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Meet the Next Country That Might Explode into Protests Against Corporate Plunder and Slave Labor Working Conditions

Will the wave of global unrest crash on Indonesia next?

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Extractive Industries and Exploited Communities

Suharto’s ‘New Order’ witnessed the carving up of much of Indonesia’s wealth for American, British, French, German, Japanese and other corporations from the powerful countries of the world. The neoliberal era – from the 1980s onward – witnessed an exponential increase in corporate colonization, a process that accelerated with Indonesia’s transition from dictatorship to ‘democracy.’

In the early 1970s, the American oil company Mobil Oil discovered one of the world’s largest natural gas fields at Arun, located in Aceh province. For three decades, the Indonesian military waged a battle against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which sought autonomy from the country, leaving 10-30,000 people killed. When Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, it retained control of the Arun project, and the military continued to attack local villages with the direct support of ExxonMobil. A lawsuit against Exxon alleges that the company “ supervised, controlled and directed” military personnel who committed major human rights abuses between 1999 and 2001.

The region of West Papua was not part of Indonesia, but was a separate Dutch colony struggling for independence in the early 1960s. The U.S. and U.N. negotiated an agreement in 1962 where West Papua would be under the “interim control” of Indonesia for six years, at which point the country would vote for independence or to be part of Indonesia. When Suharto took full power in 1967, he negotiated an agreement with Freeport to grant a mining concession in the region. When the election in 1969 saw overwhelming support for independence, Suharto declared the area “a military operation zone” and sent in the military to crush the people’s local movement. Repression was rampant for decades, with up to 100,000 West Papuans having been murdered since 1969 in what some have referred to as a “ slow-motion genocide.” Despite the region’s immense natural wealth, it remains as Indonesia’s poorest province. The Freeport mine itself has created “irreversible ecological devastation” to the region, with hundreds of thousands of tons of waste dumped into waterways and valleys daily.

The U.S.-based Freeport mine in West Papua – the largest copper and gold reserves in the world – experienced a three-month strike in 2011, where workers were demanding higher wages. Workers were paid as low as $1.50 per hour, while the mine made the company $5 billion in 2010 alone. Eventually, after a great deal of violence and injuries, including one death, the workers agreed to a 37% wage increase (far from their demands for a five-fold increase), but one union official noted, “ This is not the end of our struggle.” Freeport had been paying millions of dollars directly to the police which guard its facilities, who had – on occasion – opened fire on the workers as they were protesting against the mine. In the ten years between 2001 and 2011, Freeport had given $79.1 million to Indonesian police and military forces.

As Amnesty International has noted, the police and security forces in Indonesia were often implicated in “torture, excessive use of force and unlawful killings.” Freeport’s chairman in 2005 explained: “There is no alternative to our reliance on the Indonesian military and police... The need for this security... as well as the decisions regarding our relationships with the Indonesian government and its security institutions, are ordinary business activities.”

Tin mining on the Indonesian island of Bangka has been popular among imperialists since the Dutch colonized the country in the early 19th century. Combined with the neighbouring island, Belitung, tin mining on these islands accounts for 90% of Indonesia’s tin, with the country being the second-largest exporter of tin in the world, used largely for consumer electronics. Indonesia supplies companies such as Samsung, Foxconn, Apple, Sony and LG with tin from these islands. The miners get paid low wages and workplace injuries (and deaths) have been on the rise in recent years. Further, the “ lucrative but destructive trade... has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, [and] killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs.” This destruction has often resulted in protests, some numbering over tens of thousands of locals.