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Little help for West Papuan drought victims

Green Left Weekly - November 19, 1997

Linda Kaucher – President Suharto is refusing to declare West Papua a disaster area despite calls from within his own government to do so. More than 400 people have died from the drought, mainly in the Jayawijaya highlands district, adjacent to the PNG border.

An additional 80 deaths have now been reported from malaria and diarrhoea. Deaths from diarrhoea have been mostly in the southern regions, where fires are compounding problems. Water supplies are low and unhealthy, and malnutrition is contributing.

The Australian government's bail out of the Suharto regime has done nothing to support emergency relief in West Papua. Australia has given only $300,000 to fund a World Vision relief program there.

Meanwhile, the Freeport mine - the world's second largest copper and gold mine, part-owned by Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto - in the West Papuan highlands has issued press releases boasting a drought relief contribution of $10,000 a day for one month.

According to an Indonesian Times article on October 31, this was the company's estimate of the cost of operating a helicopter to distribute relief supplies. The company claims it has also made a $50,000 donation to the local Wamena township.

The Freeport mine has operated for 20 years and earned $1 million a day net profit. The mine has never had permission from the traditional owners of the land to operate.

"It's precious little after 20 years of high profits", said Kel Dummett from the Australia-West Papua Association. "Even this token effort is dubious, as eyewitnesses have said that survey equipment for further mineral exploration has also been arriving at Wamena throughout this emergency."

The mine pipes slurry 118 kilometres down to the coast. Although this is a water-intensive operation, the mining operations have not slowed. Independent monitoring of mine operations, including toxic effects on the water supply, are forbidden. This is enforced by the Indonesian military. It is therefore difficult to gauge the effect of the operation of the mine on the drought-stricken environment.