INDONESIA: Recklessness in Indonesia

Freeport-McMoRan, an American company that operates a giant open-pit copper and gold mine in Papua, is a major contributor to Indonesia's economy. The company is also one of Indonesia's most reckless polluters and a source of hard cash -- cash the company concedes is protection money -- for the Indonesian military, which has one of the worst human rights records anywhere.

A recent report in The Times by Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner described Freeport's activities in great detail. The report was part of a series of articles over the past year detailing environmental and other abuses by American mining companies at home and abroad.

Several of these companies are being sued by local governments that argue that these companies' environmental practices would never be tolerated in America and that local citizens are seeing too few of mining's benefits while paying too heavy a price. Newmont Mining, based in Denver, has been sued by the Indonesian government for dumping poisoned wastes in local waters, and Placer Dome, based in Canada, has been sued by a Philippine province for similar infractions.

Freeport's activities are particularly disheartening. Over the past decade, the company has built what amounts to an industrial city in Indonesia's easternmost province. On the plus side, the company provides jobs for 18,000 people and, according to company estimates, has provided Indonesia with $33 billion in direct and indirect benefits from 1992 to 2004, almost 2 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The environmental damage, however, has been breathtaking. So far, the company has produced about one billion tons of waste, with five billion more tons to come before the operation shuts down. Some of this waste has been dumped into the mountains surrounding the mine, and some into a system of rivers that descend steeply into the island's low-lying wetlands and coastal estuaries. The damage has been enough to render the rivers, wetlands and parts of the estuaries -- all critical to the food chain -- unsuitable for aquatic life.

Meanwhile, records show that between 1998 and 2004, Freeport gave officers in the police and military nearly $20 million in direct payments in addition to tens of millions more for military infrastructure like barracks and roads. The company told The Times that the payments were necessary to provide a secure working environment for its employees, and that ''there is no alternative to our reliance on the Indonesian military and police.''

Papua has long been home to a low-level, separatist insurgency against the central government, which made the company nervous. Yet what is missing from the company's response is any recognition that its environmental practices contributed to the unrest and allowed the military to establish a strong presence in a region where it had barely a toehold before Freeport arrived.

Freeport's environmental record and its support for the Indonesian military have caused rumbles in Washington, particularly among human rights advocates like Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont. Citing human rights abuses, Congress in 1992 restricted arms sales and most American training for Indonesian officers, and it enacted new prohibitions in 1999 after a rampage by army-backed militia in what was then East Timor Province. Mr. Leahy sharply criticized Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's decision to resume aid last year, which the administration described as a reward for Indonesia's improved human rights record and its cooperation with the post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism campaign.

Indonesia's critics say that the present government is an improvement over the authoritarian rule of President Suharto, who ran the country for three decades ending in 1998. Yet the military continues its abusive practices. Setting aside for the moment Freeport's environmental horror show, the company is not doing Indonesia's civilian authorities any favors by underwriting the generals. Freeport describes its payments as an essential cost of doing business. But it appears not to have measured the costs to democracy.

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 116 Human Rights

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