Saturday, April 21, 2007
  Papua Echoes

Employment will rise?

A major story in Indonesia this week has received minimal coverage, apart from its impact on world copper prices.

More than 2,000 workers from Freeport's giant gold and copper Grasberg mine started protesting peacefully on Tuesday at the headquarters of PT Freeport Indonesia, which operates the mine, just outside the town of Timika.

The protracted dispute centres on demands for higher wages, improved welfare and boosted recruitment of Papuan workers as permanent employees and better advancement.

Maybe the minmal coverage is due to the fact that the only time that the Papuans have controlled their own destiny was in pre-colonial times when there were rules of engagement between neighbouring tribes and the rainforest and surrounding seas provided for each tribe's needs.

The Amungme and Kamoro are the original indigenous landowners of the areas of Papua that are now occupied by Freeport's massive copper and gold mining operations. At the time of Freeport's arrival in 1967, the two communities numbered several thousand people. With lands spanning tropical rainforest, coastal lowlands, glacial mountains, and river valleys, the Kamoro (lowlanders) and Amungme (highlanders) practiced a subsistence economy based on sustainable agriculture, forest products, fishing, and hunting -- their cultures intimately entwined with the surrounding landscape.

For the Amungme and Kamoro the conflict with Freeport began with the company's confiscation of their territory. Freeport's 1967 Contract of Work with the Indonesian government gave Freeport broad powers over the local population and resources, including the right to take land, timber, water, and other natural resources, and to resettle indigenous inhabitants while providing "reasonable compensation" only for dwellings and permanent improvements. Freeport was not required to compensate local communities for the loss of their food gardens, hunting and fishing grounds, drinking water, forest products, sacred sites, and other elements of the natural environment.

This usurpation of indigenous land is particularly harsh in view of Amungme cosmology, which regards the most significant of its female earth spirits, Tu Ni Me Ni, as embodied in the surrounding landscape. Her head is in the mountains, her breasts and womb in the valleys, and the rivers are her milk. To the Amungme, Freeport's mining activities are killing their mother and polluting the milk on which they depend for sustenance -- literally and spiritually. In addition, mountains are the home to which the spirits of Amungme ancestors go following death.

In a disturbing echo of this analogy, Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett told shareholders at the company's 1997 annual general meeting that the company's operations were like taking "a volcano that's been decapitated by nature, and we're mining the esophagus."

Geoffrey MG's newish blog, Papua Prospects, seems both topical and timeless. Although he hasn't updated it for a month, reading it gives one a broader picture of contemporary Papuan issues, including this gruesome news.

When the Amsterdam Museum for the Tropics, the Tropenmuseum, rediscovered a forgotten collection of hundreds of human skulls, bones and even organs stored in formaldehyde in glass jars, it lead to uneasy ethical questions. Many of the human remains are from indigenous inhabitants of Papua and Java, sent to the Netherlands between 1915 and 1965.

The bones were used by the Tropenmuseum for physical anthropological scientific research, an area of study under intense scrutiny because of the infamous racial studies conducted by the German Nazi terror regime before and during World War Two which culminated in the Holocaust (the Nazis' systematic massacre of millions of European Jews).

The remains were rediscovered six years ago. Since then the museum has categorised them and documented the collection in detail. Recently, the museum announced it wanted to find a good home for the remains, possibly returning them to where they came from.

And the echo of my title is a story of another group of local residents exploited by a rapacious, security conscious, mega monolithic enterprise operating with the consent of a national government.

News that body parts were taken from dead workers at the Sellafield nuclear facility is grisly, but not entirely unexpected when considered within the history of what is possibly Britain's longest-running public relations disaster.

The nuclear power industry in the UK has proved to be both uneconomical and inefficient. In October last year only one of the nine nuclear power stations, Torness, was working normally; the other eight had problems ranging from boilers cracking in reactors, fuel supply problems to underground leaks of radioactive coolant, and Sizewell B, the newest, was going through a statutory 'outage' period for repairs. This meant that British Energy had to buy electricity from elsewhere in order to meet its contractual obligations to supply it to the UK national grid.

In January 2005, the UK Atomic Energy Authority announced that nearly 27kg of plutonium - enough for seven nuclear weapons - was "unaccounted for", although it stressed this appeared merely to be an auditing error.

These days, however, opposition to Sellafield is largely academic because the complex is being gradually shut down, meaning around three-quarters of its 10,000-strong workforce will lose their jobs by 2011.

But there is still plenty of time for more PR trouble ahead - with some waste remaining dangerous for 250,000 years, the authority warns that the closure process could take up to a century.

Unemployment will inevitably rise with the scaling down of Windscale and the other nuclear plants, which is why the workers are campaigning for more investment and a growth in the number of nuclear power plants. That the trade unions' campaign is actually funded by their employers, British Energy, is perhaps the only non-parallel link with Papua, albeit definitely not non-pareil.

Update 22.4.07
Yesterday, when I posted the above, the Freeport workers and management agreed to settle and the workers were bussed back to the mine. The salary has been nearly doubled, from Rp.1.6 million (c.$174) to an average of Rp.3.1 million. The company will set up, belatedly I would add, a Papua Affairs Dept. and several company officials are being replaced.



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