Uncover: Rio Tinto and Grasberg Mine

By Callum Shaw, Economic and Social History Student

On 9th September, 2008, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested $1 billion of its holdings from the mining giant Rio Tinto. The reasoning behind this was Rio Tinto’s ‘grossly unethical conduct’, with a particular focus on the controversial Grasberg mine in West Papua, New Guinea, co-owned by the US company Freeport-McMoRan. The last eight years have seen little improvement when dealing with the social and environmental damages that the mine creates, however the SPF continues its multi-million pound investment into it.

Since the invasion in 1962, West Papua has been under strict control by the Indonesian government. It has not been a peaceful occupation with the highest estimates of civilian deaths at over 500,000 during the period. The referendum which gave the authority to the Indonesian government was a charade. It consisted of just 1% of the population, forced to vote at gun point. Since then, there has been a constant local struggle, firstly to internationally recognise their plight and finally, to reclaim a free West Papua. The demonstrations have but for a few, been met with uncompromising brutality. Number of arrests at demonstrations has been rising and torture of locals is still practised commonly. Between April 2013 to December 2014 country saw extra-judicial killings by the security forces, including protest on 8th of December 2014 with 4 students shot and killed and 17 more injured.

West Papua protest

Source: Guardian, (c) Ulet Ifansasti

This is the current political climate that the Grasberg mine exists within. The resource rich island sees Rio Tinto and Freeport being the largest tax payers to the Indonesian Government. But the region remains chronically poor with “one of the most alarming food insecurity and malnutrition rates in Indonesia”. In this unstable environment, Rio Tinto-Freeport is paying over $5m each year for government-provided security, the same people that are forcefully suppressing the ethnic West Papuans (mostly of Melanesian roots) and also creating the tensions leading to the need for this ‘security’. The mutually benefitting relationship is putting money into the hands of the military and the free access to the mountains of New Guinea without restraints to the mining giants. Conflicts such as those in Syria or Palestine are seeing international condemnation with restrictions put in place for investment or calls for such restrictions. However in West Papua, the occupation continues, part funded by companies SPF profits from.

The intended future expansion of the mine, tipped the Norwegian Government to pull out of Rio Tinto. As the open pit begins to deplete, the strategical move to the underground mining will see the mine extending its profits till at least 2041 with an expected increase in output. The main concern raised by Norway is the permanence of the tailings toxicity in the soil where they are dumped. Tailings are the finely ground natural rock remains after the mined ore has been processed to remove the copper and gold bearing minerals. At the current rate the mine discharges approximately 230,000 tonnes of tailings a day, with an expected increase, as the capacity of the mine will grow over the coming years. The tailings contain high concentrations of toxins such as copper, arsenic, cadmium, and selenium. These are dumped into the nearby Aghawagon River, which leads to the Otomona River flowing through the lowland wetlands out into the sea. A 2002 study, financed by Rio Tinto-Freeport, revealed by the New York Times, have found that the area was now “unsuitable for aquatic life.” While internationally riverine tailings disposal is condemned and out-lawed in most western countries and The World Bank refuses funding for companies involved in such practises, Indonesian environmental standards are much lower.

The Grasberg mine has been the focus of much criticism towards Rio Tinto, but similar mines across the world from Utah to Mongolia are causing similar effects on the local populations and environment. Ric Lander’s blog at Friends of the Earth Scotland explores these in more details.


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