A series of killings in the remote highlands of Papua have thrown a spotlight on the murky history of a massive US-owned mine sitting atop the world’s biggest haul of gold.
Two workers of Arizona-based mining giant Freeport McMoRan, including a 29-year-old Australian, were shot dead near the company’s Grasberg gold and copper mine over the weekend, with a policeman also found dead on Monday.
The violence is the latest to hit a mine that has for decades extracted billions of dollars of wealth in the face of accusations ranging from environmental vandalism to the bankrolling of rights abuses by security forces.
The Freeport mine — located in an area of often brutal fighting between security forces and separatist rebels — is a “magnet” for violence, said Rafendi Djamin, head of Human Rights Working Group.
“It’s difficult to speculate on any scenario behind the weekend attacks. But one thing is for sure — they are part of a wave of violence in Papua over the last six months,” Djamin said. “[The attacks] are heavily politically tainted, but from which side we don’t know.”
Seen by many as a symbol of outside exploitation, the mine is a natural target for the separatist Free Papua Movement (OPM). But Freeport also has a long history of paying Indonesian security forces for protection, a practice that some observers say provides an incentive for security forces to attack the mine to justify their lucrative presence.
The company told Agence France-Presse this year that it continued to pay the allowances of troops guarding its mine, despite government rules designed to get the military out of the security business. Freeport said it paid less than $1.6 million out of an overall $8 million in “support costs” to provide a “monthly allowance” for 1,850 police and soldiers last year.
A 2002 ambush on the road down from the mine, which killed two American teachers and their Indonesian colleague, was officially blamed on OPM rebels, but some rights groups and academics alleged the military had a hand in the killings. A 2008 peer-reviewed article in the journal South East Asia Research argued Indonesian authorities and American investigators colluded to cover up military involvement in the attack.
Indonesia has granted access to Australian investigators probing last weekend’s deaths, but ensuring transparency will be difficult, said Andreas Harsono, the author of the article and a Human Rights Watch analyst.
Any investigators wading into the jungles and mountains surrounding Freeport’s Papua operations will have to deal with an environment complicated by decades of mistrust.
The company signed a mining contract with the Indonesian government even before Jakarta won sovereignty over the area in a 1969 UN-backed vote, largely seen as a sham. Now it is Indonesia’s largest single taxpayer.
The environmental impact of the mine can be seen flying over nearby Timika, where dumped tailings stretch in a wide smear toward the Arafura Sea. The company responds by citing spending on public services and an increasing share of mining revenues for Papuans under new government regulations giving the region more autonomy.