Death and destruction caused by mining in West Papua, but Rio Tinto denies responsibility

The Grasberg copper-gold mine in West Papua

By Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network

The most shocking words spoken at this morning’s Rio Tinto AGM were these: “I am not sure I can answer that question.”

Maybe they don’t sound so shocking out of context.

This is the context.

In 1969, Indonesia annexed West Papua. One of the reasons it did so was the existence of enormous copper and gold deposits in the mountains. In order to get the minerals out of the ground, US company Freeport McMoRan was allowed to construct the vast open-pit Ertsberg mine and subsequently the Grasberg mine, which is still operating. Because of the high rainfall, the rugged terrain and the seismic activity, Freeport avoided the usual techniques of waste disposal, involving retaining wastes in enormous piles or under water behind dams, and simply threw its tailings (fine wastes) into the local river system instead, causing grave environmental damage and destroying local livelihoods. In order to keep the mine working in the face of opposition from the people of West Papua, the area around the mine was militarised. Military control has resulted in multiple human rights abuses, including many killings.

All this was well known in 1996 when Rio Tinto freely chose to enter an arrangement with Freeport to finance mine expansion at Grasberg in return for a share of the profits.

Pius Ginting, from Indonesian environmental organisation Action for Ecology and People’s Emancipation (AEER), told Rio Tinto’s board and shareholders at the AGM that he had recently visited coastal areas affected by the Grasberg mine’s waste disposal. Residents of Pasir Hitam have had to abandon their village because it is surrounded by mine waste. The mine is now discharging 200,000 tonnes of tailings into the river every day.

Pius asked for a commitment that Rio Tinto would ensure an end to the flow of tailings to the coast, where fishing livelihoods have been destroyed. He got no such commitment. Company Chairman Simon Thompson attempted to dodge responsibility by saying that Rio Tinto is not a shareholder in Grasberg – the company simply has a ‘metal strip arrangement’ with mine operator Freeport.

“We have influence,” he said, “and we use it to improve operations including tailings deposition in the lowlands, especially the construction of levees and faster rehabilitation of tailings once they have settled.” But the only assurance he gave Pius was that he would “try to find out more” as he did not know all the detail.

Pius then spoke about the killing of a resident of Karaka island by security forces. Would Rio Tinto use its influence to ensure that her family obtained justice?

Again, Simon Thompson said he did not know the details. He said that security staff at Grasberg are unarmed, and the company is committed to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. Company Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jean-Sebastian Jacques said that every time there had been claims of human rights violations the company had commissioned independent investigations and found that no violations had taken place.

What? No human rights violations have taken place around the Grasberg mine? It has been a vortex of armed conflict, human rights abuse and death for decades!

Ah, but the company’s own security personnel are unarmed – so they are not guilty.

But the reason the armed police and the Indonesian security forces are in the area is to protect the mine!

J-S Jacques said that the Indonesian government had declared Grasberg a critical national asset, so the armed forces are there to protect it. He spoke as if the mine, and the company’s profiting from the mine, were something entirely independent of the human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian armed forces defending the mine

Andrew Hickman from London Mining Network pointed out that there is now discussion about Rio Tinto pulling out of Grasberg. If it does pull out, what happens about accountability? “Severe fighting has recently broken out again in the area around the mine, affecting the only road leading from the main provincial town to the mine,” he explained. “There is a direct link between the fighting and the mine.”

Both the Indonesian army and the Papuan guerrillas are saying that one person has been killed and three injured. Local people say six have been killed and over a thousand have been displaced or have fled into the surrounding forests. What responsibility will Rio Tinto have toward those communities that have suffered so much death?

“There have been killings for decades,” said Andrew Hickman. “What commitment will you give us now that you will not just walk away, but accept responsibility into the future for the people and the situation there? People are dying right now. I hope you can give us a commitment that you will take very seriously the impact of that mine, and that when you leave you will still accept responsibility and give restitution to lands and communities.”

Chairman Simon Thompson said that no decision had yet been taken to pull out of Grasberg. There were very detailed negotiations between Freeport and the Government of Indonesia about the extension of the Contract of Work which expires in 2021. It was still unclear what would be the best thing for Rio Tinto to do.

Meanwhile, he said, the company has some influence over mine security guards because of its relationship with Freeport and its commitment to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, but because the area was militarised, and the company has no control over the Indonesia military, “I am unable to give the commitment that you asked me to give.”

Andrew asked, “What remedy do people have, then, if you will not give a commitment?”

Simon Thompson replied, “I am not sure I can answer that question.”

So, the company has spent years involved in mining operations which it knew were at the epicentre of a violent conflict in which people were being killed, and which were producing wastes which were being disposed of in a way which it knew was highly destructive of land and livelihoods, but it is apparently not willing to commit to making restitution to the many people who have suffered as a result of the Grasberg mine and has even, apparently, not thought about what other remedy people might obtain.

Shareholder Roger Moody described this as a “dereliction of duty.” He pointed out that the world’s largest sovereign pension fund, that of Norway, had disinvested from Rio Tinto precisely because of its involvement in the Grasberg project in the context of human rights abuses and problems caused by tailings disposal. Commitment to voluntary principles was utterly inadequate in the face of so many and such grave abuses.

The future for the people affected by the Grasberg mine does not look rosy in the light of Rio Tinto’s approach to its legacy in Bougainville, off the east coast of neighbouring Papua New Guinea. Rio Tinto subsidiary BCL was forced to abandon its Panguna copper and gold mine there because a vicious civil war broke out as a direct result of the pollution caused by the mine. At this morning’s AGM, shareholder Myra Sands asked, “Will Rio Tinto acknowledge it has a prime responsibility to fund a thorough clean-up of the mine site, and to return the Panguna area, which BCL ruthlessly exploited and profited from between 1975 and 1989, to a condition suited for truly sustainable livelihoods…?”

Simon Thompson answered that Rio Tinto was forced to leave the mine in 1989 because of civil conflict. Again, he spoke as if there were no connection between the mine and the conflict which erupted as a direct result of the mine’s existence. He said the mine had been in full compliance with all environmental regulations when the company was forced to leave, and nobody from Rio Tinto has been back since. Rio Tinto had “handed it over to Bougainville” [in fact, to the Government of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Government of Bougainville] “to enable it to be reopened” [in fact, it was to enable governments and local people to confer and decide what to do with the mine].

In other words, the answer to Myra’s question was a big fat no. The company will not take responsibility for the mess that it left, or the conflict that it caused, or the continuing problems surrounding the Panguna mine.

Rio Tinto cannot be allowed to walk away from its legacy at Panguna, and it cannot be allowed to escape its moral responsibility for the sufferings of the many people affected by the Grasberg mine either.

 

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