In May the US mining company Freeport McMoRan sacked 3,000 workers at the Grasberg copper and gold mine in West Papua, Indonesia. Workers had just begun a 30-day strike protesting against the company’s furlough policy — the temporary laying off of workers because of breaks in production.
The company has been in dispute with the Indonesian government over new conditions for its licence to mine in West Papua and this had interrupted production. Since 2011 there have been a number of strikes at the mine over wages and conditions, the backdrop to which has been continuing human rights and environmental abuses in the territory.
West Papua, the western half of a large island, makes up 22% of the land mass of Indonesia, but it is at the periphery of the archipelago. The eastern half of the island is part of politically independent Papua New Guinea. There are strong connections between the indigenous peoples of both halves of the island. From 1898 West Papua was colonised by the Dutch. After the Second World War Indonesian nationalists fought war to get sovereignty over the Dutch East Indies. This was achieved with the exception of West Papua. Then the territory was annexed in 1969 by the dictatorship of Suharto. Since the early 60s, between 100,000 and 500,000 West Papuans have lost their lives at the hands of the Indonesian military.
Suharto also began a policy of “Indonesianisation”, organising the migration of people from Java to West Papua so that the indigenous peoples are now a minority. West Papua is rich in natural resources, yet the population of 3.5 million in one of the poorest in Indonesia. The Indonesian military continues to repress, detain and kill the population. The army raises money from payments from the extractive companies for security.
Freeport is implicated in shooting incidents around the Grasberg mine. Freeport started its operations in West Papua in 1972 and the Grasberg mine started in 1988. In recent years the company, which in 2015 had a net income of $12 billion, has tried to wean itself off payments to the army and improve its human rights record. But it has not used its power (e.g. as the single largest Indonesian taxpayer) to stop the brutality of the army, including the shooting dead of two striking workers in 2013.
After the latest strike began the company declared it illegal. They deemed anyone striking had indicated a “voluntary resignation”. Mining companies around the world wield tremendous power; they right roughshod over workers right to organise, and are implicated in wider human rights abuses. Everywhere they are responsible for environmental damage. In West Papua the waste products from the mine have destroyed forests and wetlands, killing off fish and other wildlife.
In 2015, the new Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, claimed he was willing to work towards a “better Papua”. However, human rights violations have increased since he took power, according to Indonesia’s Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras). It has logged 1,200 incidents of harassment, beatings, torture and killings of Papuans by Indonesian security forces since his election in 2014.