A rough translation of Rio Tinto from Spanish into English is Red River. Spain’s Rio Tinto is characterized by deep red water that is highly acidic (pH 1.7—2.5) and rich in heavy metals. Over 5000 years of mining pollution have contributed to the river becoming an extreme environment.
The Rio Tinto holds a special place in the annals of mining, human exploitation, environmental vandalism and cultural fascism. The Rio Tinto was not only the birthplace of the European Copper Age and Bronze Age, but also the birthplace of European industrial, environmental and cultural fascism. The first Rio Tinto mines were developed around 3000 BCE by the Iberians and Tartessans – the aboriginal inhabitants of the area. Tales of mineral wealth (gold, silver, and copper) drew a string of imperial occupiers and exploiters to the area. First came the Phoenicians (2800 B.P.—2600 B.P.) followed by the Romans (2000 B.P. – 1800 B.P.) in the wake of their victory over the Carthaginians, a people of Phoenician extraction. Rome minted Rio Tinto’s silver and gold into coins which it used to fund its imperial expansion into other parts of the Mediterranean region, displacing the aboriginal inhabitants of those regions as it went. In the process Rome became the world’s first juggernaut of greed, devouring everything in its path.
Other cultures followed on the heels of the demise of the Roman juggernaut of greed, including the Visigoths (1600 B.P. —1300 B.P.) and the Moors (1300 B.P. to 500 B.P.), who eventually abandoned the Rio Tinto mines. The mines were ‘rediscovered’ by the Spanish in 1556 and reopened in 1724, only to be sold to Imperial British interests in 1871. The Rio Tinto mines to this day remain one of the world’s most important sources of copper and sulfur.
Each wave of imperial exploiters to the Rio Tinto brought with them a further eroding of the cultural and human rights of the areas aboriginal inhabitants, together with an environmental legacy which is yet to be surpassed. This being said, Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining and resources conglomerate founded in 1873 with the purchase of a mine complex on the Rio Tinto River in Huelva, Spain, is trying hard to emulate its namesake’s environmental and cultural nightmare via its joint venture with Freeport in the Grasberg mine in West Papua.
As is the case today with the Grasberg mine, the original Rio Tinto mines were more often than not under the exploitive control of foreigners. In the case of the Rio Tinto mines the foreign exploiters included Carthaginian, Roman, Visigoth and English. In common with the Grasberg mine in West Papua, foreign ownership of the Rio Tinto mines, while leaving a lasting environmental legacy, provided no economic benefits. In the words of Alan K. Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Dominic Rathbone, editors of The Cambridge ancient history: The High Empire, A.D. 70-192, “The most important mines in Spain, were of course, imperial property; mining, therefore did not contribute to the wealth of the country itself…” As it was then, it remains so today.
Something worth remembering as you read the rest of this post is that the aboriginal peoples of whole the island of Papua New Guinea, including West Papua, are closely related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This relationship extends well beyond the fact that we are all races of indigenous people being exploited by the Western juggernaut of greed. We all share a common ancestry that extends back more than 40,000 years and we have all suffered colonisation, exploitation and genocide at the hands of Western interests because of our natural endowment – aka the curse of mineral wealth.
History of the Grasberg Mine
As the process of European decolonisation increased following the end of World War 2 and West Papua moved towards independence from the Dutch, the international community in order to facilitate a business deal between US mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold [“Freeport”] and the Suharto regime in Indonesia, turned a ‘blind-eye’ to the ‘rule of law’ and the rights of the aboriginal inhabitants of the area and allowed the illegal occupation of West Papua by the Javanese.
This blatant act of greed and hypocrisy, granted a jointly owned company, PT Freeport Indonesia [“Freeport-Indonesia”] full rights to prospect a ‘mountain of ore’ now known as the Grasberg complex. In return, the Suharto Government would receive significant and guaranteed tax revenues and fees, together with a minority 9.36 per cent shareholding. It is worth noting that the Suharto regime is now recognised as one of the most corrupt and tyrannical of the 20th Century. A big, though not unwarranted call, given the competition includes Nazi Germany and Satanist Russia.
As with the Phoenicians 5,000 years ago, the juggernaut of greed knew an opportunity when it saw one. In February 1995, Rio Tinto announced that it had secured access to Grasberg. In exchange for a US$500 million injection of new capital in Freeport, Rio Tinto received an 11.9 per cent stake in the Grasberg mine.
At the same time as it acquired its stake in the Grasberg mine, Rio Tinto entered into a joint venture with Freeport. The terms of this joint venture included Rio Tinto agreeing to finance a US$184 million expansion of the Grasberg mine in return for 40 per cent slice of future production revenue exceeding 118,000 tons until 2021. After this, Rio Tinto was to receive a 40 per cent share in the whole output at the Grasberg mine (Block A), additionally, according to Freeport, Rio Tinto also has “a 40 precent interest in PT Freeport Indonesia’s Contract of Work and Eastern Minerals’ Contract of Work. In addition, Rio Tinto has the option to participate in 40 precent of any of our other future exploration projects in Papua.”
Developments leading to Rio Tinto’s investment in the Grasberg Mine
In late 1995, Freeport’s international political risk insurance had been cancelled. The insurer, a United States based company Overseas Private Investment Corporation, specifically cited the Grasberg mine operation as contravening the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 which required that “overseas investment projects do not pose unreasonable or major environmental hazards or cause the degradation of tropical forests“.
Following Suharto’s demise an increasing number of West Papuans began campaigning against the environmental and social impact of Grasberg. The matter was brought before the US Federal District Court in April 1996 and in May 1999 to the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.
In August 2002 in the midst of growing West Papuan resistance to the Grasberg mine, two American teachers and an Indonesian employee of Freeport-Indonesia were murdered at the Grasberg mine complex. In the wake of the investigation into these murders revelations emerged that one of the alleged murderer’s was involved in a business relationship with the Indonesian military and that Freeport was paying an annual security bill of $5 million for government-provided security at the Grasberg complex, together with additional amounts totalling $12 million for unarmed, in-house security. Among other things, it was argued that this arrangement might violate the United States Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, potentially exposing Freeport and its foreign management to criminal sanctions in the United States. Responding to questions from journalists on this point the then Freeport chairman James Moffett made the following comment to the New York Times in 2005:
There is no alternative to our reliance on the Indonesian military and police…The need for this security, the support provided for such security, and the procedures governing such support, as well as decisions regarding our relationships with the Indonesian government and its security institutions, are ordinary business activities.
On 23 March 2004, Rio Tinto announced it had sold its 11.9 precent shareholding in Freeport, booking a $518 million profit on the sale. According to Rio Tinto’s media release this sale did not affect the joint venture: “Rio Tinto remains committed to the Grasberg Joint Venture, which in 2003 contributed $104 million to Rio Tinto’s adjusted earnings of $1,382 million. The management of the Joint Venture will not change as a result of this transaction.” In 2006 the earnings from the mine totalled USD 122 million, a USD 110 million reduction on the previous year’s result. Rio Tinto is still represented on the joint venture’s operating committee.
As recently as 2008, fundamental human rights violations in West Papua, including “torture, excessive use of force and unlawful killings by police and security forces” have been confirmed by the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, Amnesty International, and United Nations Committee against Torture. On the back of allegations of environmental vandalism and human rights abuses at the Grasberg mine and in West Papua generally and Rio Tinto’s ongoing involvement in the day-to-day management of the Grasberg mine, the Norwegian Government in February 2008 made the decision to divest of Rio Tinto shares.
On 15th February, 2008 the Norwegian Ministry of Finance released a report titled: Council on Ethics: The Government Pension Fund – Global. In that report the Norwegian Government gave as its reasons for divesting from the Freeport mine the following:
In the Council’s opinion riverine tailings disposal is undoubtedly the major environmental problem associated with the mining operation today as the daily disposal of 230,000 tons of tailings generates severe and long-term environmental damage. Furthermore, the Council deems it probable that acid rock drainage from the stockpiles will constitute an increasing and considerable environmental problem with potentially far-reaching harmful effects in the future. Consequently, the Council takes as its point of departure that the damage is severe and that there is an unacceptable risk that the environmental impact caused by the mining operation is lasting and irreversible.
The Council also evaluated the operations with regard to national legislation and international norms.20 In its reply to the Council Freeport claimed to comply with all national environmental regulations.21 In this context the Council found it relevant to point out that the environmental standards required by Indonesian authorities fall significantly short of current rules in Freeport’s as well as Rio Tinto’s home countries, where riverine disposal is prohibited. Weak environmental legislation and lenient enforcement indicate that there is no system in place to reduce the damage caused by mining, something that contributes to further aggravate the risk of severe environmental damage.
Riverine disposal is internationally considered an unacceptable discharge method for mine waste due to the environmental damage it provokes. The World Bank no longer finances projects which make use of riverine tailings disposal. Neither does The International Finance Corporation accept this method. Moreover, the World Bank’s “The Extractive Industries Review” (EIR) from 2003:23 and the international project “Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development” (MMSD) advise against riverine disposal because of the environmental damage it entails. The EIR states:
Scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that this method of waste disposal causes severe damage to water bodies and surrounding environments… In practice, this technology is being phased out due to recognition of its negative consequences.
It is interesting to note that it was riverine tailings disposal by the Phoenicians and their imperial decedents that gave Rio Tinto its name. The environmental impact of riverine tailings on the Rio Tinto is best expressed by NASA.
The Rio Tinto is now an expedition target for the Mars Analog Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE). MARTE is drilling for core samples and testing satellite links from Rio Tinto in preparation for remote robotics that may one day survey Mars. Thought to be a close analog to that of the Martian subsurface, Rio Tinto’s extreme environment could also represent a unique biological setting to explore sulfur-based life on Europa. Therefore, understanding the extremophiles that live here contributes to our search for extra-terrestrial life.
The 100bn dollar Anglo-Australian juggernaut of greed known as Rio Tinto proudly boosts by its name, its connection with the transformation of a region of the Earth’s surface into something approximating an alien surface. Is this what now passes for progress in the halls of international capital and its scions cultural fascism and environmental vandalism?
Cultural fascism and the indigenous peoples of the Pacific
As with the original inhabitants of Rio Tinto, the winner in the contest between indigenous rights and the juggernaut of greed is always the juggernaut of greed. As Messers Bowman, Garnsey, and Rathbone noted with regards to the original Rio Tinto:
“The most important mines in Spain, were of course, imperial property; mining, therefore did not contribute to the wealth of the country itself…”
Although Freeport-Indonesia directly or indirectly employs large numbers of West Papuans and remains Indonesia’s biggest taxpayer, this is but half the picture. In 2005, the World Bank found that Papua remained the poorest province in Indonesia. Along with a marked rise in military personnel and foreign staff have come a number of social issues, including alcohol abuse and prostitution such that West Papua now has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in Indonesia. As in Australia the simple response of the occupiers is to blame the indigenous people rather than to look at the destruction they, the occupiers, wreak on indigenous communities through their cultural fascism.
Indonesia, having learned only too well from its own European colonial masters, controls West Papua with an iron fist. Indonesian oppression in West Papua has been and continues to be characterised by the ongoing and disproportionate repression of largely peaceful opposition. Few sustained violent interactions have occurred; however, in one major conflict in 1977, more than 1,000 civilian men, women, and children were killed by the Indonesian military in Operasi Tumpas (“Operation Annihilation”) after a slurry pipe was severed and partially closed the Ertsberg mine. According to academics at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney over, 100,000 West Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian (or should I say Javanese) military since the Javanese occupation of West Papua began. They call what’s happening to West Papua “slow-motion genocide“.