MAC: Mines and Communities

A Victory in West Papua

Published by MAC on 2007-04-26

A Victory in West Papua

by Sam Urquhart, GNN TV

26th April 2007

Benny Wemba: "The Freeport mine is an open wound on the body of my People."

The global wave of organized resistance to multinational mining companies continues with a strike at Freeport McMoran in West Papua.

Workers employed by mining multinational Freeport McMoran in the Indonesian province of West Papua struck from 18 to 21 April, gaining a 100 percent wage increase among other concessions. 6,000 workers at Grasberg, the world's second largest copper and gold mine, slowed production - resulting in estimated losses of $11.32 million for the New Orleans based company.

As Frans Pigome of Tongoi Papua, the main group involved in organising the strike told the Times on 22 April, "We are satisfied. After more than 40 years in operation, this is the most spectacular increase," adding that, "They could have increased it years ago, but they think only how to profit themselves."

Freeport worked closely with the dictatorial Suharto regime during the 1970s and 80s, becoming Indonesia's biggest tax-payer. As Benny Wemba of the Free West Papua Movement puts it, "Just in one year, 2006, Freeport paid US $1.6 billion in taxes to the Indonesian government. How do you think Indonesia can afford to have the biggest military in SE Asia?"

According to Wemba, Freeport has funded para-military forces to police its mine, including $20 million between 1998 and 2004. To West Papuans, Freeport perpetuates the occupation of their land, "the Indonesian military (TNI) has murdered over 100,000 Papuan men, women and children and tortured and raped countless others" says Wemba, "Freeport McMoran and Rio Tinto directly fund the TNI. Anyone who helps my enemy is my enemy too."

The settlement will result in an increase in the wages of the lowest paid workers at the mine to $341 per month. However, Tongoi Papua had initially tabled demands for larger wage increases, better pensions, improved worker representation and programs to increase the proportion of Papuans in the workforce of the mine.

Out of the 9,000 employees at Grasberg, only 3,000 are Papuan, giving rise to charges of discrimination and the marginalisation of local people. Freeport officials have only said that they will begin a feasability study concerning a "Papuan affairs department" within the company although they did agree to arrange for the removal of some Jakarta-based Indonesian officials.

Moreover, instead of the 3.2 million rupiah offered to Grasberg workers, Tongoi Papua had initially pushed for 3.6 million. Pigome also threatened to shut down the mine for one month or more if their demands were not met, although in the face of military and police intimidation this longer stoppage did not materialize.

While about 6,000 mine workers struck at Grasberg itself, Tongoi Papua also organised protests in the regional capital, Timika, beginning on 17 April. Hundreds gathered to coincide with collective wage negotiations being carried out between local politicians and Freeport representatives, where they were met by dozens of armoured vehicles, 200 police and soldiers armed with riot gear and firearms.

As Penina Karma, secretary of Tongoi Papua told Reuters on 17 April, "This is a surprise to us. It is just like a war."

Despite the intense military and police presence, workers elected to strike when their calls for talks with Freeport executives were rejected by the company. Although no violence was reported against those taking part, an internal Freeport memorandum was leaked to Reuters on 19 April in which company executives described the strike as illegal and that workers who left their jobs to participate in the illegal strike, "could be subject to disciplinary measures," an indication of how seriously Freeport has taken events around the Grasberg mine.

The Grasberg strike comes after a wave of similar actions at mines across the world. Zambian workers struck in March to secure a 20 percent wage increase while the world's largest copper mine at Escondida in Chile was shut down for almost a month last year. Inco workers in Canada shut also down a nickel mine in March, while indigenous protesters in New Caledonia have frustrated the Goro nickel project since its inception, driving up costs and putting the future of the mine in doubt.

According to Catherine Courmans of the NGO Miningwatch, "We are seeing increasingly strong actions by increasingly vigilant communities around the world that are determined to protect their human and environmental rights."

Mining corporations are scrambling to deal with an epidemic of resistance. As Courmans puts it, "These once isolated communities are better linked globally and are better informed about the potential long term impacts of mining."


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