Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)

Freeport McMoRan: Giving Something Back (And It's Toxic)

by John P. Clark, Delta Greens

For the past five years, I have been doing research on the Freeport McMoRan Corporation as a case study in corporate social ethics. My interest began in 1990, when Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett attacked local environmentalists for opposing Freeport's dumping of radioactive gypsum waste into the Mississippi River. Moffett said that such protests revealed that Louisiana was a "banana republic" and that the opponents were ignorant. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dec. 5, 1990.)

I was shocked and appalled as I later saw the corporation launch a massive public relations campaign to convince the community of its deep concern for the earth, as it began to endow professorships in environmental fields, at area universities and as major environmental reporters from the local media took jobs for the company. I was also struck by the outrageousness of Freeport's public self-congratulations on spending money to partially contain the runoff from the gypsum waste. Freeport's ingenious advertising slogan, Giving Something Back, began to take on an ironic and increasingly ominous significance.

While such actions in Louisiana (and similar activities in Austin, Texas) raised important ethical issues, I was unprepared for the magnitude of injustice and expoitation I discovered when I began to study Freeport's operations in West Papua. This country (the western half of the former New Guinea) was occupied by the Indonesian military at the end of European colonialism in 1963, and was renamed Irian Jaya. To legitimate its control, Indonesia in 1969 conducted mock elections, in which, 1025 of 800,000 West Papuans were allowed to vote. Jason Clay, editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly, estimates that 100,000 Papuans have been killed in defense of this new Indonesian colonialism. To consolidate its conquest of this mineral-rich land, Indonesia has sponsored a resettlement program that aims at populating West Papua with Indonesians, who will overwhelm the native Papuans. The program's goals are political control and cultural genocide (much like those of Chinese policy in Tibet).

Freeport moved into West Papua in the early days of the Suharto dictatorship. This regime, which is a partner of Freeport Indonesia (owning about 10% of the company) is noted for a long history of murder and repression. A half-million people were killed in Suharto's brutal takeover of the country. More recently, one-sixth of the population of East Timor were killed in his invasion of that small country. Yet Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett has defended the Indonesian regime and called Suharto a compassionate man. More accurately, Suharto is a generous man, at least toward Freeport. From its collaboration with his regime,the company has obtained the largest gold mine in the world, one of the largest copper mines, and exploration rights to about seven million acres. Freeport is, in turn, Indonesia's largest corporate taxpayer and has provided the expertise needed to exploit the mineral resources seized from the Papuans. Reports of activities related to Freeport's mines have long been highly disturbing. The Amungme people have consistently resisted the theft of their communal tribal lands. A 1977 revolt was put down in a ruthless military operation called Operasi Tumpas (Annihilation), to which Freeport contributed $1 million. (IWGIA Newsletter, April-June 1992.) Papuans claim that thousands were killed in this action. In 1987, BBC reporter George Monbiot stated that in response to the resistance of the Amungme, their villages were strafed by the Indonesian army from helicopter gunships and bombed by (U.S. made) Broncos; to intimidate the population girls were raped, then killed slowly by having sticks thrust up their backsides; soldiers took photographs of each other posing with their feet on the heads of villagers they'd shot. American employees at the mine were well aware of what was happening and seemed to regard it as entertainment. (Rainforest Action Network Action Alert, Nov. 1990.) The recent lengthy report from the Catholic Church of Jayapura on violence, torture, and murders in West Papua only reinforces the overwhelming evidence of Freeport's complicity with the Indonesian government in the repression there. On only two days, December 25 and 26, 1994, the following outrages were reported: an unarmed civilian was stabbed and shot in the head on Freeport Bus No. 44; "3 civilians died under torture at the Freeport Workshop", 15 civilians were detained in a Freeport container, and 4 civilians were detained at the Freeport security post and in Freeport containers. (Violations of Human Rights in the Timika Area of Irian Jaya, Indonesia.) Other acts of violence and murder, while not directly involving Freeport employees and facilities, have an obvious connection to the the Freeport mines and their impact on the local people.

Freeport's enviromental record is as disturbing as is its history of human rights abuses. The World Rivers Review charged in 1989 that Freeport has dumped mine tailings from its open-pit copper mine into area rivers continuously for 16 years, and warned of health problems that were being covered up by the Indonesian dictatorship. (Jan.-Feb. 1989.) A year later, Inside Indonesia (Dec. 1990) concluded, based on studies of other areas with similar activity, that Freeport's pollution has disrupted the indigenous communities whose lifeline is the Ajikwa (River). The Multinational Monitor(June 1992) reported that Freeport implicitly recognized the gravity of the pollution problem when its Environment Manager told local people to stop consuming sago, their staple food, since it has been contaminated by pollution from the mining operation. The infliction of such ecological damage on a relatively powerless local community would indicate ethical irresponsibility on the part of any corporation. It is especially offensive to one's moral sensibilities when it is inflicted by a company that sponsors ads with names like Focus Earth and Earthcare, and depicts itself as making extraordinary contributions to the welfare of the local communities in which it operates.

In addition to inflicting severe damage on the lands of native peoples, Freeport has participated in concerted efforts to remove native peoples entirely from these traditional dwelling-places. An earthquake in 1989 was used as a pretext to remove local residents from Freeport mining areas. Only those who agreed to relocate were given aid after the disaster. (Austin Chronicle, June 1, 1990.) Neighboring Amungme people have lost their hunting grounds and gardens to the Freeport mine and have since been living in slumlike settlements. (TAPOL [Indonesian Human Rights Campaign] Bulletin, May 25, 1990.) Freeport is still able to convince reporters in places like New Orleans to quote verbatim company press releases boasting that Freeport projects are designed to give someting back to Indonesia. (New Orleans Times-Picayune, Sept. 7,1995.) The local newspaper in Jayapura, on the other hand, has stated that in the middle of Freeport's luxury town, the indigenous inhabitants live like beggars and are treated roughly by the company people. (Tifa Irian, June 1991.)

In May, Freeport announced that it had sold an interest in one of its subsidiaries to RTZ of London, which is to enter into a joint venture for exploration of the Freeport concessions in West Papua. RTZ is the largest mining corporation in the world and is infamous for its ecological and human rights abuses, which have elicited widespread protests, especially in England. It has been attacked most notably for its activities in Southwest Africa, where it is known not only for bad labor conditions, but also for its longtime defiance of anti-apartheid economic agreements. (The Gulliver Files, pp. 654-698.)

Freeport has made extraordinary efforts to influence public opinion in the communities in which it does business.

Freeport has made extraordinary efforts to influence public opinion and to defuse criticism in the communities in which it does business. In southeast Louisiana, where the corporate headquarters is located, it has endowed professorships in environmental fields at five universities. It uses these positions in its advertising as evidence of its strong commitment to the future of the earth and its inhabitants. The company has become influential in some of these institutions, and has succeeded in finding academic allies who strongly defend Freeport's operations as morally and ecologically sound-indeed as beneficial to all concerned. In addition, the company has sought to boost its credibility by hiring as public relations agents well-known personalities with a strong pro-environmental image. Of New Orleans' two major environmental reporters, one was hired as Freeport's Vice President for Communications and the other joined a public relations firm that represents Freeport.

The major Freeport greenwashing strategy has been heavy environmentally oriented television advertising. One of the most notable campaigns in New Orleans was a series of Focus Earth ads cosponsored by Freeport and WVUE-TV, the local ABC affiliate. The ads featured local schoolchildren making statements about the dangers of pollution, the need for recycling, and other environmental issues. In 1993, the station manager of WVUE-TV met with coordinating committee members of the Delta Greens, the local branch of the Green movement, to discuss the station's cosponsorship of these Focus Earth ads. He was presented with documents supporting charges of human rights and ecological abuses by Freeport in West Papua. He replied that some of the claims might be true, but that this would be no reason to drop the ads. He pointed out that Freeport gives a lot of money to good causes in our own community and-to quote him very precisely-nobody in New Orleans cares what happens in Indonesia. WVUE's actions will help assure that it remains that way.

Slowly, however, information about Freeport's misdeeds is spreading. Concerns about Freeport's development plans which threaten to pollute Barton Springs, and its influence at the University of Texas are widespread in Austin, Texas. Freeport's ranking as the number one water polluter in the U.S.due to its pollution of the Mississippi, has made many in southeast Louisiana increasingly skeptical of Freeport's extravagant claims of ecological responsibility.

However, it is Freeport's actions in West Papua that raise by far the most important ethical issues, and thatdemonstrate best the complex interrelationship between economic, political, ecological, and moral questions. With more truth than he was capable of comprehending, Freeport's Jim Bob Moffett has stated on behalf of his company "We are thrusting a spearhead of development into the heartland of Irian Jaya." (IWGA Newsletter, April-June 1992)

Since I wrote this article, Freeport-McMoRan has accelerated its multimillion dollar greenwashing campaign.

Most recently, the company took out seven full-page ads in the Austin American-Statesman, proclaiming itself a paragon of environmental responsibility and defender of human rights. In a series of full-page ads in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other papers, Freeport launched a massive public relations campaign announcing, "The truth is putting on its shoes." The quotation, ironically, comes from Mark Twain, who once observed that "a lie can travel halfway around the world" while the truth is engaged in this humble activity.

The irony is that Twain was referring to U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, while Freeport uses his words to defend its participation in genocide and ecological destruction in the same region. As part of this campaign, Freeport spent $23,000 for a single ad in the New York Times.

Unfortunately for the company, it was rewarded by the Times shortly thereafter with a mock "Academic Freedom Award." Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett was recognized for demanding his endowment money back from Loyola University after Loyola students and faculty participated in a demonstration in front of his mansion (a protest called by the Delta Greens). Freeport has also produced several half-hour infomercials to counteract continuing bad publicity. New Orleans educational television station WLAE gave Freeport (which is, coincidentally, one of its biggest contributors) two free half-hours of air time to show its infomercials as "educational programs." As now, Freeport critics have been denied equal time for a reply. They have in turn started a Freeport Watch Bulletin to inform the public of the company's misdeeds. Freeport has responded with a letter threatening the editor with a suit. Eight such threats have been made so far against Freeport critics in Austin, New Orleans, and Washington in an attempt to intimidate opponents into silence. The struggle between corporate greenwashing and social and ecological justice activism goes on. It is gratifying that untiring citizen activists, socially committed scholars and researchers, and responsible journalists have so far been able to reach a wide audience and raise crucial social and ecological issues, despite the frantic efforts of a $2 billion a year giant corporation to distort the truth.

For an updated Freeport McMoRan bibliography, contact the author at 7725 Cohn St, New Orleans LA 70118.

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