Freeport mine

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4-kM-wide open-pit portion of Freeport's Grasberg mine complex. The mine is located in close proximity to glaciers that serve as indicators of climate change in the region. June 25, 2005.
© NASA

In the wake of a hungry giant

Freeport’s Grasberg mine in Indonesia’s province of Papua is one of the world’s richest mining operations for copper and gold. But while the site has generated colossal profits for its parent company and the Indonesian government, the mine’s history is marred by ongoing controversy.
The mine’s life could extend for at least another 30 years – that’s good news for shareholders, but what about the locals and their environment?

The story of the Grasberg mine begins quite innocently – with an expedition to the Jayawijaya Mountain glacier by Dutch colonists in the mid-1930s, who discovered copper deposits. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the mine began operating and at the end of that decade, several additional orebodies were found in the area, extending previous estimates of the mine’s life.

From mine to super-mine

In 1987, the discovery of the massive Grasberg orebody propelled Freeport to its current position as an industry giant. Estimates suggest that the mine has both the third largest reserves of copper, and the second largest reserves of gold, in the world.

Massive output of copper, gold and taxes

The rate at which the Freeport mine has been excavating the site has grown by the year. From 7,500 m3/day in 1972, to 66,000 m3/day in 1993, and then to 220,000 m3 in 1998, the output keeps on growing. Freeport, which is responsible for about 2/3 of Indonesia’s annual production of gold, is regularly amongst the largest corporate taxpayers in the country.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Ronald PETOCZ
Freeport copper mine in the Carstensz Mountains, Papua Province, Indonesia.
© WWF-Canon / Ronald PETOCZ

Freeport’s legacy in Papua Province

Environmental impacts on community health and livelihoods have been a persistent problem in the area of the Freeport mine, and as such have been widely documented in the national and international media:

  • Deforestation and pollution
    Tailings are dumped directly into the Agabagong River, which disgorges into the Aikwa River and then into the Arafura Sea, south of New Guinea. Deposition of mine tailings directly into the Aikwa River caused a flood in 1991, which destroyed a large area of lowland forest and continues to threaten the town of Timika.
  • Flooding
    Dumping of mine waste into Lake Wanagong has resulted in 2 floods, the most recent causing the death of company workers, and there are ongoing concerns about the long-term viability of settlements below the lake.
  • Acid rock drainage
    There have been claims of acid rock drainage (ARD) impacts which threaten to contaminate local water supplies in watersheds adjacent to Freeport operations. Reportedly, there has been an increase in levels of copper in the marine fauna.

Dissent and bloodshed over the mining spoils

While the lion’s share of profits are being pumped to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, and across the Pacific to the US, people living in the area surrounding the mine are seeing very few benefits trickle down their way.

In addition, there have been a considerable number of incidents involving conflict with local communities. Few locals are being hired to work in the mine while work opportunities are being granted to outsiders, which causes much local resent.

Taking matters in their own hands, some locals have resorted to demonstrations to express their resentment, leading to clashes with authorities and demonstrations that persist in 2006.

Some of these incidents include:

  • The extrajudicial killing of as many as 200 people between 1975 and 1997, in and around the Freeport area, almost all of them unarmed civilians.
  • Disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture.
  • Intimidation, harassment, rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
  • Loss of land and livelihood without negotiation and without adequate compensation.
  • Forced resettlement.
  • Destruction of ritually or culturally significant sites without consultation or compensation.
The case of Freeport spans more than 3 decades and involves a broad range of stakeholders. As one of the world’s largest mining sites with a troubled past and considerable media scrutiny, the mine has the potential to set examples in good practice.


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Ballard C. 2001. Human Rights and the Mining Sector in Indonesia: A Baseline Study. IIED. Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development, No 182. 53 pp.

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