Naked City

Mining for Disaster

Last Wednesday, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the appeal of a lawsuit filed in 1996 by Tom Beanal, an Amungme tribal leader who sued Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold for environmental and human rights abuses. The ruling came just one day before another Amungme tribal leader, Yosefa Alomang, was reportedly arrested in Irian Jaya during an independence demonstration in which an estimated 55 protesters were shot by Indonesian police.

In dismissing Beanal's case, the court ruled that his lawyers had not proven that Freeport's huge Grasberg mine, the richest gold mine on earth, violated international environmental laws. In a press release, Freeport senior vice president Paul Murphy said the company was "extremely pleased" with the ruling, which he said "puts these baseless human rights and environmental claims behind us. We look forward to continuing our efforts to build and maintain constructive relationships with the local people of Irian Jaya."

But the company has some work to do. The day after the court threw out Beanal's case, Alomang, who is also suing Freeport in American courts, was arrested while demonstrating for independence in Timika, the sprawling company town that Freeport has built just below the Grasberg mine. Articles by the Jakarta Post, BBC, and Sydney Morning Herald said that Indonesian soldiers and riot police opened fire on independence protesters, injuring 55 and critically wounding at least six. The Sydney paper reported that 14 of the wounded protesters were being treated at Freeport's hospital. More than 40 others were being treated at the Catholic-run R.S. Caratas Hospital in Timika. In addition, John Rumbiak, a spokesman for the Institute for Human Rights Study and Advocacy, an independent human rights group based in Jayapura, told the BBC that 10 people were arrested. Rumbiak, a prominent critic of Freeport, also told the BBC that the pro-independence protest of about 2,000 people was peaceful until the protesters were fired upon by the military.

Irian Jaya's independence movement has gained strength in recent months as pro-independence citizens like Beanal and Alomang have been encouraged by the referendum for independence in East Timor and by statements from new Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, who has talked of offering autonomy to Irian Jaya. The independence push could affect Freeport, which has ramped up production at their mine in recent months and is now producing more than 200,000 tons of copper and gold ore per day. All of the company's waste tailings are dumped into local river systems. In 1995, that practice, combined with other environmental practices, led the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an arm of the U.S. government, to cancel a $100 million political risk insurance policy it carried on the company's mine.

The dismissal of Beanal's lawsuit, combined with Alomang's arrest, adds a great deal of uncertainty to Alomang's lawsuit. According to sources close to the lawsuit, if Alomang is convicted of sedition, she could be sentenced to up to six years in Indonesian prison.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Tom Beanal, Freeport-McMoRan, Yosefa Alamang, Paul Murphy, Irian Jaya, Indonesia, Overseas Private Investment Corporation

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