Mining a Sacred Land

Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)

Mining a Sacred Land

Imagine that a foreign corporation arrived one day with your national government’s blessing and seized your home; destroyed your grocery store, local farms and gardens, your church, your favorite park; polluted your drinking and bathing water; created hazardous waste dumps throughout your town; blocked your efforts to seek justice through the courts; and bankrolled the police who threatened, tortured, raped, and killed family and friends for trying to resist this destruction of your way of life.

Meet the Amungme and Kamoro of the Timika area of the Indonesian-controlled territory of Papua. They do not need to imagine this scenario. They have lived it for the past 35 years.

As multinational extraction corporations come in conflict with communities around the globe — from Appalachia to Alaska, from Burma to Nigeria — the experience of the Kamoro and Amungme of Papua with Louisiana-based Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold provides one of the best-documented examples of the fundamental linkages between the natural environment and basic human rights. It is a classic story of environmental racism and injustice, of abuses across the full spectrum of economic, political, civil, social and cultural rights, and of the ways in which local people have sought to defend their lands, livelihoods, and cultures.

The experience of the Kamoro and Amungme is also a prime example of what is known as “development aggression.” Specifically, dominant powers — Freeport, the Indonesian central government, and the military — have used coercion and intimidation to exploit land and other natural resources for profit, and have siphoned these profits to foreign stockholders and national elites, leaving local people dispossessed, displaced, and marginalized.

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.

Today, Freeport’s Papua mining operations are among the largest in the world. The company has decapitated one of Papua’s mountains, held sacred by the Amungme, and dumped millions of tons of mining waste into local river systems. Freeport’s despoliation of Kamoro and Amungme lands and natural resources have brought serious harm to the economies and livelihoods of local communities. Compounding the problem are the hordes of outsiders who have swarmed to the economic “boom town” created by the mine. The area’s population has exploded to some 120,000 people, making Timika the fastest-growing “economic zone” in the entire Indonesian archipelago.

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.”

Indonesia’s national laws have enabled Freeport’s free reign. The laws do not comply with international human rights standards; they offer no adequate respect for community land rights, no rights of refusal or of informed consent, and no effective protection for traditional livelihoods and cultures. The legal regime governing natural resources grants near-total control to the government. In fact, Indonesian authorities have treated opposition to economic “development” as a crime of subversion, often acting with aggression against indigenous communities seeking to retain their customary lands or to participate in decision-making regarding use or management of natural resources. As the company constructed its mining base camp, port site, milling operations, roads, and other infrastructure, Kamoro and Amungme villages were forced to relocate and were barred access to land now under the company’s control. Meanwhile, Indonesian soldiers and police — provisioned by Freeport and operating with a mandate to protect the company — have cracked down ruthlessly on those who have protested the invasion.

The United Nations, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, and international and local NGOs have independently identified the following human rights abuses associated with Freeport’s mining operations:

  • Torture, rape, indiscriminate and extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, racial and employment discrimination, interference with access to legal representation, and severe restrictions on freedom of movement;
     
  • Violation of subsistence rights resulting from seizure and destruction of thousands of acres of rainforest, including community hunting grounds and forest gardens, and contamination of water supplies and fishing grounds;
     
  • Violation of cultural rights, including destruction of a mountain and other sites held sacred by the Amungme; and
     
  • Forced resettlement of communities and destruction of housing, churches, and other shelters.

In their public statements, the Amungme consistently speak about the loss of human dignity and the mistreatment — physical, psychological, spiritual, and economic — they have experienced since Freeport, its agents, and its by-products (subcontractors, military protectors, economic migrants, and others) arrived. As one Amungme community leader was cited in the Indonesian newspaper, Kompas, in 1995, “What do they think the Amungme are? Human? Half-human? Or not human at all? If we were seen as human . . . they would not take the most valued property of the Amungme, just as we have never wanted to take the property of others…. I sometimes wonder, whose actions are more primitive?”

Throughout their struggle, local communities have appealed to the Indonesian government and military, the United Nations, United States courts and policymakers, and directly to Freeport and Rio Tinto (a major investor in Freeport’s Papua operation) management and shareholders in an effort to be heard. These appeals have come in the form of public community resolutions, interventions before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, U.S. congressional briefings, numerous direct meetings with Freeport management, and two court cases, filed on behalf of Amungme plaintiffs in U.S. federal and Louisiana state court, respectively. More than three decades after Freeport arrived, the Kamoro and Amungme are still pursuing their rights and restitution.

Freeport continues to operate in Papua today. The future is uncertain. Yet by taking a determined stand in defense of their rights, the Kamoro and the Amungme have focused the eyes of the world on the nexus of environmental and human rights concerns. Their struggle underscores the urgent need for more successful mechanisms for safeguarding the environmental rights of communities and for governments and corporations to adopt international human rights instruments and “best practice standards.” These include the International Labor Organization’s Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the U.N. Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ “Proposed American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” In short, the Amungme and Kamoro’s experience has changed the rules of the game, making it increasingly unacceptable for corporations and governments to devastate communities and the natural environment in the name of corporate profits and “trickle-down development.”

Read More: Environment, Human Rights, Environment/Sustainable Development, Human Rights, Oceania

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