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The Amungme, Kamoro & Freeport: How Indigenous Papuans Have Resisted the World's Largest Gold and Copper Mine

The story of the Amungme and Kamoro peoples and U.S. mining corporation Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold(1) ("Freeport") offers one of the best-documented examples of how local communities have experienced and resisted the seizure of their traditional lands by government-backed multinational mining enterprises.

The Amungme and Kamoro are the original indigenous landowners of the areas that now comprise Freeport's copper and gold mining operations and infrastructure in the Timika area of Papua (Irian Jaya/West Papua), Indonesia. At the time of Freeport's arrival in 1967, the two communities numbered several thousand people, organized in clan-based village social and governance structures. With lands encompassing the area's tropical rainforest, coastal lowlands, and glacial mountains and river valleys, the Kamoro (lowlanders) and Amungme (highlanders) practiced a subsistence economy based on sustainable agriculture and forest products, fishing, and hunting; their cultures intimately entwined with the surrounding landscape.

Westerners and other outsiders had visited Kamoro and Amungme lands prior to Freeport's arrival. These included, during the 20(th) century, British naturalist expeditions, mountaineering teams, Japanese troops, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and officials of the Dutch colonial administration. Unlike previous visitors to the area, however, Freeport's presence caused a massive, permanent, and escalating disruption to the lives of the Amungme and Kamoro.

Alien Invasion

Freeport's seizure, control, and despoliation of Kamoro and Amungme lands and natural resources has circumscribed or destroyed local communities' economies and livelihoods, and caused the internal displacement -- often forcibly -- of entire villages. The Amungme and Kamoro have been further displaced and marginalized -- economically, politically, socially, and culturally -- by the outsiders who swarmed to the economic "boom" town created by the mine and its infrastructure. The new arrivals include thousands of primarily Javanese settlers sponsored by the Indonesian government's discredited transmigration program, "spontaneous" migrants such as traders from Sulawesi, thousands of Papuans from other parts of the territory, and North American and Australian employees of Freeport. By the 1990s, the area's population had exploded to more than 60,000 people, making Timika the fastest-growing "economic zone" in the entire Indonesian archipelago.

In defense of their lands, lives, and livelihoods, community members have protested Freeport's uninvited invasion and occupation -- and the overwhelming influx of migrants and often-brutal Indonesian military force accompanying it -- using a variety of nonviolent strategies and tactics grounded in strong community organizing.

The fact that their struggle continues, now in its fourth decade, underscores the urgent need for more successful mechanisms for safeguarding the rights of indigenous communities who face assaults by large-scal mining operations in Indonesia and worldwide.

Historical Political Context

The historical-political context in which U.S.-based Freeport established mining operations in Papua helps to explain the conflict between the company and indigenous Papuans.

During the 1960s, the United Natiors -- in an effort strongly backed by the U.S. government -- brokered the transfer of control over Papua from the Dutch colonial administration to Indonesia. Indigenous Papuans had no say in the Dutch-Indonesian negotiations, which culminated in 1962 in a bilateral agreement providing for the transfer. Indonesia took control of Papua in May 1963 and, in 1969, carried out an "Act of Free Choice" (AFC), meant to serve as a formal act of self-determination.

According to U.N. officials involved in supervising the AFC, the process was carried out in an atmosphere of repression in which the Indonesian administration vio1ated Papuans' rights of free speech and freedom of movement and assembly, and continuously exercised "tight political control over the population."

It was against this backdrop of Indonesian oppression and conquest of Papua that Freeport signed its Contract of Work (COW) with the Indonesian government in April 1967. Former Army General Suharto, Indonesia's new President, signed the COW; five years earlier, he had commanded the Indonesian military's operation forcibly to "liberate" Papua from the Dutch.

Freeport management recognized that the mining operation was a risky venture. Indonesia was emerging from the violent military takeover that brought Suharto to power and in which an estimated one million civilians had been killed. As one Freeport executive has noted, with U.N. recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over Papua still two years away, the "legal basis for a [mining] agreement was vague."

Seeds of Conflict

The Amungme and Kamoro tell us that their conflict with Freeport began, in 1967, with the company's confiscation of indigenous communities' territory without consultation with or consent by local landowners.

The 1967 COW, drafted by Freeport, gave the company broad powers over the local population and resources, including the right to take, on a tax-free basis, land, timber, water, and other natural resources, and to resettle indigenous inhabitants while providing "reasonable compensation" only for dwellings find permanent improvements.

Freeport was not required to compensate the Amungme and Kamoro for the loss of their food gardens, hunting and fishing grounds, drinking water, forest products, sacred sites, and other elements of the natural environment upon which their cultures and livelihoods depend. Under the new Indonesian regime, the indigenous population had no rights of refusal or of informed consent, nor any right to adequate compensation. A sign of the times, no social or environmental impact assessment was done.

The Amungme have themselves emphasized their respect for the land. One Amungme author writes, "[The Amungme's] respect toward nature restrains them from causing any destruction to their environment. To destroy the environment is akin to their [own] destruction." He states, "To the Amungme, the most important thing is to maintain the harmony among the three elements of life: humankind, the natural environment, and the spirit of the ancestors." Another Amungme declares, "The land is ourselves. The land is our mother." Amungme cosmology depicts the mountain that Freeport is mining as the sacred head of their mother and its rivers as her milk. To the Amungme, Freeport's mining activities are killing their mother and polluting the milk on which they depend for sustenance.

Disregarding indigenous Papuans' deeply held connections to and reliance upon the natural environment, the dominant powers -- Freeport and the Indonesian central government, military, and police -- have imposed a cash/wage-economy paradigm in which land and other resources are exploitable commodities. Subsumed into a capitalist, consumer-oriented, earth-exploiting system in which "property rights" and "freedom of choice" are doctrine, the Amungme and Kamoro have discovered that the system offers them neither.

As in other countries, Indonesia's national laws do not comply with international human rights standards; they offer no adequate respect for community land rights and no effective protection for traditional livelihoods and cultures. The legal regime governing authority over land, water, and other natural resources grants near-total control to the state government.

This system has siphoned the vast majority of short-term resource profits to foreign stockholders and the national elite, leaving local people dispossessed, displaced, and marginalized.

Indonesian authorities have treated opposition to economic "development" as a crime of subversion, often acting with aggression against indigenous communities seeking to retain their customary lands or to participate in decision-making regarding use or management of natural resources.

Human Rights Concerns

In order to fight local Papuan resistance in obscurity, the Indonesian government has vigorously obstructed international scrutiny of human rights conditions in the Freeport COW areas (and Papua, generally). It has repeatedly blocked access by human rights monitors, including the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (1999), the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (1998), and a joint NGO Indonesian-international independent assessment team (1999).

While research remains incomplete, well-documented evidence of human rights abuses against the indigenous Papuan communities in Freeport's COW areas has included:

- Torture; rape; indiscriminate, summary, and extrajudicial killings; disappearances; arbitrary detention; surveillance and intimidation; employment discrimination; and severe restrictions on freedom of movement;

- Interference with access to legal representation;

- Violation of subsistence and livelihood rights resulting from seizure and destruction of thousands of acres of rainforest -- including community hunting grounds and forest gardens -- and contamination of water supplies and fishing grounds;

- Violation of cultural rights, including the destruction of a mountain and other spiritually significant sites held sacred by the Amungme; and

- Forced resettlement of communities and destruction of housing, churches, and other shelters.

Some of these violations -- such as those caused by environmental destruction -- are the by-products of Freeport's mining operations. Others -- such as physical attacks -- are the result of the illegal, indiscriminate, and disproportionate use of force against civilians by the Indonesian military and police.

The first documented Indonesian military killings of indigenous people in the Freeport area occurred in 1972. Researchers have recorded more than 150 cases of individual killings of Amungme and other indigenous people in and around the mine since the 1970s -- and hundreds of additional deaths amongst these populations from illness and injury due to forced relocation and military attacks. Concluding in 1995 that clear and identifiable human rights violations had occurred in and around Freeport's mining area, Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) noted that these violations "are directly connected to [the Indonesian army]...acting as protection for the mining business of PT Freeport Indonesia." Commissioners involved in the investigation also stated that their inquiry was not complete because it did not examine Freeport's own involvement in the violations.(2)

Freeport management has recognized that the company served as the de facto government in the area well into the 1990s. Even with the establishment of formal Indonesian government structures, the company's influence reportedly continues to affect conditions in the area. Freeport has provided extensive financial and logistical support to Indonesian security forces. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, for example, company management ordered Freeport helicopter pilots to transport Indonesian military troops on patrol missions. During this same period, Indonesian troops used Freeport infrastructure as a staging ground for severe attacks, including aerial bombings, on civilian populations in and around the Freeport area. Freeport financial records from the mid-1990s reportedly show expenditures of more than $9 million for military and police, including military headquarters, recreational facilities, guard houses and posts, barracks, parade grounds, and ammunition storage facilities, as well as ofrices for two Army advisors.

In a ground-breaking 1995 document that focused international scrutiny on human rights concerns in the Freeport area, the Catholic Church of Irian Jaya reported that local indigenous Papuans were tortured on a Freeport-operated bus, in company shipping containers, and at the Freeport security post. The Catholic Church report, based on eyewitness testimonies, provides the most detailed and disturbing public account to date of the human rights abuses experienced by Amungme and other local indigenous people. According to the report,

...physical torture consisted of kicking in the belly, chest and head with army boots; beating with fists, rattan, [sic] sticks, rifle butts and stones; denial of food; kneeling with an iron bar in the knee hollows; standing for hours with a heavy weight on the head, shoulders, or cradled in the arms; stepping and stamping on hands; tying and shackling of thumbs, wrists and legs; sleeping on bare floors; stabbing, [sic] taping eyes shut; and forced labor in a weakened condition. The torture caused bleeding head wounds, swollen faces and hands, bruises, loss of consciousness and death because of a broken neck.

Since the first publicly documented human rights violations in the Freeport area, Freeport officials have claimed that the company's COW has required it to provide logistical support to the Indonesian military and police. A review of Freeport's 1967 and 1991 COWs reveals no such provision.

Little independent data is available concerning Freeport's impact on public health and its environmental damage. However, an assessment undertaken by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) during a 1994 visit to Indonesia is revealing. Citing the damage caused by Freeport's river tailings disposal (at the time, 110,000 metric tons of tailings per day) and concluding that the company's environmental impact was in violation of U.S. regulations, OPIC revoked Freeport's $100 million political risk insurance in October 1995. OPIC stated that the mine had "created and continues to pose unreasonable or major environmental, health or safety hazards with respect to the rivers that are being impacted by the tailings, the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, and the local inhabitants."(3) Freeport's average daily deposition of tailings has doubled since OPIC's 1994 assessment.

Defending their Rights

The earliest Amungme protests against Freeport involved, in 1967, positioning of traditional taboo sticks around Freeport's highlands base camp. Later acts have included public demonstrations, sit-ins, and raisings of the Papuan national independence Morning Star flag, adopted in 1961 by the territory's elected New Guinea Council.

Community members have also repeatedly sought to resolve problems through open dialogue. Seven years after Freeport's arrival, for example, Amungme, Freeport, and the provincial government met -- at the insistence of the Amungme community -- to discuss local concerns. This meeting resulted in the 1974 January Agreement, in which Freeport pledged to construct facilities, including a school and health clinic, for those communities in exchange for approval by indigenous landowners of mining activities.

A lack of transparency in the land acquisition process continued, however. Kamoro and Amungme leaders report that as late as 1995, community members understood for the first time that according to government records they had ceded all ancestral lands in the Timika area (nearly one million hectares) to the government for transmigration settlements, the town of Timika, and Freeport's company town, Kuala Kencana.

Dissatisfied with the dominant powers' commitment to addressing their concerns, Amungme community members in 1996 brought two civil lawsuits against Freeport in the United States, one in U.S. federal court, the other in the state court of Louisiana, where Freeport is headquartered. Filed on grounds of human rights abuse, personal injury, environmental damages, and cultural genocide, the suits were ultimately unsuccessful. Still, thousands of indigenous community members formally supported the suits, viewing them as the only available means of effective legal redress.

The Amungme and Kamoro have increasingly sought to defend their rights by chronicling and communicating their concerns and demands in a variety of letters, resolutions, public statements, and media interviews.(4) They have appealed to the Indonesian government, military, and civil society institutions, the U.N., U.S. courts and policy-makers, and directly to Freeport and Rio Tinto management and shareholders in an effort to be heard and to have their concerns effectively addressed.

They have expressed clear demands:

- compensation by Freeport for all lands that have been confiscated;

- independent environmental and human rights assessments to determine the extent of damages;

- accountability for military personnel who have perpetrated human rights abuses;

- explanations by Freeport and the Indonesian government of the company's mining plans and activities under its COW;

- community-led development programs;

- cessation by the government of the transmigration program and of "spontaneous" migration;

- responsibility by Freeport for reclamation of land degraded by mining activities;

- cessation by Freeport of tailings deposition into local river systems;

- compensation to the communities by Freeport for pollution-related suffering;

- cessation by the government of military involvement in the management of natural resources;

- compensation by the government for past losses suffered as a result of land seizures and exploitation of Amungme lands;

- the return by the government and Freeport of traditional Amungme lands confiscated without the community's permission; and

- Amungme permission and consent for all activity on Amungme land. This includes sitting on Freeport's Board of Directors and participating in shareholder meetings.

The response, by the Indonesian government and by Freeport, has been inadequate.

For example, the government's failure to implement Komnas HAM's 1995 recommendations for compensation to victims and prosecution of military personnel responsible for human rights violations -- and the Commission's own lack of attention to the company's role in the human rights violations -- have continued to frustrate community members. In a detailed response to the Komnas HAM findings, the Amungme state:

For us, the Amungme people, the root cause of the human rights violations is Freeport....

Considering that the government decided to designate Freeport as a `vital project', why was the matter not first discussed with the people who are the owners of the natural resources before the company began its operations? Or is it that because the company was designated as a vital project, it was deemed necessary to sacrifice the interests of the people? If the company is indeed a vital project, making it necessary for the Government to sacrifice its own people, we regard this as economic colonisation by capitalists in contravention of our national economic system.... The fact that Freeport has been allowed to operate here in Irian Jaya and dig up and exploit our mineral resources, to destroy the very means of our existence, to drive us out of our ancestral lands, to impoverish us and kill us on our own territory, is all the result of a policy which has been determined at the centre in Jakarta. It is the Central Government that must take responsibility for reaching a solution to this problem.(5)

Yet the dominant powers have never pursued open-ended dialogue aimed at resolving these decades-old problems. Instead, they have responded to local concerns with attempts at friendly persuasion, circumscribed dialogue and cooptation, coercion, intimidation, deadly force, divide-and-conquer strategies, and other tactics. As community members note, interactions and discussions always take place on the dominant powers' terms, leaving community members with severely curtailed options.

Indonesian security forces have also blocked attempts by the Amungme to be heard or to pursue legal redress. In September 1996, Indonesian police in Papua deported U.S.-based attorney Martin J. Regan on trumped-up charges, prohibiting him from meeting in Timika with his clients, Amungme community leaders Tom Beanal and Yosepha Alomang. In another incident, in May 1998, Indonesian security forces barred Ms. Alomang from traveling to London, where she was scheduled to speak about human rights abuses and other problems at Freeport to Rio Tinto shareholders and management at the company's Annual General Meeting.

In February, 2000, more than 45 Amungme community leaders again voiced their dissatisfaction with the government's lack of attention to the human rights situation and with Freeport's intransigence in cooperating with an independent assessment of these problems. In a written statement, these community members, describing themselves as "The Victims in Society," emphasize the ongoing nature of their problems with Freeport and state their desire for an independent assessment of the company's impact on human rights. In their words:

For all this time many problems have occurred in our land, the Amungsa area, which have never been completely or thoroughly resolved. Then our land has been occupied by PT Freeport Indonesia from 1967 to the present. Since this giant American-owned mining company has been operating on `the land of our ancestors we have experienced much suffering.

Community Development?

As noted, a fundamental source of conflict between the Amungme, Kamoro, and Freeport has been the exclusion of local people from the economic, political, environmental, social and cultural decisions that affect their lives. Rather than recognizing the Kamoro and Amungme as original landowners and local sovereigns -- or even working with them as equal partners -- Freeport and the Indonesian government have treated community members like criminals, serfs, or nuisances. Viewing them as "backward" people without skills or rights, the dominant powers have too often responded to community concerns paternalistically or with violence.

Freeport has taken steps to address concerns through the construction of schools and a clinic, job training and scholarships, special land recognition payments to the Amungme and Kamoro, and special preference for supporting local businesses developed by those communities. Some of these measures have been required by the company's 1991 contract; most have been taken in response to community pressure or external critiques.

Freeport's "One Percent Trust Fund Offer," which designates one percent of annual revenues for development programs, has been one of the most controversial and damaging responses. LEMASA (the Amungme Tribal Council) and the area's three Christian churches denounced the offer for having a divisive impact amongst indigenous communities and for encouraging a welfare/dependency mentality. In a June 1996 resolution, LEMASA "unconditionally and absolutely" rejected Freeport's "One Percent Offer," declaring that "with the help of God we shall never [succumb] to the offer of bribes, intimidation or [be] dishonestly induced into accepting PT. Freeport Indonesia's `Settlement Agreement.'" Despite efforts to address the acknowledged failures of its community development programs, Freeport's overall involvement in financing and structuring these projects remains problematic.

Amungme leader Tom Beanal has written with some bitterness about his acceptance -- with LEMASA's backing -- of positions as a PT Freeport Commissioner and as Vice President of the People's Development Foundation - Irian Jaya (LPM-IRJA), the organization established with Freeport's One Percent funding. Citing the devastation to local communities caused by Freeport's provision of monies through the One Percent Offer, including the deaths of 18 indigenous people because of inter-ethnic conflict, Beanal describes these decisions as the only option left to him in defending the rights of his people. He states:

What Freeport has done to me is to present me with a single limited choice, prepared by the company, so that I was not able to choose freely, but was always obliged to choose what was desired by Freeport. People see me as working with Freeport now. Perhaps it's true! Nevertheless, in the depths of my heart, I feel that I must do what is best for my people.

The recent Memorandum of Understanding signed by Beanal, a Kamoro community member, and Freeport -- publicized in August 2000 by the company as representing a watershed in community-company relations -- must be considered in light of these comments. While the announcement of the MOU helped to boost Freeport's stock rating, there is no indication that it represents a retreat from the local communitres' commitment to holding Freeport accountable for its social and environmental impact.

Beanal remains critical of the continuing dynamic of exploitation that Amungme and Kamoro experience. He recently told a journalist, "The Indonesian Government eats at the table with Freeport, they throw the leftover food on the floor and we Papuans have to fight for it."

(Dodd, 2000)


The Kamoro and Amungme experience typifies that of so many local people who find themselves at the mercy of unregulated global capital in the extractive industries. Their story asks us to consider what sustainable development really is, and whether it is possible to achieve via economic strategies based on largescale mineral extraction designed and imposed by multinationals and governments. It demonstrates the egregious harm to human life -- and to the health of politically disempowered communities -- that results when those who control the means of force allow economic interests to trump democratic public policy-making and the protection of basic human rights and the environment.

Due in part to the experience of the Amungme and Kamoro and other communities similarly situated, standards regarding the rights of indigenous peoples, corporate responsibility, and stakeholder consultation have advanced considerably during the past decade. Yet until governments -- and extraction-industry corporations -- respect the universal human right to development and abandon neo-colonial approaches to natural resources and indigenous people, conflicts will continue between multinational mining companies like Freeport and the peoples whose lands they take.

References & further reading

Beanal, T. (1997). Amungme: Magaboarat Negel Jombei-Peibei. Jakarta: Indonesia Forum for Environment (WALHI).

Bryce, R. (1996, September 27). Plaintiffs in Freeport Suit Are Harassed. Austin Chronicle.

Catholic Bishop of Irian Jaya (1995, August). Violations of Human Rights in the Timika Area of Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Contract of Work Between Indonesia and Freeport Indonesia, Inc., Decision of the Cabinet Presidium, No. 82/E/KEP/4/1967, April 7, 1967.

Dodd, T. (2000, December 16). Risky Business -- Freeport dances to a new tune. Australian Financial Review.

The Indonesian Evangelical Church (Mimika, Irian Jaya), the Catholic Church Three Kings Parish (Timika, Irian Jaya) and the Christian Evangelical Church of Mimika (1998, May). Human Rights Violations and Disaster in Bela, Alama, Jila and Mapnduma.

LEMASA (1995, September). Amungme People's Response to National Commission on Human Rights Findings Announced on 22 September 1995.

LEMASA (1997, September). The Opinion of LEMASA Concerning the Human Rights Situation and Prolonged Conflict in the Area of Operation of P.T. Freeport Indonesia, Mimika, Irian Jaya. Timika.

National Human Rights Commission of Indonesia (1995, September). Results of Monitoring and Investigating of Five Incidents at Timika and One Incident at HoeR, Irian Jaya During October 1994-June 1995. Jakarta.

Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Memorial Center for Human Rights/Institute for Human Rights Studies and Advocacy (1999, May). Incidents of Military Violence Against Indigenous Women in Irian Jaya (West Papua), Indonesia. Washington, D.C./Jayapura.

U.N. Economic and Social Council (1999, January 21). Mission to Indonesia and East Timor on the issue of violence against women, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. E/CN.4/1999/68/Add.3.

U.N. Economic and Social Council (1999, July 5). Report of the Visit of the Working Group to Indonesia (31 January to 12 February 1999), U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. E/CN.4/2000/4/Add.2.

UNCEN-ANU Baseline Studies Project (1998, December). Final Report: Amungme Baseline Study. Universitas Cenderawasih and the Australian National University.

U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (1995, October). Letter to Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold,

(1). Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc. ("FCX"), is a subsidiary of Freeport McMoRan, a minerals-extraction company headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana, and chartered in Delaware, U.S.A. PT Freeport Indonesia ("PTFI") is the Indonesian subsidiary of FCX and is headquartered in Jakarta, Indonesia. The Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto holds an effective 20 percent stake in Freeport's Papua operations through its 13 percent equity stake in Freeport McMoRan.

(2). See "Freeport's Involvement has not yet been investigated," Kompas, October 2, 1995 (English translation of original in Bahasa Indonesia; source: TAPOL).

(3). U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, 1995.

(4). Many of these Amungme and Kamoro primary documents and testimonials -- resources often overlooked by journalists reporting on Freeport -- are available on the internet at NGO Web sites and through Lexis-Nexis.

(5). Amungme People's Response to National Commission on Human Rights Findings Announced on 22 September 1995.

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