- In 1969 Indonesia annexed what had been Dutch New Guinea after a highly ‘Act of Free Choice’ referendum
- Since then the area, whose indigenous people are ethnically similar to Papua New Guineans, has been swamped by settlers from other over-crowded Indonesian islands
- West Papua is home to the world’s third largest copper mine and large deposits of gold have also been found
- But the gold rush at the Grasberg mine has devastated the ecology of the rivers which run through the area
- Indonesia is accused by an Australian group of a ‘slow-motion genocide’ against indigenous West Papuans
Chris Summers | Mail Online | 6 February 2017
The western half of the island of New Guinea is rich in minerals, especially copper and gold, but its discovery has been a very mixed blessing for the local people.
It was the Dutch who first discovered minerals on the island in the 1930s and when the Netherlands cut its ties with the colony in the late 1960s it was the presence of the goodies underground which tempted neighbouring Indonesia.
What had been Dutch New Guinea was annexed by Indonesia in 1969 after a highly questionable referendum, known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’.
The indigenous people, who are ethnically Melanesian, mainly Christian, and kinfolk of neighbouring Papua New Guinea, have been oppressed ever since by Muslim Indonesian settlers and Jakarta’s occupying army.
In 1971 Melanesians made up 96 percent of the population but now they are in a minority and by 2020, if migration rates remain the same, they will be less than three in 10 of the population.
The West Papuans have also suffered as the land they depend on has been devastated by mining.
Indigenous tribes like the Kamoro say they have been hit by disease, poverty and environmental degradation since operations began at the Grasberg mine in 1973.
Their chief, Hironimus Urmani, told The Guardian: ‘Nature is a blessing from God, and we are known by the three S’s: Sago (trees), sampan (canoes) and Sungani (rivers). But life is very difficult now.’
The Free West Papua movement has been demanding independence for the territory but has struggled to gain attention in a world distracted by other issues.
The Grasberg mine is owned by an American firm, Freeport McMoRan, which is based in Arizona. They did not respond to Mail Online’s request for a response.
Most prospectors are able to obtain around a gram of gold per day, which they can sell for around £25. It takes a keen eye to spot the tiny dots of gold in the murky water