The Indigenous Struggle Against Violence, Exploitation and Ecological Destruction:

Lessons of the West Papuan Resistance to State and Corporate Domination

John P. Clark

Presented at the World Peace Thinkers' Meet On Paths Of Peace In A Strife-Torn World,

Jan. 3-7, 2001, Kolkata (Calcutta),West Bengal, India.

Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism in West Papua

The island of Papua, which was named by European explorers New Guinea, was first occupied by human beings between thirty and forty thousand years ago, according to archaeological and anthropological evidence. The island contains a vast variety of ecosystems including extensive rainforests and rugged mountainous areas, and therefore is the site of some of the greatest remaining biodiversity in the world.  Papuan society, as a result of perhaps forty millennia of cultural evolution and interaction between the human inhabitants and their diverse ecological milieu, includes some of the greatest cultural and linguistic diversity in the world.  One-fifth of all the worlds living languages are native to the island.  West Papuas indigenous peoples are Melanesian and are thus linked ethnically to the Melanesian peoples of the Pacific islands and of Papua New Guinea.

During the colonial period, western Papua came increasing under Dutch control from the 1820s on.  In 1883 the island was officially partitioned, with the west going to the Netherlands and the east divided between Britain and Germany. After Indonesia achieved independence in 1949, the Dutch retained control of West Papua, but agreed to withdraw and grant the Papuans independence by 1970.  As the result of pressure from Western powers and from pro-Indonesian factions in the Netherlands, it instead transferred control to Indonesia.  This was formalized in the New York agreement of August 15, 1962. Indonesia officially took over West Papua in May of 1963 and renamed it "Irian Jaya.” To legitimate its control, manipulated elections were held in 1969, in which 1025 handpicked representatives of the 800,000 West Papuans were allowed to vote, under the pressure of Indonesian military occupation. This process, ironically called the "Act of Free Choice,” was given the approval of the United Nations, though UN officials were aware of the undemocratic and coercive nature of the vote. 

From the outset, Papuans have resisted the Indonesian takeover, and the Papuan independence movement, led by the OPM armed resistance, has been active through the period of Indonesian occupation.  Faced with widespread public opposition and continuing low-level guerilla warfare, Indonesia quickly instituted and has continued for over three decades a program of military and police repression. (1) Until recently, long prison sentences (often up to twenty years) have been imposed for such non-violent acts as raising the Papuan flag.  Papuans have periodically been killed for suspected pro-independence actions or even for suspected separatist sympathies.  In view of the flimsy evidence sometimes used, killings, tortures and injuries appear often to be arbitrary acts of intimidation to terrorize the populace.  Estimates of the number of Papuan casualties vary widely, but the number is certainly considerable, considering the countrys sparse population.   Recent estimates have ranged from 45,000 to 300,000 with 100,000 most frequently mentioned by human rights groups.  (2)

The brutality of the Indonesian regime in West Papua is not surprising, in view of its long history of murder and repression.  Indeed, it came to power in one of the century's most awful bloodbaths.  At least a half-million people (and according to some estimates, over twice this number) were killed in Suharto's brutal takeover of the country.  The Suharto regime did not hesitated to resume large-scale killing when unrest threatened its control of any part of its far-flung empire.  Most notably, one-third of the population of East Timor was killed after Indonesia invaded and took over that small country in 1975, resulting in the greatest proportional genocide since the Nazis

Indonesia has not relied only on murder, imprisonment and intimidation to consolidate its control of West Papua. It has also sponsored a massive program of transmigration from Java and other densely populated island in the archipelago.  This resettlement program aims at repopulating West Papua with Indonesians, who will eventually overwhelm the native Papuans.  Estimates from several years ago placed the transmigrant population at 770,000 out of a total of 1.8 million. (3)

The Indonesian-Freeport Partnership in Exploitation of West Papua

Though Indonesia seized West Papua in pursuit of its imperial ambitions as the successor to the Dutch colonial empire, continued control is crucially important because of the countrys enormous economic resources.  For example, it contains 41.5 million hectares of forest, of which 27.6 million hectares (or 69 million acres) have been opened to economic exploitation. However the primary economic consideration is its vast mineral wealth. 

West Papua is the site of the Grasberg mine, the worlds largest gold mine and its third largest copper mine.  The mine is operated by McMoRan Copper and Gold, which moved into West Papua (4) in the early days of the Suharto dictatorship.  Freeport was the first foreign company to receive a permit to operate in Indonesia after Suharto's coup in 1965.  Its mining project was started on April 5, 1967.  After one of the most challenging road-building projects ever undertaken, the mine was linked to the coast and mining began in 1972.   In December of that year the first ore was exported.  For a quarter century the relationship between Freeport and the dictator Suharto was to be a close and mutually profitable one.  Freeport Indonesia has been Indonesia's largest corporate taxpayer and has provided the crucial expertise needed to exploit the mineral resources expropriated from the Papuans.  For its partnership with the Indonesian regime Freeport has been rewarded well, in the form of up to $2 billion per year gross income from its mining operation and up to $200 million per year in profits.

Despite years of production processing several hundred thousand tons of ore per day, the mine still contains $50 billion in mineral reserves.   Freeport has also received exploration rights over a nine million acre concession in which additional vast mineral wealth is thought to lie. (5) Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett met with Suharto in 1997 and received the dictator's approval for a vast expansion of the mine's production.  Despite intense controversy over the environmental damage resulting from Freeport's dumping of 120,000 tons of tailings (or mine waste) per day, the new agreement provided for an increase to an eventual level of 300,000 tons of mining waste per day.  Freeport immediately began significant increases to 220,000 tons, when a serious landslide with loss of life occurred, and has led to demands for production cutbacks.        

Social Injustices Against the Papuan People

Over more than three decades grave injustices have been inflicted on the Amungme and other Papuan tribes in defense of Indonesian neo-colonialism, especially in the area of the the Freeport mining operation.  The Amungme people have consistently resisted the theft of their communal tribal lands.  A revolt in 1977 was put down in a ruthless military operation called "Operasi Tumpas" ("Operation Annihilation") to which Freeport contributed $1 million. (6) Papuans claim that thousands were killed in this action.  BBC reporter George Monbiot reports that in response to Amungme resistance, villages were strafed by the Indonesian army from helicopter gunships and bombed by U.S.-made Broncos.  He also reports of the rape, torture and murder of girls from the villages, and of Indonesian soldiers taking photographs of one another with their feet on the heads of murdered villagers. (7) 

Freeport has participated in concerted efforts to remove native peoples entirely from their traditional lands.  An earthquake in 1989 was used as a pretext to remove local residents from Freeport mining areas, and only those who agreed to relocate were given aid after the disaster. (8) As a result of Freeport's operations, neighboring Amungme people have "lost their hunting grounds and gardens to the mine" and have since been living in "slumlike settlements." (9) Tribal people from the highlands who were resettled in coastal areas have suffered from unusually high rates of malaria, with many fatalities.  According to the Jayapura newspaper Tifa Irian, "in the middle of [Freeport's] luxury town, the indigenous inhabitants live like beggars and are treated roughly by the company people." (10)

In 1995 shocking atrocity reports from the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, the Catholic Church of Jayapura and the National Human Rights Commission revealed numerous cases of murder, violence and torture by the Indonesian military in and around the Freeport mining area.  The lengthy report from the Catholic Church of Jayapura on violence, torture and murders in West Papua reinforced the overwhelming evidence of Freeport's complicity with the Indonesian government in the repression there.  There are reports of killings and torture on Freeport property and    imprisonment in Freeport shipping containers.(11) Repression and unrest around the mine are ongoing, and there are inevitable periodic outbreaks of rioting in which the indigenous peoples' suppressed resentment and rage find expression.  In March, 1996 thousands of villagers rioted in Timika and Tembagapura, the major towns around the mine. Four people were killed, more than a dozen were injured, and Freeport property was attacked and damaged.

After the 1996 rioting, Freeport set up its "one percent plan," in which one percent of its net revenues go into social services and development programs for the local indigenous people.  This has meant about $15 million per year in recent years, of which roughly $4 million has gone to health care programs for people in areas around the mine.   Although Freeport has boasted of this program in its advertising, funds dedicated to the plan are minuscule in comparison to the mineral wealth that has been extracted and stolen from West Papua.  Moreover, such expenditures do nothing to rectify the political oppression, economic exploitation, and cultural genocide imposed on the West Papuan people.  The indigenous people no longer live in dignity, but rather in squalor as an underclass in their own land.  The magnitude of the outrage becomes evident when one considers that the West Papuan community as a whole was offered $14 million in 1996 as compensation for the expropriation and brutal exploitation of their country, while Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett personally made over $41 million that year as CEO of Freeport.  

In 1998 three church groups issued a report on human rights abuses in the mining area over the proceeding two years.   The report outlined a record of killings, disappearances, injuries, large-scale destruction of houses and churches, and "forced villagisation," resulting in “widespread deaths from starvation and related diseases” attributed to “the horrific brutality of the Indonesian army." (12) Controversy continues over the continuing repression in the mining area, the notorious Biak massacre and Indonesian attempts to suppress human rights investigations.

While Freeport defends itself by claims that its employees do not carry out human rights abuses, the major complaint of Papuans is the companys intimate collaboration with military and police repression.  A recent report cites an extensive list of buildings, equipment and personnel paid for by Freeport in support of the military and police, with a partial bill for the year amounting to over $5 million for the army and over $4 million for the police.(13) Survival International contends that in 1997 Freeport and RTZ "spent $37 million on facilities and support for the Indonesian army" to help keep the neo-colonial system of oppression in place. (14)

Employment figures from the Grasberg mine operation show the hierarchical, colonial nature of the operation.  In recent years only about ten percent of the employees have been Papuans, and these have held the lowest-paying, least skilled positions, and only about one hundred of 17,300 Freeport workers are natives of the mining area itself.  It is particularly humiliating to local people that not only do they not share significantly in the largess of the mine, they have been excluded from stores and other public places in Freeport's company town.

Freeport's environmental record is as disturbing as is its collaboration in human rights abuses.  Over a decade ago the World Rivers Review was already charging that Freeport "has dumped mine tailings from its open-pit copper mine" into area rivers "continuously for sixteen years," and warned of health problems that were being covered up by the Indonesian dictatorship. (15) In October 1995, OPIC, a U.S. federal agency that assists American companies doing business overseas, canceled Freeport's $100 million political-risk insurance policy, citing environmental problems at the mine.  In the end, OPIC temporarily reinstated Freeport's insurance, pending future investigations of promised improvements in conditions at the mine.  These investigations never occurred, however, since Freeport voluntarily canceled its policy with OPIC at the end of the year to avoid such oversight.

Freeport's environmental destruction has continued, and promises to accelerate with greatly increased tailings production.  Massive dumping of tailings into rivers has caused them to flood surrounding areas and destroy 50 square kilometers of forest and farmland. The company itself admits that future damage may increase the destruction to 130 square kilometers. Business Week recently reported that the mines nearly 220,000 tons of tailings per day “have turned a 230-square-kilometer lowland delta into a gray desert of dead trees.” (16)

Another major environmental issue is the pollution of drinking water. Critics claim that tailings have introduced such pollutants as sulfuric acid, copper, mercury, arsenic, barium, cadmium and lead into the rivers.  Sediments on the Ajkwa River have been found to contain copper concentrations 38 times the minimum level for an area to be considered contaminated. (17)

The Papuan View of Humanity and Nature

With more truth than he was capable of comprehending, Freeport CEO Moffett has stated of the Freeport mining operations that "we are thrusting a spearhead of development into the heartland of Irian Jaya." (18) Moffett has also said that for Freeport, mining is not a business, but rather a religion.  It is instructive to compare Freeports religion of progress, power and profit with the traditional moral and spiritual values of the Amungme people, the historical landholders who were dispossessed by Freeport.

In 1994 the Indonesian regime escalated its repression in West Papua.  Dozens of Papuan tribal people were murdered and many more arrested and tortured in the pursuit of a policy of discouraging anti-government and anti-corporate activities through terror.  One of the victims was Mama Yosepha Alomang, the most prominent female leader of the Amungme tribe, and a tireless human rights, ecological, and community development activist.  She was accused of giving aid to anti-government insurgents, and then tortured and imprisoned for over a month, suffering a week of confinement in a small, dark, flooded closet reeking of human feces.  Mama Yosepha's account of her helping members of the Kwalik clan, to which she is related through her husband, is very instructive.  Under interrogation by the military, she affirmed the fact that she had given food and supplies to people in need who had come to her asking for help.  She explained to her captors: "Our custom teaches us that if you have more than enough, you have to share.  So if I have it, I give it not to support them, but because if we live with other people, how can we not give if we have it, and people ask for it."

Mama Yosepha Alomang acts out of a living tradition of care for others.  It is certainly in large part because of her place in such a community that despite imprisonment, torture, persecution, and the death of children and other relatives, she continues to speak out on behalf of her community and their land with eloquence, courage and endurance.  And it is to a considerable degree because of traditional practices of solidarity, mutual aid and care that the Papuan people in general have been able to persevere through decades of resistance to oppression.


Tom Beanal, head of the Amungme tribal council, has explained how the struggle of the Amungme and other Papuan peoples against the social and ecological destruction wrought by the large Freeport mining corporation in partnership with the Indonesian regime is rooted in these peoples' traditional world view and spirituality.  Beanal points out that the Amungme reject the dualistic view of humanity and nature typical of Western cultures, and have instead a more holistic and ecological outlook.  To the Amungme, he explains, "everything that has a use has a value greater than that ascribed to it by man." (19) The Amungme hold, to use the language of environmental ethics, a non-anthropocentric theory of value in which the natural world is attributed intrinsic and not merely instrumental value.

Beanal recounts an Amungme story of origins that begins with an original mother (the personification of the land of the island of Papua) who is the source of life.  He notes that this narrative "tells us that if the mountains and nature are harmed, our mother is hurt as well." (20) Each particular tribal group has a specific place of origin that has a symbolic location in relation to the body of the mother.  "The Amungme live on the land thought to reach from the mother's neck to her navel.  This is the place closest to her." (21) According to Tom Beanal (who is not only a tribal leader but a university-trained sociologist), “when we say that the environment for us is our mother we mean that human beings are an integral part of the environment and therefore each one of us has to be mindful of, and accountable to, the limitations of the environment.” (22)

This mountainous area is the site of Freeport's mining operations, where the Amungme and other indigenous people have been brutally oppressed and the land has been ruthlessly exploited.  While the Amungme see the mountains as sacred--as particular, culturally significant expressions of a benevolent, maternal nature--for Freeport and for the Indonesian imperialist state it is no more than a stock of mineral resources to be extracted by the most economically profitable means possible.  As Tom Beanal summarizes the plight of his people, "these companies have taken over and occupied our land.  Even the sacred mountains we think of as our mother have been arbitrarily torn up by them, and they have not felt the least bit guilty." (23)

Tom Beanal expresses a view of the natural world that arises out of the Papuan traditions of foraging and horticulture that have been practiced in Papua for thirty to forty thousand years.  It is rooted in the traditional care for the land that is seen as a response to the care that the Papuans perceived as having been bestowed on them by nature.  The relationship between humanity and nature is thus seen as one of reciprocity.  Just as the generosity of Mama Yosepha is expressed as a free gift rather than an imposed moral obligation, the interaction between the people and the natural world is a form of gift exchange.  This relationship to the land has helped sustain the Papuan people in over three decades of struggle against the destruction of their society and land.

One great strength of phenomena such as Mama Yosepha Alomang's caring sensibility, rooted in her practical relationship to her people, and the Amungme people's ecological spirituality, rooted in their practical relationship to their land, is that these phenomena are actually existing realities in the world today, and are effective forces for the solidarity of human communities and for the defense of the land.  In addition to having "emotional," "personal," "spiritual," and "cultural" dimensions, they are also powerful material and political realities. 

Recent Developments and Some Conclusions

In 1998 the hated Suharto dictatorship fell after three decades of corruption, colonialism, oppression and genocide.  This was followed by East Timors successful referendum on independence in 1999.   Finally, in the last year, President Wahid proposed changing the name of Irian Jaya to Papua, granted the Papuans the right to fly their long-banned flag and to hold large meetings of West Papuan organizations.  In view of all these encouraging (if sometimes misleading) developments, the movement for independence, which is supported by almost all West Papuans, has rapidly gained strength.  Increasingly, Papuans have made the case that the declaration of independence of 1961should be recognized by Indonesia and the United Nations. 

As the independence movement has grown, conflicts between the Papuans and the Indonesian military and police have broken out repeatedly over the raising of the West Papuan Morning Star Flag.  It is estimated that in view of recent build-ups, over 10,000 police and Indonesian military are now in West Papua “including a 650-strong police mobile brigade” to protect the Freeport mine. (24) A disturbing development recently has been the build-up of rival pro-Indonesian and pro-independence militias, both of which have begun to use violence.  The pro-integration Satgas Merah Putih, or Red and White Militia, and the pro-independence Satgas Papua, or Papua Militia are both thought to have thousands of members (as many as 10,000 in the case of the latter). The Red and White Militia has ties with the Indonesian army and police, however the Papua Militia is suspected of having support from Indonesian security forces and groups with ties to the former Suharto regime.  Some believe that hard-line pro-independence groups being given support by their enemies in order to provoke armed conflict that would be used to justify a harsh repression or the anti-independence bloodbath that many fear. (25)

Predictions that an East Timor style bloodbath on Dec, 1, the 39th anniversary of the declaration of independence fortunately proved false; however violent clashes have continued, and the possibility of major conflict breaking out in West Papua appears to be a strong possibility.  (26)  In any case, West Papua is now facing a critical turning point in its history.  If we look at its recent history, we find it to be a classic case of neo-colonialism, cultural genocide, and ecological destruction.  If present political, economic and cultural trends continue, West Papua will be soon the site of the most tragic loss of cultural and natural diversity in recent history.   Papuan culture and the political aspirations of the Papuan people find few defenders today, apart from human rights activists and some Melanesian island states.  Yet the continued destruction of the Papuan people and their land will not only be a tragic social and ecological injustice, it will also rob us of a system of values that has much to contribute to a much-needed global ethic of mutual aid and care for both humanity and the natural world.   Perhaps a consideration of the Papuan values of social solidarity, cooperation and respect for the intrinsic value of the nature may inspire others around the world to join in a struggle that expresses so strikingly the social and ecological challenges of our time.


(1) As Human Rights Watch reports, “for many years, the province was categorized as a military combat zone (Daerah Operasi Militer or DOM; literally, Military Operations Area)” and remained “under an effective state of martial law.” Human Rights Watch, Vol. 12, No. 2 (C), May 2000, “Human Rights and Pro-Independence Actions in Papua, 1999-2000.”

(2) Julian Evans in The New Statesman recently suggested that “at least 45,000 have been killed, including 3500 in 1967 alone.” See Julian Evans “Indonesia's next East Timor?” in  New Statesman, July 10,  2000.  The First International West Papua Solidarity Conference, and the Second Papua Congress (May-June, 2000) both asserted that “some 100,000 people have died due to Indonesian repression in West Papua since 1963.”  See IAWP Web Site, October 22, 2000.  The Australia West Papua Association cites estimates from 70,000 to 200,000.  See “West Papua Information Kit” at  The West Papua International Aid for West Papua has claimed that “almost 300,000 Papuans (almost a third of the total indigenous Papuans) have been killed or disappeared so far in the hands of the Indonesian military.”  See “West Papua a quagmire of divergent interests,” August 10, 2000, IAWP Web Site at

(3) Australian west Papua Association, “West Papua Information Kit” at  The current population is estimated as over 2.2 million.

(4)  As Freeport Sulphur.

(5) For details, see "Special Report from the Far Eastern Economic Review" on Freeport in Islands Business Pacific, April 1994.  On October 14, 1996, Freeport reported that it had entered into a partnership with Rio Tinto (formerly RTZ), the worlds largest mining corporation. Rio Tinto had paid Freeport $184 million for which the former was made a 40% partner in the Freeport mining expansion plan.  See Wall Street Journal, October 14, 1996.   By 1997, Rio Tinto owned 12% of Freeport McMoRan stock. See Roger Moddy, The Gulliver File (London: Minewatch, 1992), pp. 654-698.  “Rio Tinto reports gold stocks of over 19m ounces based on a 12.5% share in the Grasberg mine, and a  40% share in its expansion. Freeport-McMorans gold reserves are 85 million ounces and copper reserves 32 million tones,” according to Julian Evans, “Indonesia's next East Timor?” in  New Statesman, July 10,  2000. 

(6) IWGIA Newsletter, April-June 1992.

(7) Rainforest Action Network Action Alert, Nov. 1990.

(8)Austin Chronicle, June 1, 1990.  

(9) TAPOL [Indonesian Human Rights Campaign] Bulletin, May 25, 1990. 

(10) Tifa Irian, June 1991.

(11) Catholic Church of Jayapura, "Violations of Human Rights in the Timika Area of Irian Jaya, Indonesia" (August 1995).

(12) Survival International, "Indonesia, New Human Rights Report" (Press Release), May 25, 1998.  The three groups are the Indonesian Evangelical Church of Mimika, the Three Kings Catholic Parish Church of Timika, and the Christian Evangelical Church of Mimika.  Although the mining area is a continuing hot spot, atrocities abound throughout West Papua.   Papuan groups claim that a "peaceful demonstration of the Papuan people in Biak during July 1st up to 6th was suppressed by the Indonesian army" which killed "hundreds of people." While the Indonesian government claimed that only one person died, Papuans contend that eyewitnesses saw "one hundred thirty nine people" loaded onto boats and then "dropped into the sea." Komite Solidaritas Rakyat Irian Kosorairi, in its fourth appeal to the Secretary General of the United Nations, August 7, 1998.

(13) Julian Evans “Indonesia's next East Timor?” in New Statesman, July 10,  2000.

(14) Survival International, “Indonesia, new human rights report,” May 25, 1998.

(15) World Rivers Review, Jan.-Feb. 1989.

(16) Michael Shari with Sheri Prasso, “Freeport-McMoRan: A Pit of Trouble” in Business Week, July 31, 2000.

(17) Danny Kennedy, Pratap Chatterjee and Roger Moody, Risky Business: An Independent Annual Report on P.T. Freeport Indonesia, 1998 (Berkeley, CA: Project Underground, 1998) p. 15  and Julian Evans “Indonesia's next East Timor?” in  New Statesman, July 10,  2000.

(18) IWGA Newsletter, April-June 1992.

(19) Speech by Tom Beanal, Loyola University, May 23. 1996, in Freeport Watch Bulletin (Summer 1996).

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Speech by Tom Beanal, Loyola University, April 28, 1997 (unpublished).

(23) Speech by Tom Beanal, Loyola University, May 23. 1996, in Freeport Watch Bulletin (Summer 1996).

(24) Lindsay Murdoch , “More troops for West Papua as Jakarta tightens its grip,”  Sydney Morning Herald (November 17, 2000).

(25) See “Indonesia: Impunity persists in Papua as militias take root,” Amnesty International Press Release, Sept. 28, 2000, at\INDONESIA for a general discussion on the militia buildup.

(26) After police took down the West Papuan flag and shot to death six independence supporters on October 6, a riot followed in which at least twenty-five settlers were hacked to death or killed with arrows. On November 29, police arrested independence leader Theys Hiyo Eluay for treason, accusing him of violations of articles 106 and 110 of the Criminal Code, which impose a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. See the Jakarta Post, November 30, 2000. Four other leaders of the Papuan Presidium Council were also arrested.  These arrests have produced a furious reaction, and some hard-line Papuan groups have threatened violence against settlers if the leaders are not released soon.  It was reported that least nine Papuans and two settlers were killed in incidents on during the December 1 independence demonstrations.  Most recently, on December 7, six people were killed in attacks by independence forces in Jayapura, one hundred separatists were arrested, and repression seems to be increasing dramatically.  Tensions remained very high in the area of the capital.  See Indonesian Observer, December 8, 2000.