Digging out trouble

Riots erupted recently in the towns surrounding the American-owned Freeport McMoRan copper and gold mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. An estimated 6,000 tribals attacked Freeport's offices in three towns. The episode followed soon after the company announced its plans to expand the mine.

Freeport has long been the target of local ire and has been accused of ravaging the area's environment. According to Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US government agency, the massive deposition of mine tailings in the rivers Ajkwe and Minajeri, has severely harmed the surrounding rain- forests. The mine dumps 110,000 tonnes of industrial wastes into these rivers each day. Some years ago, over 200 children in the area died of copper poisoning.

The company is also accused of indulging in violence to quell protests by the tribals of the region with assistance from the military that occupies the land around the mine. Last year, the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission reported that 16 Amungme (a local tribe) had been murdered while four others had disappeared. The locals point their fingers at the company for these killings and disappearences. Freeport has even gouged out a huge crater in one of the mountains sacred to the Amungme.

Freeport McMoRan however, has denied all the allegations of complicity in human rights abuses. It has also claimed that there has been no fierce resistance to the proposed expansion of the mine. Local and international non-governmental organisations {NGOs) -including the London-based Survival International -have renewed the demand for a public enquiry into the human rights abuses in the area and have called for the region to be demilitarised. They have also demanded that local people and NGOs be allowed to set up environ. meDt monitoring systems at the site and along nearby rivers.