Saturday, October 29, 2011

West Papua at Boiling Point: Strike at Freeport Mine

Workers at Freeport McMoran's Grasberg mine in West Papua, one of the world's biggest copper and gold mines, have been on strike since September 15th. Their immediate demand is a large wage increases to bring their salary into line with what the company pays its workers in other countries. The conflict has raged over the past six weeks with unremitting action and brutal repression, bringing the company to its knees at a time when Papua is in turmoil generally.

Several people have already lost their lives around the mine, which has been an ongoing source of tension in West Papua since the 1960s. On Monday 10th October police opened fire on striking miners as they tried to gain access to company premises. One man, Petrus Ayamseba was killed in the incident. Several others were wounded, and one of these, Leo Wandagau, died of his injuries five days later.

There have also been three incidences of shooting along the road that leads to the Freeport mine. Three contract workers were killed in an ambush on Friday 14th October, and then another three men were also killed a week later. Three police officers from the mobile brigade narrowly escaped when their vehicle was shot at on October 26. The perpetrators and their connection with the strike remain unknown. Such ambushes have happened on many occasions in the past in the area. Security forces routinely blame the actions on OPM guerrillas who are fighting for an independent West Papua. However as US-based solidarity group West Papua Action Team explains, “In the past, similar assaults against security and Freeport personnel have been attributed to conflicts among police, military and Freeport security personnel who have long feuded over the division of spoils from extortion practices that target Freeport, as well as conflict over freelance gold-mining efforts by local people.”

The struggle of workers, nevertheless, continues unabated: The strikers have kept up a blockade of the road leading to the mine, with the result that food and medicine supplies have run very low at the mine (although reportedly the local Papuan community near the mine is also suffering from this blockade). The company was also forced to shut production when it discovered that the 60-mile long pipeline carrying gold and copper concentrate from the mine to the port had been sabotaged in several places. Freeport has claimed that it has been able to repair the pipe and resume operations, although on 26th October it had to declare 'force majure' meaning that it would not be able to meet its contractual obligations to supply metal concentrates to its customers.

Aside from the shootings mentioned above there have been acts of intimidation from the company. The chief negotiator of the All Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI) which represents the striking workers, Sudiro, was sitting on the verandah of his house when a shot from a silenced gun hit a bowl on a table beside him. He understood this incident as a death threat rather than a direct attempt on his life.

Anger and suspicion in the workers remains high. Duma Tato Sanda, a journalist working for Cahaya Papua, told Papuan newspaper Jubi how he was beaten by the striking workers when he was trying to research a story about an action involving the burning of three Freeport trucks. 'I said that I was a journalist but nevertheless they beat me and threw stones at me. Luckily, someone came by on a motor-bike otherwise I could have been killed from being beaten by so many people.' Apparently the workers are reacting to the links which Freeport has made with other journalists, and so see journalists as a threat.

Solidarity actions with the strike have taken place outside of Papua. On the second day of 'Occupy Jakarta' protests, the Freeport building in the Indonesian capital was chosen as a focus for the action, and in the US city of Phoenix, activists planned to picket Freeport's global headquarters on October 28th. In Yogyakarta on the 13th of Octob er and Jakarta on the 26th October there were also demonstrations, but with the demand that the Freeport mine be nationalised. This analysis might fit uneasily with the wishes of many Papuans, who quite clearly identify the Indonesian State as part of the oppression they face, just as much as foreign corporations.

solidarity action in Jakarta

 All this is taking place in a moment of intense turmoil for Papuans. At the same time as the actions around Freeport, security forces violently broke up the third Papuan People's Congress, being held outside Jayapura. With the excuse that the meeting of many thousands of people had decided to call for independence, troops dispersed the crowd using live ammunition. Over the following days six bodies were found in the area. Three-hundred people were arrested, six of which are currently being charged with treason.

Then on the 24th of October, in Mulia in Puncak Jaya two men jumped on the local police chief, Adj. Comr. Dominggus Oktavianus Awes at Mulia airport and used his gun to shoot him dead. The remote Puncak Jaya regency has been the scene of many of the state's most brutal operations over the past several years, including village burnings, murder, rape and sweeping operations that terrorise the whole community. The Vanuatu-based international spokesperson of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), John Otto Ondawame did not say whether or not this was the work of the OPM, but did make the point that Dominggus had been one of “those who must take responsibility for the series of crimes against humanity in Puncak Jaya.”

Of course the links between the Freeport strike and the wider struggles of the Papuan people for peace and self-determination are not straightforward. But the climate of tension which has put Papua on edge right at the moment surely has its effects on the mineworkers too, as they struggle to make a decent living from this company whose presence in Papua has long been one of the key reasons for the continued militarisation across the whole island, as well as widespread ecological destruction.

Freeport McMoran is a US company headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, US,although its Grasberg mine in Papua is operated in a joint venture with UK-Australian Rio Tinto, which recieves 40% of the mine's profits.

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