Indonesian Police’s Pot of Gold in Papua

By webadmin on 04:22 pm Sep 20, 2012
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John McBeth – Straits Times

It is time for the critics to forget about the Indonesian military’s businesses for a moment and look at the money-making ventures of the national police that assumed responsibility for Indonesia’s internal security over a decade ago.

During that time, the police have taken over many of the privileges and patronage systems which formerly earned the military some of its off-budget income but without earning any of the public trust the military still retains to a large degree.

By failing to investigate police generals with million-dollar bank accounts and only reluctantly intervening in yet another open war with the Anti-Corruption Commission, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears to have defined the limits of the war on graft. Just as disturbing is a less documented development thousands of kilometers away in Papua, where the police have become the central player in the territory’s lucrative artisanal gold-mining industry.

The police and the military initially shared the spoils of the $100 million-a-year panning operation in the river-borne rock waste from Freeport Indonesia’s giant Grasberg copper and gold mine. Now the police are reportedly in total control.

Panners first appeared in the waste in 2004, at the same time the police took over guard duty at the mine, which had been the army’s job since riots in 1996 led to the government throwing a security cordon around what it regards as a national asset.

For all the controversy that continues to surround the world’s most profitable mine, there is a marginally effective government administration in the Mimika region where Freeport has made its home for the past four decades.

Not so in a remote corner of Paniai district, 100 km to the north-west. There, poorly trained local police are acting as a private security force for non-Papuan bosses controlling an alluvial gold rush along the Degeuwo River.

What has been called a struggle against separatist rebels is, in fact, mostly violence associated with 15,000 panners who in the mid-2000s began flooding into an area reachable only by helicopter or after a five-day trek from Enarotali, Paniai’s capital.

The lack of genuine law enforcement means mercury is being used to separate the gold, causing serious health problems for the miners and their families, and poisoning the environment.

In the midst of all this is Australian company West Wits, working to establish a hydraulic alluvial operation along a stretch of the river where the miners have so far extracted 2,835 kg of gold, employing only primitive techniques. Apart from drilling farther afield for the hard rock source of the alluvial deposit, the firm plans to be producing 567 kg a year by 2014.

A new International Crisis Group report says police in neighboring Nabire restrict access to the Degeuwo workings. The police impose fees on the flow of goods and take protection money from the bars, karaoke joints and shops along the river.

The violence stems largely from the struggle for control of the trade and disputes with indigenous landowners who, on occasion, have sought help from ragtag Free Papua Movement (OPM) elements — even if they do engage in extortion and other criminal activity. OPM is a militant group coordinating the Papuan struggle against Indonesian rule.

That, in turn, has led to a disproportionate response called Operation Matoa, a major push against a handful of poorly armed rebels. Involving as many as 1,000 police and soldiers, some brought in from Jakarta and Jayapura, it saw over 10,000 ethnic Mee, Moni and Wolani tribesmen displaced. Only after a face-to-face meeting between President Yudhoyono and religious leaders was the operation called off last December.

Back in the New Order days, soldiers were often used to enforce land grabs by former president Suharto’s grasping family members and his circle of business cronies across many parts of the country.

There are signs those days have returned. In April last year, police protecting a privately owned Lampung palm oil plantation were implicated in the deaths of seven local farmers, the latest victims in a long simmering land dispute dating back to 2009.

Last December, three people died and dozens more were wounded when police broke up a peaceful demonstration against the issuance of a mining exploration permit in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara.

In July this year, more than 100 police officers were questioned for their part in the fatal shooting of land rights protesters at a South Sumatra sugar plantation.

For a country rich in natural resources, all this is hardly surprising when market forces conspire to overpower the underfunded guiding hand of the state.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times