Freeport and the Suffering of The Papuans

Published in The Jakarta Post as Opinion  – March 21, 2006

Israr Iskandar, Padang

Like an irresistible piece of chocolate cake, Freeport has become an issue politicians are eager to talk about.

Former People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) speaker Amien Rais has recently urged the government to revise its contract with PT Freeport Indonesia. He has even agreed with the activists, who demand Freeport’s closure.

In the same tone, Vice President Jusuf Kalla set up an inter-departmental team to re-audit the giant US-based gold mining firm. The government is expecting an extra royalty allocation from the company.

The politicization of Freeport intensified after a violent demonstration in Abepura, Papua against the firm, leaving three police officers and an airman dead on March 16. Earlier, volatile protests took place in Jakarta, Jayapura, Manado, Solo and Timika. Some of the protests turned violent, such as that the one at the building, which houses PT Freeport Indonesia’s offices in Jakarta. In the Papuan town of Timika, the highway to Freeport’s Grasberg mine was again blockaded by local people. This, despite the fact, that local people had earlier “made peace” with Freeport via a traditional declaration.

Local politicians have added to the complexity of the issue. Members of the Papuan People’s Assembly (MRP) and the Papuan Regional Council have become actively involved. Non-governmental organizations and Papuan students aggressively supported the local community’s basic rights. Now the local elite have become further involved in the Freeport case, particularly as it gets more politicized.

The Papuans’ objection to the presence of Freeport is nothing new as it involves basic rights issues. But the nationalistic cliques in Jakarta are motivated to pressure Freeport purely out of a sense of “economic nationalism” (as indicated by Amien and a number of conservative politicians in the House of Representatives), the Papuan elite and NGOs find their reason for complaints in the poor conditions of indigenous people amid the abundance of Papua’s natural wealth, which is greedily exploited by “outsiders”.

For a long time, the U.S.-based corporation has been considered less responsive to the interests of its surrounding people, especially in matters related to pollution of the environment, which includes a diverse ecosystem that has served as a source of native people’s livelihood. On top of this, Freeport is the most obvious irony in Papua. A multinational corporation has the freedom to exploit Papua’s natural resources, while some people in the province still virtually live in the “stone age”.

Economists and entrepreneurs view the “pressure” on Freeport as bad news for the country’s investment climate. They say that in order to recuperate from economic crisis that has lingered since 1997, there needs to be new investment, and not the removal of an ongoing investments. Actually, even without any such direct pressure, many foreign firms have left Indonesia due to the country’s unfavorable business climate and the overly politicized nature of big investments.

However, the government cannot blame local protesters and politicians for what it describes as undermining the investment climate.

Freeport’s operation has been considered less than conducive to the betterment local people’s welfare. The Freeport case today is the “tip of an iceberg” of the ire of locals against the greed of the powerholders in Jakarta, who collaborate with foreign investors in draining Papua’s natural wealth. The exploitation of Papua’s resources has been taking place intensively and extensively amid Papuans’ growing poverty and backwardness after decades of integration with Indonesia.

In the early period of reform (since 1998), Papuans had great expectations. Various aspirations were expressed to demand justice from the central government, not only in terms of political rights, but also in economic, social and cultural spheres. The fruit of these demands was special autonomy. Politically, the 2001 Law on Special Autonomy for Papua is a “compromise” to absorb the call for freedom. Economically, Papua shares a “fair” amount of income from the exploitation of its resources.

But in reality, the law has not yet brought about fundamental changes in Papua. Research by the Working Group on Papua in early 2006 revealed that for over five years, special autonomy has had no impact yet on the welfare of local people, particularly native Papuans. Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) in 2004 showed that 80 percent of the Papuan population remained poor, the highest such rate in the country. The recent famine disaster in Yahukimo seems to have only confirmed the statistics.

For Papuans who have studied their history, Freeport’s presence looks strange. The company’s operation in Timika was planned long before Papua’s integration with Indonesia. This historical speculation has affected the dynamics of the Jakarta-Jayapura relations. Suspicion has arisen that its integration in the 1960s was just a process of coercion of “political economy” because it was realized against the backdrop of foreign (i.e. U.S.) investors’ interests. Speculation has also emerged that collaboration between foreign capital and the New Order regime purposely sacrificed the political and economic rights of Papuans.

Upon a closer look at the issue, one will notice that local protests against Freeport today are not only aimed at the American company, but also meant as a manifestation of Papua’s continued resistance to central government policy. Consequently, for Jakarta, resolving the Freeport crisis and satisfying Papuan political aspirations are crucial.

The government’s attitude toward foreign investment has hitherto been ambivalent. Its attention to foreign investment has not been balanced with proper care about the interests of nearby communities. In the Freeport case, the impression is that the government sides with the multinational companies, while treating locals in an unfair way.

The Freeport case is not a specific one. Indonesia is an example where many investors only consider profit accumulation, while neglecting the environment around them, including the rights of local communities. This is widely practiced not only by foreign corporations but also domestic companies, including state-owned enterprises. The irony is not lost on those of us in this independent republic.

The writer is a lecturer and political analyst, Andalas University, Padang.