20 years ago when the horrors of East Timor were first recorded but it's never too late for justice.

Just because the "Capitalist" got to Irian Jaya before the "Socialists" did, or worse the "Marxists," doesn't mean that Freeport hasn't tried out of its own pocket to help protect and help these people in the process these past 30 years. Could they have done more? Probably, but I can tell you from my own personal experience, the Indonesian government has forced Freeport to limit the amount of aid, education and job opportunities it has been able to provide these poor people. It was either "play by Suharto's rules" or leave Irian Jaya and let the Indonesian government handle the "re-location problems" without any outsiders to record the human atrocities that would had been far worse if Freeport had not chosen to stay and fight the Jakarta corruption.

"Two wrongs will never make a single right" but at least the people I worked with at Freeport in 1989-1994 did try and I believe made a remarkable difference to improve the local natives' quality of life. There is only so much a non-Indonesian company can do when they are constantly being reminded that they are only "visitors" whose visas can be revoked on a minute's notice. Please try to tell both sides of this tragic story in the future, that is if you young "Marxists" have the guts and freedom to do so.

Best regards, PW

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