Indonesia's next East Timor?

The biggest gold and copper mine in the world stands between West Papua and its hopes for independen

New Guinea is the third-largest island in the world, yet we know little of it. The eastern half, Papua New Guinea, is seen as Australia's problem child, independent but not self-reliant. Of the western half, West Papua, we know even less.

The country blipped on to the western news-map in 1996, when four British science graduates were taken hostage by "Free Papua" guerrillas, but newspapers dismissed the Papuans as "Stone Age terrorists". And when, on 4 June this year, the Second Papuan People's Congress unanimously declared West Papua's independence from Indonesia, there was barely a murmur in the British press.

Jakarta reacted more forcefully, condemning the congress as "illegitimate", warning Papuans that independence was "not an option" and that security forces would act to maintain order. The United States and Japan, followed by the European Union, backed Indonesia's president, Abdurrahman Wahid; Australia issued a statement acknowledging Indonesia's territorial integrity. The Indonesian army and police presence in West Papua has been reinforced from 8,000 to 12,000, and Jakarta has warned of more to come.

There are reports in the Asian press that, as happened in East Timor, pro-Indonesian militias have appeared. Learning from the East Timorese, Papuans have assembled their own militias and, on the streets, where there are regular disturbances, the sides appear evenly matched.

For Indonesia, another proclamation of independence so soon after the loss of East Timor would be hard to swallow. But its greatest concern by far is West Papua's extraordinary natural resources.

Hidden at 4,000 metres in the blue-black ranges of its interior, West Papua possesses the largest reserve of gold on the planet. In the 1998 annual report of the British mining company Rio Tinto plc, gold stocks in New Guinea are given as just over 19 million ounces. Rio Tinto has a 12.5 per cent shareholding in Papua's Grasberg mine, plus a further 40 per cent share in its expansion. The mine is owned by Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, based in New Orleans, whose gold reserves at Grasberg stand at 85 million ounces. Grasberg's gold is worth $21.5bn. The mine is also the third-largest source of copper, with reserves of 32 million tonnes.

West Papua is as big as Spain, but large parts of it are so dense with jungle and swamp that they have never been mapped. Just over a million Papuans (the rest are transmigrants) belong to hundreds of tribal clans, many living deep in the bush, with no ethnic or religious ties to their Muslim rulers. In the highlands, the men hunt cassowary and tree kangaroos with bows and arrows, while the women labour in the gardens, cook and nurse: it isn't uncommon to find a nursing mother with a child at one breast and a piglet at the other. To see these things is to glimpse our earliest humanity.

To this wilderness came Freeport-McMoRan in 1967, with the blessing of the Indonesian government. No mine on earth moves as much rock each day as Grasberg. When I visited West Papua in 1986, the company was producing 16,000 tonnes of ore a day from a nearby mine. Two years later, Grasberg disclosed its huge plug of copper-gold ore, which had stood in the rock for three million years as equatorial glaciers advanced and retreated around it. Now production is between 200,000 and 300,000 tonnes of ore a day.

Freeport's first contract was signed with Indonesia in April 1967. West Papua had come under interim Indonesian rule four years earlier. The Dutch had not wanted to hand it over with the rest of their East Indies empire, but President Sukarno began to flaunt his new friendship with the Soviet Union, and the United States took fright. The New York Agreement of 1962, brokered by the United Nations but choreographed by Washington, paid lip service to Dutch insistence on self-determination. Under the agreement, Indonesia was allowed six years of interim rule before it had to consult the Papuans as to whether or not they wanted to be annexed. As in East Timor, Indonesian troops were given responsibility for security.

That consultation, known as the "Act of Free Choice", was held on 2 August 1969. The 1,025 Papuan council members who assembled at the army headquarters in the capital, Jayapura, were told by President Suharto's envoy that anyone who voted against Indonesia would have his tongue torn out or be shot on the spot. The vote for integration was unanimous. The province of Irian Jaya was created, and the world was treated to a geopolitical absurdity: anti-colonialism and neocolonialism being used interchangeably in the interests of America's obsession with communism.

Between 1963 and 1969, there were countless Indonesian operations to break Papuan protests, including a bloody bush war by OPM - Organisasi Papua Merdeka ("Free Papua Movement") - resistance fighters. In the 37 years since Indonesian troops arrived, at least 45,000 are believed to have been killed, mostly in villages bombed and burned and in the systematic depopulation, rape and extrajudicial murder of the population. In 1967 alone, 3,500 Papuans were killed. Reports of atrocities by Indonesian soldiers had become so persistent that, on 5 April 1967 in the House of Lords, Lord Ogmore called for a UN investigation. That was also the day that Freeport celebrated the signing of its contract.

The connection between these two events is more than coincidental. Mining companies exist to pile on value. The Grasberg mine's development - not forgetting the contribution of Rio Tinto - so closely mirrors Indonesia's career in West Papua that it is worth considering the two in parallel. There is the question, for example, of the legality of Freeport's 1967 contract, a contract Indonesia probably had no legal right to grant. There have also been revelations that, between 1991 and 1997, the company provided loan guarantees of $673m for the purpose of buying Freeport stock for three Indonesians with close ties to President Suharto or his ministers (one of the businessmen involved, Mohammed "Bob" Hasan, the Suharto aide who introduced Freeport's CEO Jim-Bob Moffett into the president's family circle, was arrested this year in connection with a fraud case).

In July 1999, I flew from Darwin across the Arafura Sea to Timika, the flapping tin-and-concrete mess that is the nearest approach point to the mine; from a village of 200 people 25 years ago, it now has a population approaching 80,000.

I travelled first to the Aikwa river, a cement-coloured throat of water several kilometres wide that receives thousands of tonnes of mine tailings (the rock powder left from the milling process) per day. I stood on the levee with Freeport's environmental manager, surveying a desolate spectacle under a thunderous sky. Eventually, it is estimated, 220 square kilometres of Papuan lowlands will be drowned by tailings. I pointed to the horizon on the far bank, scarred by kilometres of dead trees. The manager said cheerfully: "Oh, they've just had their root systems suffocated by tailings. Unsightly, aren't they? But we'll be cutting them down."

The sight downriver cannot prepare you for the mine. First, there is the spectacular access road. There are no foothills: the blue peaks of the Jayawijaya range burst vertically upwards through the freezing silken mists, so Freeport engineers simply shaved off the crests of a line of knife-edge ridges until the surface was wide enough for two 40-tonne trucks to pass. Higher up, the mine's pipeline runs bare by the roadside, carrying away the ore concentrate to the waiting tankers on the coast. In 1977, in retaliation for land expropriations and armed only with hacksaw blades, OPM fighters and villagers cut this pipe. The army retaliated with Operasi Tumpas ("Operation Annihilation"), bombing, rocketing and strafing villages with US-supplied OV-10 Bronco warplanes.

At Mile 68, there is Tembagapura, the mine's dull-looking township; at Mile 74, a cable tramway transports you the last kilometre and a half through the clouds to the Grasberg's summit. Sliced like a boiled egg, the huge inverted cone at its centre is deepening year by year as the ore is blasted out and borne to the surface in a never- ending caravan of 200-tonne trucks.

For the highland Amungme tribe, on whose land the mine stands, the result has been a spiritual cataclysm. The earth they walk on is their ancestral mother, the mountain her head. Whenever someone died, they used to be taken to the Grasberg's summit. The mine is gouging out their mother's brains before their eyes.

The mine and its infrastructure are an undoubted engineering masterpiece, yet the Papuans' resentment comes under several headings: the company's forcible resettlement of highlanders in the swampy lowlands; the rumours of over-close ties to the Indonesian military; its environmental record and alleged responsibility for human-rights abuses; and money. Where is the money? West Papua should be the most bankable province in the republic, but it remains economically backward, its riches siphoned off to Freeport stockholders and to Jakarta.

Yet perhaps the main question is not even about money. As the head of the Catholic diocese office, Brother Theo van den Broek, puts it: "It is: my land. Me. Where am I in this whole story?"

Possibly because Freeport smells political change, in the past year, it has been moving rock fast. A month ago, a slide of rock waste into Lake Wanagon buried four contractor's employees and injured 18 others. Brother Theo believes the enormous speed of extraction is causing environmental problems. Although the company has claimed a clean bill of health from an independent environmental audit, the mayor of the Timika region recently ordered local people to stop eating tambelo - a water snail that is a staple of the lowland diet - because of suspected high copper levels. At concentrations of less than two parts per million (ppm), copper can cause intestinal and other damage. The Aikwa's copper level is around 10ppm; other metals associated with gold-bearing ores include mercury, arsenic, barium, cadmium and lead. Freeport's ebullient CEO dismisses the environmental impact of the mine as "the equivalent of me pissing in the Arafura Sea".

But the chief source of anger remains the company's ties with the Indonesian military. Freeport cannot dissociate itself from the army: the army is there because Freeport is there. Regular Papuan protests against the mine are routinely met by army reprisals. A Catholic Church report following a series of army attacks in 1994-95, part of a "cleansing operation" against the OPM, listed killings, torture, detention and disappearance of Papuans. The most notorious case was of five men from the Kwalik family. Arrested and tortured, they subsequently vanished and are still missing. Several months later, another Kwalik, an ex-teacher named Kelly, abducted and held hostage the group of British research scientists.

The day before I left Timika, I met Kelly Kwalik's mother, Ibu Josefa, an old- fashioned figure bound in bright cloth, like a polished and carefully wrapped antique. She had found herself in jail in 1995 "because they thought I was giving orders. I was in jail for a month and three days. It was a toilet with water up to my knees." The "toilet" Josefa mentioned was a freezing steel freight container. She and nine others had had to stand in their own excrement for a month. She became blind in her left eye as a result.

Brother Theo reckons that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 army and special forces troops around Timika, more in the hamlets surrounding the mine. "They ask for cars and facilities, and Freeport agrees. One senior executive said to me: 'We don't like it either, but we feel safe.'" During my visit, I was introduced to a number of Freeport officials, including an American called Tom Green, in charge of the "community liaison office". Later I found that, prior to joining Freeport, he had been a military attache at the US embassy in Jakarta.

Back in London, I received some papers from an American lawyer who had represented the Amungme people. Incomplete but revealing, they contained evidence that Freeport has budgeted to equip the military to enable it to perform its violent role. In the year in question - probably the second half of the 1990s - the company was budgetingto finance military headquarters buildings, guard-houses, barracks, parade grounds, ammunition-storage, water, power and fuel installations, tennis and volleyball courts, flagpoles and signwriting. In a list of requirements for Freeport project architects, draughtsmen and engineers, provision had been made for two army advisers. The amounts are substantial, given that the papers weren't complete: for the army $5,160,770, for the police $4,060,000.

At the end of last month, the chairman of the Papuan People's Congress, Theys Eluay, and his deputy, Tom Beanal, were due to meet President Wahid in Jakarta to present the congress's independence proclamation. The meeting was cancelled, and Eluay and Beanal may soon face treason charges. Neither side has room for manoeuvre. If West Papua's fate remains an internal matter, President Wahid is likely to defer to his generals, and Papuan nationalism will be contained by military repression. But there are problems, too, in taking the issue of West Papuan self- determination back to the United Nations.

As every UN diplomat knows, Indonesia has had a recent lesson in the concept of international justice - in East Timor - and will not tolerate another. West Papua is even more vital to Jakarta, and Papuan nationalism more potentially destabilising, inside and outside Indonesia. Grasberg, 4,000 metres up in the south-west highlands, is an economic beachhead. Freeport is one of Indonesia's biggest tax and royalty sources and has a licence to prospect another 2.6 million-hectare area, as far as the Papua New Guinea border. It is likely to reveal mineral wealth that Jakarta will not abandon without a fight.

A fight is, therefore, all too likely. If poli-tical moves to secure Papuan independence fail or falter too long, OPM commanders have indicated that their future strategy will concentrate on economic targeting. Freeport is vulnerable to guerrilla attack: Grasberg workers remember, given that some were employed there, how the profitable Panguna mine on nearby Bougainville Island was closed in the early 1990s: all the Bougainville Revolutionary Army had to do was blow up a power plant and murder a couple of expatriates. Panguna has not reopened. Without the Indonesian army's presence and readiness to inflict reprisals, the mighty Grasberg mine would be as exposed as Panguna.