The Louisiana Environment

Freeport McMoran- Exporting Environmental Racism

by Kirk M. Soodhalter

Environmental Abuses

      In Irian Jaya on the equatorial island of Papua, there is an area of about seventy-eight miles which is a unique refuge for biodiversity. Within that area are a glacier, tropical seas, mangroves swamps, freshwater swamps, lowland jungles, and highland cloud forests (Murphy).  This beautiful area, however, is faced with destruction. The primary threat to this island paradise is a Louisiana corporation, Freeport McMoran.

    In October 1995, The United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) canceled a one hundred million dollar political risk insurance policy for Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold.  OPIC cited the environmental damage that Freeport has caused for the past thirty years in this and surrounding areas in Irian Jaya.  Freeport’s Grasburg mine causes numerous problems for the surrounding ecosystems.  The people who live in this area are dying from the alleged unnecessary force inflicted by Freeport security and from Freeport’s pollution.  Freeport’s actions have also deprived the natives of their primary source of food.  Freeport has displaced many of the native people though their ruin of the land (Murphy).

    Freeport’s operations in the Grasburg mine have had a major impact on the rain forests that flourish in this area of the world. The major cause of damage to these rain forests is tailings, the by-product of Freeport’s mining operations.  Tailings are a mixture of fine clays, flotation tailings, chemical precipitates, and slimes (Risky).  These mine wastes have created an artificial flood plain, which is killing the rain forest.  Since Freeport first began operating in Irian Jaya, it has spent four billion dollars on infrastructure to penetrate an otherwise harsh wilderness.  This has caused the population of Greater Timika to surge from six thousand, a decade ago, to about seventy thousand today, and more new immigrants enter the region every day (Murphy). This invasion by mankind causes further degradation of the rain forests.

    Freeport’s abuse of the rivers in Irian Jaya is the primary cause of damage to the rain forests.  Freeport dumps one hundred twenty thousand tons of tailings into the rivers each day and has requested that the Indonesian government allow it to dump three hundred thousand tons per day.  The Indonesian government has approved this request.  Sediments in the Ajkwa River have thirty eight times the amount of copper than the minimum amount required for calling an area contaminated.  Water in Irian Jaya is so polluted with tailings and chemicals that the Indonesian government recommends that that people in the area no longer drink it.

    Freeport’s massive pollution of the Ajkwa River also disrupts the indigenous communities.  The native subsistence agriculturists can no longer grow their crops because their land floods, as more and more tailings are added to the water each day (Risky).  All this chemical dumping also hurts other animal and plant life.  The copper that Freeport releases in the water is highly toxic to most freshwater and marine organisms.  As these tailings and sulfites enter into the ecosystem, they are creating an ecological time bomb.  The entire ecosystem of the river will die as the acidity of the environment increases.  The toxic substances could spread throughout the water table.  Ecological health of the area is not the only environmental concern.  There is also a need to protect the natural beauty of this once unspoiled area.  The nearby Lorentz National Park was originally created to halt the biomes’ destruction by Freeport.  But Freeport is already venturing into new areas to search for more ore and it has already encroached upon the park.  Mining in this area is illegal, yet Freeport manages to get exploration permits for this area and has actually started exploring small portions of this national park (Risky & Murphy).

Human Rights Abuses

      This destruction has been physically and psychologically taxing to the natives.  First, missionaries came and moved them to the coast where many of them died of malaria.  Then Freeport and other companies settled in; first in base camps and eventually in small towns.  They have done all this without consulting the indigenous populations (Bulletin 1996).  When Freeport executives and the tribal chiefs made their original deal two decades ago, they had to use the interpreters.  Anthropologists say it is very likely that there were misunderstandings between the chiefs and the Freeport executives.  The tribal chiefs did not know Freeport was going to blast out a large portion of the mountain and remain in Irian Jaya for thirty years (Governmental).  Once the Amunge realized Freeport was not leaving, their chief had a confrontation with Freeport executives.  Within a month of this clash the Indonesian government ordered two thousand Amunge to leave their homes.  This started a pattern of such forced removals (Freeport-McMoran).

    In 1977, the military put down a native revolt.  Freeport contributed one million dollars towards this military operation.  Thousands of Papuans were killed.  When the Amungme people protest abuses by Freeport, security officers and military personnel arrest them, beat them, accuse them of being OPM separatists, and lock them in small containers.  They have even tortured and killed these people (Bulletin 1996).  The Australian Council for Overseas Aid and the Catholic Church of Jayapura have both said that Freeport is well aware of the Indonesian army's abuses (Zimman).

    Freeport is closely involved with the Indonesian army and their acts of violence.  Freeport’s contract with the Indonesian government obligates it to give some supplies to the military.  Freeport CEO, Jim Bob Moffet, denies that Freeport commits any violence towards the natives of West Papua (Attacks).  There is evidence, however, that Freeport employees do commit human rights abuses.  In 1997, Yapenes Rony Magal came home after being beaten harshly.  He died the next day in the hospital.  Before he died, he recounted to three eyewitnesses that Freeport security had beaten him for eating without permission (Risky).

      Freeport has a long history with the repressive President Suharto.  It was the first foreign company to get permission to operate in Indonesia after Suharto took power in 1967.  Freeport has many privileges because it is Indonesia’s largest corporate taxpayer and provides the knowledge and skills to mine the massive amounts of ore from the Grasburg mines.  Freeport also provides housing, food, and transportation to the military in exchange for their services in guarding the Grasburg mine (Zimman).

      Freeport is also causing conflict between different tribes of West Papuan natives.  Freeport operates on ancestral lands of the Amunge and Kamoro tribes.  Because Freeport only listens to requests from these two tribes, it is creating jealousy among the other tribes (Yerton).  Another cause of social unrest is Freeport’s expansions of its mines.  This has brought traditionally warring tribes physically closer than they already were, which has heightened tribal conflict (Bull’s Eye).  No matter which tribe they come from, these natives have many of the same complaints against Freeport.  One of their biggest grievances is the social gap between them and the Freeport workers.  People from other countries more often get the better jobs in the company while  natives usually get the lower paying jobs (Culture Clash).  Only 15% of Freeport's workers are local people.  Natives are not allowed to enter stores or other public places in the Freeport city near the mine.

Buying Support

      Freeport has not sat idly by in the face of these numerous criticism.  Freeport has defended itself against these accusations with a combination of a public relations blitz and a show of financial power.  Garland Robinnette, a WWL anchorman in New Orleans, did a five part series that was very critical of Freeport's environmental policies.  In 1990, Moffett offered Robinette a job as Freeport’s president of communications, which Robinette accepted.  Freeport published a full page add in the Time Picayune in which community leaders including some university presidents supported Freeport as a caring community citizen.  On television, Freeport and WVUE-TV, the local ABC affiliate, created a series of “Focus Earth” ads.  They featured local children talking about environmental issues.

    Freeport is also of the largest political contributors in the country.  When OPIC canceled Freeport’s insurance, Democratic Senator John Breaux and Republican Representative Bill Tauzin defended the company publicly and criticized OPIC (Bryce).  They have both received large campaign contributions from Freeport since 1989 (Bryce).  Freeport has also donated much money to various universities.  Freeport has funded university research programs that have admittedly produce helpful research.  There are hidden costs, however, for accepting such donations, including a loss in intellectual independence and academic integrity (Bulletin 1997-98).  Freeport has donated large sums to several Louisiana universities, including: $4.1 million to Louisiana State University; $1.1 million to Loyola, plus an endowed chair in Environmental Studies; and $1.25 million to Tulane.  Freeport demands returns on its investment.  When students from the Environmental Studies program actively protested Freeport’s actions in Indonesia, Moffett threatened to take back six hundred thousand dollars which had been donated for that program.

Freeport Concessions

      Freeport has made some concessions in the recent past.  It finally agreed to an environmental audit by an independent consulting firm in 1995 (Under Siege).  Also, because of the recent publicity surrounding its controversial practices and tighter regulations by Indonesian government, it has financed social programs to help the natives cope with modern life.  This includes health clinics, schools, cattle breeding programs, malaria control programs, and business incubators (Tiptoes & Building).  Freeport also funds research into the region’s biological riches.  However, many of its funded social programs are only good on paper.  Freeport’s health center, for example, has one staff member who is a civil servant with no medical training.  The Freeport funded schools have no quarters or provisions for either teachers or staff (Moody).

Further Reading

“Activists sway agency policy, Freeport claims.”  Times-Picayune 31 January 1996, A4

Bulletin:  Giving Something Back.  New Orleans:  Freeport Watch, Summer 1996.

Bulletin:  Giving Something Back.  New Orleans:  Freeport Watch, Winter 1997-98.

Bryce, Robert.  “Spinning Gold” Mother Jones September/October 1996: 66-69

“Government Policy on Land Rights puts Freeport Smack in Middle”. Times-Picaune 29 January 1996

McBeth, John. “Bull’s Eye” Far Eastern Economic Review 4 December 1997:22-23

McBeth, John.  "Company Under Siege"  25 January 1996:26-28

McMenamin, Brigid.  “Environmental Imperialism”  Forbes 20 May 1996:124-136

Moody, Roger.  The Gulliver Files.  London: Minewatch, 1992

Murphy, Dan.  ”Green Gold”  Far Easter Economic Review 27 May 1999:45-47

Press, Eyal.  “Freeport-McMoran at Home and Abroad” The Nation 31 July/August
    1995: 125-128

Press, Eyal.  “Jim Bob’s Indonesian Misadventure”  The Progressive June 1996:32-35

“Rebel Goal is Independence for Irian Jaya” Times-Picayune 29 January 1996, A5.

Risky Business. California: Inworks Press, 1998.

United States Congress Committee:  Subcommittee on International Operations of the
    House committee on House International Relations.  Hearing on Human Rights in
    Indonesia.  “100-odd”th session of Congress.  Washington: FDCH Political
    Transcripts, 1998

Yerton, Stewart and Tyron Turner. “Attacks put Freeport on the Defensive” Times
    Picayune 28 January, 1996 A21, 25.

Yerton, Stewart and Tyrone Turner.” A Rock and a Hard Place” Time-Picayune 31
    January, 1996. A1,A4

Yerton, Stewart. “Freeport negotiates with Tribes” Times-Picayune, C1,C3

Yerton, Stewart. “Freeport Tiptoes in Wake of Rioting” Times-Picayune 19 March, 1996

Yerton, Stewart and Tyrone Turner. “Culture Clash Creates Conflicts” Times-Picayune
    29 January, 1996 A1, A4-A5

Yerton, Stewart and Tyrone Turner. “Building a modern World” Times Picayune 30
    January 1996 A1, A4-A5

Zimman, Jenna E. “Freeport-McMoran, mining corporate greed” Z-0Magazine January


Professor John Clark-    (504) 865-2128

Profesor Marcus Smith- (504) 865-2481


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