The Mountain of Ore
It was called Ertsberg by the first Europeans to find it; literally “the Mountain of Ore”. Located in the then-Dutch colony of Netherlands New Guinea (the western half of the island of New Guinea), this enormous reserve of Copper, Silver, and Gold was at first a closely guarded secret. Failing to garner either local or Dutch permission to license mineral exploration in the area, the knowledge of this place faded in the years from the 1930’s (when it was first tentatively identified) until 1959. Then, in one of the storied moments in modern mining exploration, a news report of explorers “trying to locate the source of alluvial gold in rivers flowing into the Arafura Sea” led a geologist in the employ of the Freeport mining company (the then-Freeport Sulphur) to find and read the 1936 report and gain support for an exploration mission. The team of geologists found one of the largest copper ore bodies of modern times… 33 million tons at 2.5% copper, according to the initial estimates. It was a significant find of gold and silver as well. But while the original find has been mined out for all intents and purposes, the complex of the find has expanded with continued exploration. That original number almost pales in comparison to current estimates: Even after almost 30 years of mining, the 2006 estimate of reserves was 2.8 billion tons at 1.09% copper, 0.98 grams/ton of gold, 3.78 grams/ton of silver.
But to “get to” Ertsberg, or Grasberg (as the extended find is named), one had to overcome two very significant obstacles:
1) Location. The mine site is over 100 kilometers inland from the nearest feasible site for a port of loading, and is atop a mountainous region ranging from 10,000 to 14,000 feet (3000~4000 m) in elevation in some of the most inhospitable mountainous jungle in the world. The region was utterly devoid of transport infrastructure at the time.
2) Politics. In 1959, the Netherlands New Guinea holding was under severe pressure to be decolonized. The Dutch administration saw to preparations for independence, and did grant independence to West Papua on December 1st, 1961. But the neighboring nation of Indonesia treated this declaration much the same as they had the independence of South Moluccas in the 1950’s… they prepared an invasion.
Well, location and the required means for access can be overcome, and the means for doing so were within the capability of the mining engineers, but to overcome the political problem required something more shall-we-say old fashioned: a sell-out.
The American Kennedy administration intervened on behalf of the Indonesians. All protests inside the administration that this was simply exchanging one colonial master for another were dismissed in the name of keeping Indonesia out of the Soviet sphere of influence. Secret talks and considerable pressure on the Dutch resulted in the New York Agreement of August, 1962, which placed the territory under a United Nations Temporary Executive Authority October 1st of 1963 and supposedly stipulated an “Act of Free Choice” vote to determine final status. In May of 1963, administration of the territory was transferred to Indonesia… and by September of that year the territory was “quarantined”, made a special military zone under Indonesian control.
Bet you can guess how the “Act of Free Choice” came out.
So after Indonesia claimed a unanimous vote against independence by the unspecified portion of the population they chose to poll, and the Americans went along with the fix, it became a lot easier to get on with building the mine. Not the most glorious moment in American diplomatic honesty, that.
Now 35 years and more have passed since the first mine officially opened in 1973, and during those years the people of West Papua have been under the thumb of the Javanese-led Government of Indonesia (which only began to shake off its own autocratic history with the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998) and subject to intentionally invasive population movements that would be called “ethnic cleansing” if it was happening somewhere like Europe.
Freeport, now Freeport-McMoRan operating as PT Freeport, has not been direct party to any of the dirty deeds of the Indonesian overlords. In fact, they employ over 19,000 people in the operation of the mine, the slurry pipeline, the aerial tramway, the concentrator and the loading facilities. But by being license-holder from the Indonesians, and by depending upon Indonesian police and military for external security, Freeport has always been identified as a “collaborator with the occupation”. Given the nature of doing business in Indonesia, it is safe to say that the regime and certain well-connected people have prospered greatly by taking their bite of the royalty payments and other “bureaucratic expenditures” necessary to get things done.
Taken all and all, one might argue that the people of West Papua are in some way morally correct in forming an insurgency against the Indonesian regime. If that insurgency was focused on the regime, this author might *maybe* even agree with that premise. The case studies of the South Moluccas and the only-recently-undone conquest of East Timor (Timor Leste) by Indonesia both make a compelling case against the Indonesian empire-building campaign. But why, in the name of all reason, would anyone think that attacking the very source of regional wealth is a good way to resist the Indonesian occupation? There must be a revenge motive that precludes good sense, or some petty “if we can’t have it, no one can” approach going on.
This is not the way to win independence, gentlemen.
Not by trying to destroy the slurry pipeline (1977). Not by killing two Americans working at the mine (2002). Not by mob action that killed 6 people in a protest demanding the mine be closed (2006). Not by killing a young Australian man who worked at the mine. Not by killing a contract security employee escorting a convoy. Your cause is not helped in the slightest by giving the “counter-terrorist” element of the Indonesian military reason to take the field.
The military occupiers are the ones who have killed the many tens of thousands of West Papuans lost in the years of resistance.
To cast them out, which is *the* goal after all, the lesson of Timor Leste needs be learned.
Find leaders. Not guerrilla band chiefs; leaders with real stature. Get them out where they can make their case.
Open the gates. Find ways to get outsiders in, and get your story out.
Recognize that not everyone in Indonesia agrees with the occupation, and make their ability to have a voice inside Indonesian politics be your voice there as well.
Stop trying to kill the foreigners working at Grasberg. They aren’t drones. They aren’t stupid either. Given a chance to be on the side of the families of the people they work side-by-side with to do their jobs, they likely will be.
Right now, the people of West Papua need all the friends they can get.
*If* the murder of Australian Drew Grant was committed by someone else than the movement, that story needs to get out.
The Australian Federal Police investigators who have joined the case are certainly going to look very hard at the evidence. The history of Timor Leste has made them willing to believe the possibility of Indonesian dirty deeds.
All notes are embedded in the text as links.
General Information on most all the above-referenced places, politics, and businesses are available at Wikipedia, but in this case *show extreme caution* as to sources and attribution of all information there. This is a highly politicized matter and there are great gaps in some of the history. (cf. the entry on South Moluccas has no historical data from ~1650 to ~1950)
Fair Disclosure: this author’s father was a senior Bechtel Corporation mining project engineer in the period when the Grasberg mine was first built (by that firm).