Category Archives: Human rights

Indigenous people in California petition to stop mining on their land

Juristac (Huris-tak) lies at the heart of the ancestral lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band near Gilroy, California. For thousands of years, our Mutsun ancestors lived and held sacred ceremonies at this location in the southern foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, above the confluence of the Pajaro and San Benito rivers.

The cultural landscape encompassing Juristac is known today as the Sargent Ranch. An investor group based in San Diego purchased the land at a bankruptcy auction and is currently seeking to develop a 320-acre open pit sand and gravel mining operation on the property.

The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band vehemently opposes the proposed mining project. We are asking the public to join us in standing for the protection of our sacred grounds.

No Sargent Quarry

Over a 30-year operational period, the proposed Sargent Quarry would impact 320 acres of land. The plan includes a 14-acre processing plant, three 200-foot deep open pit quarry sites, a 1.6-mile long conveyor belt, and a 30-foot wide access road1. An estimated 40 million tons2 of sand and gravel aggregate would be produced over the life of the mine, primarily for use in local road building and general construction.

For property owner Debt Acquisition Company of America (DACA), the quarry project is an opportunity for financial gain. Doing business under the name Sargent Ranch Management Company, DACA has hired a Palo Alto based firm, Freeman Associates LLC, to shepherd their proposed quarry through Santa Clara County’s planning and environmental review process. A draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is currently being prepared by the County.

Cultural and Spiritual Impacts

“The whole area around Juristac is a power place. Long ago, the people all jointly agreed that this was an area that had power. This is where our ancestors held healing ceremonies, this is where our spiritual doctors went, at La Brea, to prepare themselves for the dances.”
—Ed Ketchum, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

For Mutsun people, Juristac is the home of a powerful spiritual being known as Kuksui. Juristac translates to “place of the Big Head,” and Big Head dances associated with Kuksui and other healing and renewal ceremonies took place in the area for centuries, often attended by neighboring tribal groups. The entire area now known as Sargent Ranch and previously named Rancho Juristac contains a complex of storied cultural sites and features of spiritual significance.

Today’s Amah Mutsun Tribal Band are survivors of the destructive reign of Mission San Juan Bautista and Mission Santa Cruz. Many of our Mutsun ancestors were taken into the missions from villages at Juristac including Xisca, Pitac and La Brea. After the missions were closed in the 1830’s, some Mutsun people returned to their homelands at Juristac, until a smallpox epidemic and pressures from American settlers led to their relocation to surrounding towns and ranchos.

Our tribe, which now owns no land within our traditional territory, draws a clear connection between today’s threats to sacred sites and the legacy of colonial violence our people have endured. “The destruction and domination of Amah Mutsun culture, spirituality, environment and people never ended,” Chairman Val Lopez states. “It just evolved to the destructive and dominating projects that we see today.”

The significance of the Juristac area is only further heightened by its pristine state in relation to the surrounding region. “When you look at our other ceremonial sites and our hunting, fishing and gathering places, the vast majority of these places have been lost to development,” Lopez explains. “Juristac is one of the very last remaining undisturbed areas.”

Our Amah Mutsun tribe maintains that once disturbed by mining, there will be no way to rehabilitate the cultural and spiritual aspects of the landscape. While the land and any cultural resources within the 320-acre footprint of direct impact is in obvious peril, the broader disruption of the spiritual integrity of the land as a result of mining cannot be quantified.

“We honor our ancestors by returning to those places where they had ceremony. For thousands and thousands of years they fulfilled their sacred responsibilities to manage and protect those lands. Through no fault of their own, they were violently interrupted. We cannot let them, or their responsibility be forgotten. We have a duty to continue to fulfill those responsibilities. Without these spiritual sites, we lose our purpose for being here.”
—Chairman Valentin Lopez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Ecological Impacts

The proposed quarry and processing plant represents a major intrusion into an otherwise relatively pristine area. Juristac’s grasslands, oak woodland, riparian corridors, freshwater ponds and streams provide important habitat for an abundance of species.

The project would eliminate approximately 248 acres3 of grassland estivation habitat for the California tiger salamander and California red-legged frog, both federally-listed threatened species, while also degrading breeding habitat in ponds adjacent to quarry operations. The loss of grasslands would also impact the American Badger and birds of prey that forage in the area such as the Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, and Burrowing Owl. In addition, quarrying would destroy approximately 33 acres of California live oak woodland, a valuable roosting and foraging habitat for many native species.

Seeps and springs line both sides of the Sargent Valley and are a vital component of the landscape, providing moisture year-round and recharging off-channel ponds and perennial pools in lower Sargent Creek. The aquifer that feeds these springs is likely to be impacted by quarry excavation pits and by the pumping of an estimated 162,800 gallons per day from an onsite well for aggregate processing and dust control. Pit excavation would also directly eliminate approximately 5600 linear feet of ephemeral stream drainages.

The Sargent Hills have been identified as a critical point of habitat linkage between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo and Gabilan mountain ranges to the south. Sargent Creek provides valuable north-south passage for wildlife, and Juristac is the gateway to key under-crossings for wildlife passage beneath Highway 101. These wildlife corridors would be disrupted by the quarry and it’s processing plant, roads, and associated infrastructure.

In recognition its unique habitat values, the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority identified the Sargent Hills as a Conservation Focus Area in its 2014 Santa Clara Valley Greenprint. Local conservation organizations such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust and The Nature Conservancy also consider the Sargent Hills area as a top priority for protection.

There is only one Juristac

Promoters of the Sargent Quarry point to the growing demand for local sources of aggregate, a necessary material for construction and road building, and herald the relative environmental benefits of quarrying upland locations like Sargent Valley, rather than riparian floodplains. Yet, it is clear that while there are many other potential upland sources of sand and gravel in our region, there is only one Juristac.

For the Amah Mutsun, who have already seen the loss and degradation of nearly all of the lands we once occupied, there is no room for another loss. Our very cultural survival hinges on the preservation of what little remains of our homeland.

We ask that you support our Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s effort to protect and conserve our sacred and cultural site, Juristac. For specific information on how you can help advocate for the preservation of Juristac, please visit our How to Help page.

“Our people have been destroyed and dominated for many generations. Juristac represents an opportunity to recognize the humanity of our ancestors and correct the wrongs that have been committed. It is time we fully acknowledge this difficult history and work together to protect the environment and its resources for generations to come.”
—Valentin Lopez, Chairman, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

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Can the Solomon Islands’ Gold Ridge Mine serve as a new model for resource extraction in the South Pacific?

The coastline view near the capital, Honiara. Photo by Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.

Catherine Wilson | Mongabay | 15 November 2017

  • After 17 years of foreign ownership and a checkered environmental history, the Solomon Islands’ Gold Ridge mine is now being led by a local landowner-driven joint venture.
  • The company saw its first major test in April 2016, when rainfall triggered a spillover from the mine’s tailing dam. However, independent tests found the water quality downstream remained safe.
  • Though concerns still remain, the new ownership structure could be a model for mining operations elsewhere in the region.

In April 2016, thousands of villagers living in the vicinity of the Gold Ridge Mine in the southwest Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands braced themselves for a major disaster as torrential rainfall triggered a spillover of thousands of cubic meters of untreated water from the mine’s tailings dam.

The Ministry of Health issued instructions to people to cease using water from the nearby Kwara, Tinahula and Matepono rivers for drinking, washing or fishing, due to possible risk of chemical contamination.

The gold mine is situated on the country’s main island of Guadalcanal, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital, Honiara.

Stanley Holmes Vutiande, who lives in Navola village, located along the Gold Ridge Road leading to the mine and 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the dam, remembered when it happened.

“We fled because there was water overflowing from the dam and we thought it might burst, so people just panicked and took off,” he recounted. “There was general information to look for safety, for higher ground, but no specific instructions as to what to do.”

Joe Horokou, the environment and conservation director at the Ministry of Environment, said the incident “was bad because it took us by surprise,” even though the company had been given approval to discharge tailings from the dam. “The approval was given with conditions like before it is discharged the water has to be treated to acceptable standards.”

Despite the dire warning, the expected disaster didn’t materialize. The dam held, and stakeholders, including Gold Ridge Mining and the ministries of environment and health, commissioned numerous independent tests of nearby rivers and streams.

“Based on the findings of those analyses we were able to determine that, even if the water was discharged untreated at the time, it caused no immediate harm to the downstream communities … the water quality was safe within the dam,” Horokou said.

Vutiande also said that, at the time, he noticed nothing of concern in the water quality of the Tinahula River near Navola.

A palm oil plantation in the Solomon Islands. The land used to be grassland and bush. Photo by Lorette Dorreboom/Greenpeace.

The incident was the first major test for the new landowner-led company, Gold Ridge Community Investment, which had taken ownership of the mine only the year before. After 17 years of foreign ownership and a checkered environmental history, the Gold Ridge mine is now being led by a local landowner-driven joint venture that is emerging as a potential new mine management model in the Pacific Islands region.

In 2015, Gold Ridge was sold for 100 million Australian dollars ($73.8 million at the time) to Gold Ridge Community Investment (now Gold Ridge Mining), by its Australian owner, St. Barbara. The company decided to abandon the mine, which contains an estimated 3.18 million ounces of gold, in the wake of extensive damage caused by Cyclone Ita and flooding the previous year.

The mine hasn’t been operational since, but following the signing of an agreement with Australia-based AXF Resources, which will provide the majority of investment, plans are now in place to resume extraction by the end of next year.

Walton Naezon, chairman of the landowner-led Gold Ridge Mining, said he is now keen to both reduce any risk the tailings facility poses to the surrounding environment and communities, and to increase public transparency of the company’s environmental processes. The top priority, he said, is dewatering, or emptying out the dam to ease pressure on its wall and decrease the chance of any further overflows.

Naezon spoke to Mongabay about implementing his vision of an extractive project where local communities are part of the corporate structure. About 3,000 to 5,000 people live in villages surrounding the mine, and traditional landowners own 30 percent of the company. They have already participated in making key decisions, such as the selection of an independent environmental consultant. They also observe operations at the tailings dam and take part in the company’s environmental testing and monitoring of nearby rivers and streams.

Larger than life in a blue Pacific print shirt, Naezon is bullish in his drive and optimism about the enterprise when we meet in a Honiara hotel. But he also comes across as astute, widely informed about the industry and its issues, and attuned to the sensibility and needs of his own people. No doubt this is a product of his previous career in politics, as well as skills and grasp of the cultural context as a traditional leader. He was minister of mining and energy from 1997 to 2001, minister for state government until 2003, and minister for commerce for another two years.

Naezon is visibly relaxed about the attention given the mining industry worldwide by what he refers to as the “greens” movement, commenting that it “makes the developer and company stronger.”

The revived Gold Ridge venture, at this stage, comes across as more than ticking the right boxes in order to be assessed a responsible corporate citizen. There is evidence of an attitudinal shift, a genuine motivation to alter the structure of power, participation and accountability.

The Gold Ridge Mine tailings dam in Guadalcanal Province, Solomon Islands. Photo by Catherine Wilson for Mongabay.

Community Involvement

As I stood in the water treatment plant at the edge of the vast blue expanse of the dam, reflecting the brilliant tropical sun, Gaheris Porowai, the supervisor, readily answered questions. He said that we were looking at 1 million to 2 million cubic meters (264 million to 528 million gallons) of water, with the water level currently 1.5 meters (5 feet) below the spillway. Treated water was being discharged, as permitted, at 500 cubic meters (132,086 gallons) per hour or 12,000 cubic meters (3.17 million gallons) per day, with water testing conducted twice weekly.

This will be done persistently, Naezon said, until the dam is empty.

“There should be no water there. In the next two years, no water, we don’t want to see water there,” Naezon said emphatically, adding that Golder Associates, the company responsible for the dam’s construction has also been reengaged to review its current state and potential future.

Phil Fairweather, Gold Ridge’s general manager, said that he and many other people had been attracted to the venture by the vision of building an enterprise on greater transparency, community inclusion and social and environmental sustainability.

“Any dewatering that is happening at the moment, for example, involves the communities,” Fairweather said. “It actually involves unqualified community people coming and observing the testing, coming and being involved in community awareness prior to any discharge and during.”

Local village chiefs, landowners and students are all invited to visit the tailings dam to learn about the water treatment process and witness its discharge.

“We want to see the mine open, but the health and safety and environmental responsibility is an utmost priority to us,” said Robert Rafaniello, the company’s deputy CEO. “And that is why as we lower the water, we will do more investigations into the stability of the dam, assess it. Does it need any strengthening to future-proof it for any other unknown event? Do we use the tailings dam in its current form, do we look at alternatives?”

Tropical forest, Vella Lavella, Solomon Islands. Forests cover more than three quarters of the country’s land area, but illegal logging remains a serious problem. Photo by Lorette Dorreboom/Greenpeace.

In hindsight, the lack of continuity in the mine’s foreign corporate ownership since the late 1990s — and intermittent periods of closure resulting in inconsistent environmental practices — can be seen as factors in the problems being experienced today.

The start of mining in 1998, by the Australian company Ross Mining, coincided with the stirrings of civil unrest. The mine was forced to close a mere two years later when the violence escalated. While a peace agreement was achieved in 2003, Gold Ridge didn’t reopen until 2010 after acquisition by Allied Gold. The venture changed hands again in 2012, this time to St. Barbara. Then, in April 2014, calamity struck when a cyclone and torrential rain caused massive flooding that damaged mine infrastructure, raising concerns about the stability of the tailings dam and forcing a second shutdown. Losses and damages at the mine amounted to $27.7 million, 26 percent of the total economic impact of the disaster on the country.

Soon after, St. Barbara decided to exit the country, selling the mine and its legal liability to Gold Ridge Community Investment the following year, while the Solomon Islands government declared the site a disaster zone.

A model for the region?

The Solomon Islands is not the only Pacific Island state to experience environmental problems in the mining industry.

Natural and mineral resource extraction has, over decades, generated major revenues in a number of other countries in the region, such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru, while many more are now considering the lucrative potential of deep-sea mineral extraction. But in both island states the extractive industries have been plagued by environmental disasters. Both have failed to achieve environmental sustainability, and the economic windfalls have not led to substantial improvements in human development.

Glaring examples include the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, where the fallout from the destruction of land and waterways nearly 30 years ago remains unaddressed; as well as the OK Tedi copper and gold mine in the country’s Western Province, where massive discharge of mine waste into local river systems since the mid-1980s decimated fish and animal species and contaminated water sources and farmland. In the tiny state of Nauru, aggressive phosphate extraction has ravaged 80 percent of the country’s landscape.

In the Solomon Islands, the government is looking to mining as the next big revenue earner as it faces the challenges of post-conflict economic recovery and the exhaustion of commercial forestry after decades of unsustainable logging. The country is known to have significant mineral resources, including gold, silver, nickel and lead.

“The Gold Ridge mine reopening is very important for the government and Solomon Islands as it contributes significantly to the economy,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Rural Electrification told Mongabay.

Nevertheless, the economic, social and environmental success of mining ventures over the next generation depends on not repeating the problems of the past.

A 2013 UNDP symposium on managing extractive industries in Pacific Island states highlighted some of the steps needed to overcome the hurdles. These include conducting better consultations with stakeholders and communities, developing a more complex understanding of customary land tenure, improving the transparency of political processes and revenue management, and achieving greater commitment to environmental protection, over and above the basic requirement of developers producing environmental impact assessments.

Expert observers have also expressed concerns about the influence of corruption and limited capacity of the government to manage the demands of regulating and overseeing mining activities.

Logging road in a deforested area in Vangunu Island. Photo by Paul Hilton/Greenpeace.

“Too close an identification of political leaders with resource extraction companies has not served Solomon Islands well,” Graham Baines of the Bergen Pacific Studies Research Group has written (pdf). “The chance to build an economy based on sustainable timber production has been lost. And just as government institutions have been shown to be ineffective in controlling logging abuses, so, too, their role in guiding and controlling mining is weak and compromised.”

Recently the government has tried to address some of these issues with the launch of a new National Minerals Policy (2017-2021). It aims to guide reformed financial practices, industry oversight, and procedures for tailings management, corporate environmental audits, biodiversity management and the mitigation of deforestation and soil erosion.

“With the policy now launched, the ministry is working closely with the World Bank to begin implementing the policy, and this process is already under way, focusing mainly on the regulatory framework,” the Ministry of Mines spokesperson confirmed. This includes reviewing resource and manpower capacity and rolling out public outreach and awareness of the new policy.

Progress in these areas is vital to turning around the suspension of the Solomon Islands by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which in March of this year sanctioned the country due to assessed deficiencies in areas including licensing procedures, monitoring and control of production, and revenue distribution.

The revival of the Gold Ridge mine will bear witness to how much progress the government has been able to make in the short term.

In May, the government and company began consultations with landowners about the mine’s proposed reopening next year, seeking to address issues such as royalties and environmental impact.

There is evidence, though, that not everyone is satisfied and local environmental concerns persist.

Vutiande said that in Navola, “the water system was always a long-term concern since the opening [of the mine] by the previous companies. The water issue is an ongoing issue. There were a few times when there were people who found things that have died in the river, such as fish and frogs.”

Despite the company’s stated commitment to transparency, Gold Ridge Mining remains tight-lipped while it considers the range of options for dealing with mine waste. The decision as to whether the dam will continue to be used is still to be made, and the government is still awaiting the environmental management plan.

The contents of these will be the first step in translating the new Gold Ridge vision into reality and establishing, or debunking, its standing as a model for the rest of the region.

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Mining Minister pre-empts Frieda river mine approval process

The Frieda river mine has yet to go through a proper approval process, the companies involved have yet to agree how they will manage the toxic and dangerous mine tailings or how they will produce enough electricity, but the Mining Minister doesn’t care. He has given government agencies a two-year deadline to get the mine approved and construction started…

Frieda Gold Set For 2019

Post Courier | November 14, 2017

Construction phase for the Frieda mine gold project in West Sepik Province will begin in 2019.
Mining Minister Johnson Tuke Tuke said this during his ministerial visit to the mine last week. The production will start around 2030 or 2040 which the developer PanAust committed to deliver in line with the Government’s 100 days plan.
Mr Tuke said the government has been given two years to go through government agencies like, Conservation & Environment Protection Authority, Mineral Resources Authority, provincial governments and the extractive industry to get the project started.
“There is no issue but I would like both governors to continue with the positive attitude they’ve embraced and get their provincial MPs on board, because inclusive management and political will is crucial to get Frieda off the ground,” he said.
The East Sepik and Sandaun governors have agreed to work together to get this project off the ground.
“All of us have to work together and I’ve assured the people and the developer, give us two years to get all the paperwork done and then we can start on the project,” Mr Tuke said.

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Papua shooting shuts down Freeport route

West Papuans have long expressed frustration about the environmental destruction caused by the Freeport mine operations in Mimika regency. Photo: MIneral Policy Institute

Reuters | Radio New Zealand | 13 November 2017

The Indonesian unit of Freeport-McMoRan has temporarily shut the main supply route to its Papua mine after a shooting incident, a spokesman says, amid escalating tensions between security forces and an armed Papuan group in the area.

No one had been reported hurt after shots were fired at a vehicle, but the main supply route to the world’s second-biggest copper mine had been temporarily closed while the security situation was assessed, Freeport Indonesia spokesman Riza Pratama said in text message.

Authorities in Indonesia’s eastern province of Papua are delivering food and aid to villages near the mine where security forces say the rebel group has blocked residents’ movement, as security personnel surround the area, a police official said.

Police said a group linked to the Free Papua Movement (OPM) was preventing about 1000 people from leaving five villages near the Grasberg mine operated by the US company.

“We continue to try a persuasive approach and dialogue,” said Viktor Mackbon, police chief of the Mimika area, where the villages are located. Talks with the group would be conducted through public and religious figures in the region, he added.

Officials on Saturday said about 200 police and military personnel had been deployed in preparation to secure the area by force, if necessary.

Police said they will distribute, on Monday, a notice in the area for the “armed criminal group” to give themselves up and surrender weapons.

Reuters could not immediately reach members of the rebel group, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-OPM), to seek comment.

On Friday, the group denied occupying villages near the mine, but said it was “at war” with the police, military, and Freeport.

A resident from one of the villages, Banti, said security forces had blocked access to the village.

Residents he had spoken were not being held hostage by separatists but “are only worried about what might happen if the police and military come into their area”, he said.

A state of emergency has been declared in the area and security stepped up after a string of shootings since August 17 that killed one police officer and wounded six.

Papua has had a long-running, and sometimes violent, separatist movement since it was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticised UN-backed referendum in 1969.

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Whanganui doctor’s beach trek against seabed mining on final stretch

Doctor Athol Steward is walking from Raglan to Whanganui to protest against seabed mining. Photo/ Supplied

Emma Russell | Wanganui Chronicle | 11 November, 2017

Nearly two weeks ago Athol Steward started his beach trek from Raglan to Whanganui, averaging 30km a day.The Whanganui doctor walking 400km in a bid to stop seabed mining is in his final stretch and is expected to arrive on Castlecliff Beach on Sunday afternoon.

The environmental advocate was outraged when Trans-Tasman Resources’ application to extract 50 million tonnes of the South Taranaki Bight seabed every year for 35 years was approved in August.

His self-funded mission aimed to support anti-mining group Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) which filed an appeal against the Environmental Protection Authority decision in the High Court on August 31.

Dr Steward said he decided that the time for talking was over and a sausage sizzle and cake sale wasn’t going to do it anymore.

“It needed to be something that would catch some interest and hopefully put the word out there that experimental seabed mining is not ok.”

And he was right, already he has raised $3695 through his Givealittle page and all proceeds will go towards KASM’s appeal.

Dr Steward said he had lots of pleasure fishing and diving out there and it was one of the best fisheries around New Zealand.

“The TTA have called it a desert but we’ve dinned out on that one. The reef is full of life, plenty of crayfish but also rare soft sponges and masses of marine life.”

Walking the first 200km with his eldest son, Lloyd, Dr Steward is now tackling the final 100km with his youngest son, Jonathan.

On Friday they will walk Patea to Waipipi then on Saturday they will continue to Waiinu Beach.

Gathering as many walkers as they can from Ototoko Beach, Dr Steward plans to end the walk at Castlecliff Beach around 3pm on Sunday.

To donate to Athol Steward’s Givealittle fund visit: http://www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/walkthewalkfor ourocean

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Bulolo opposing new mining exploration

Bulolo township

The National aka The Loggers Times| November 10, 2017

THE Bulolo district administration is strongly opposing a licence for exploration activities near the town because the land had been damaged by past explorations, Administrator Tae Gwambelek says.

The administration is supporting the move by the business community and PNG Forest Products  (PNGFP) after the Mineral Resource Authority  (MRA) issued EL2544 to the Wabu Alluvial Mining company  (WAM).

Administrator Tae Gwambelek said Australia had done enough damage to land in Bulolo leaving behind huge craters on which the township was built.

“History will never be repeated again,” Gwambelek said.

“We have Hidden Valley and Wafi-Golpu mining including many small-scale activities. That is enough.”

Gwambelek said the Bulolo district development authority also acquired an exploration licence from MRA to conduct explorations outside Wau and Bulolo towns.

“How on earth, will MRA issue the EL 2544 to WAM to conduct explorations within the town? It is illogical,” he said.

“Bulolo town is not an exploration area and we totally object to the idea.

“We have PNGFP, National Forest Authority, University of Bulolo, Telikom Exchange, district administration office, police and courthouse and many small businesses operating in town and paying taxes to the government.

He said as the district chief executive representing 102,118 people in 324 villages and 108 wards, the idea was 100 per cent rejected.

He said the scheduled warden hearing on Nov 28, would be facilitated in front of the district headquarters to allow people to air their views.

Bulolo business representative Aaron Akui urged Minister for Mining Johnson Tuke and MRA chief executive Philip Samar to review the decision.

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Papua separatists dispute Indonesia claim of hostage taking

The giant Grasberg open-pit copper and gold mine in Indonesian Papua on the island of New Guinea. Photo by Alfindra Primaldhi/Wikimedia Commons

Associated Press | November 10, 2017

A member of an armed separatist group in Indonesia’s Papua region has disputed police claims that it’s holding villagers hostage during a standoff with security forces.

The remote region’s long-simmering insurgency has flared in the past month, with one paramilitary police officer killed and six others wounded in attacks by the National Liberation Army of West Papua. The two sides are also waging a PR war, with police calling the group an armed criminal gang and accusing it of attacks on civilians.

Hendrik Wanmang, who described himself as a commander of the armed group that goes by the Indonesian acronym TNP, said in an interview Friday that Banti and Kimbeli villagers can’t go to an area the separatists define as a battlefield with security forces because it’s unsafe. But otherwise villagers are free to go to their farms and move about as they please, he said.

Police on Thursday said a group of about 100 including 25 gunmen were occupying the two villages and preventing 1,300 people from leaving. Several hundred of the people are migrant workers from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“It’s not true, it’s only the provocation of Indonesian military and police with the aim of damaging our image,” Wanmang told The Associated Press. “People there are safe, both natives and non-natives are free to do activities as usual.”

Wanmang was one of two commanders who signed an Oct. 21 statement warning of unspecified retribution against security forces for alleged brutality against indigenous Papuans.

The letter declared an area near the U.S.-owned Grasberg gold and copper mine as a battlefield.

The mine owned by Phoenix, Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. is a source of tension in the region due to environmental damage and indigenous Papuans’ resentment at profits from local resources being sent abroad.

A low-level insurgency for independence has simmered in Papua since it was transferred from Dutch to Indonesian rule in 1963. The region, which makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea, was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 following a U.N.-sponsored ballot of tribal leaders that has since been dismissed as a sham.

Indonesia maintains a heavy security presence in the region and restricts foreign journalists from freely reporting there.

Wanmang said police descriptions of TNP as an armed criminal group and accusations of crimes against civilians were a tactic to discredit the Papuan independence movement.

“We are not a new group, we are not a criminal group,” he said. “We are separatist group who fought for Papua from generation to generation demanding the sovereignty of the people of Papua, demanding Papuan independence, separate from Indonesia.”

Security minister Wiranto, who goes by one name, has asked security officials to peacefully persuade the separatists to leave.

Military commander Gatot Nurmantyo said in a statement Friday that the villagers are “hostages” and the military is conducting surveillance of their villages. With police, it hopes to negotiate a solution but is readying other measures.

“We are also preparing ways that are hard and must be done very thoroughly,” he said. “Currently we are working closely with police and setting up a joint team in handling the problem.”

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