Nowhere on Earth is the true cost of things so starkly apparent as on the island of Papua in Indonesia.

Here, first there was paradise, and then there wasn’t. It took the rest of humanity five thousand years to evolve from the Stone Age to the modern era. The tribes of Papua made that journey in forty years. Elsewhere, complex histories created change. Here, there was a single catalyst: the discovery of gold. Gold, not just for ostentatious ornament, but for our computers, phones, satellites, aerospace, medicine. The applications are endless, as is our demand, as is the supply of gold from the Grasberg mine in Papua, the world’s largest.

Gold is priced at more than thousand dollars per ounce, but even this lofty price does not begin to capture the true cost of gold, most of which is borne not by consumers but by the people of Papua.

Kal Muller, a journalist and author of many books on Indonesia and Papua, has lived with the Kamoro tribe of Papua for twenty years. As early as 1970, he was inspiring young explorers everywhere with his National Geographic article on bungee jumping with indigenous tribes in Vanuatu.

Here, he gives us an eye-witness account of the changes that our demand for gold has wrought on these communities.

So little is known about the Indonesian province of Papua. Can you tell us a bit about its history?

The ancestors of today’s Papuans came here about fifty thousand years ago. Farming in the highlands of Papua started around the same time as in Southern China and the fertile crescent, so they were about the first farmers in the world.

The next wave of immigration came with the Austronesians. They came from Southern China and Taiwan around 1500 BCE. From that period until the present era, there were no more incursions into the land until the Europeans came.


Papua and [the country of] Papua New Guinea together have about one-sixth of all the world’s languages. There are about a thousand languages spoken here. Geography and warfare are responsible for this incredible diversity. It’s extremely mountainous terrain, and it’s not so easy to climb over one set of mountains to rape and pillage in the next village.


There’s animosity. There was some trade, but it didn’t really bring people in contact with each other.

Take the Amungme and Kamoro tribes [the tribes most affected by the Grassberg mine]: they were afraid of each other. [In any trade] the Kamoro would exchange shells, tools, etc. for Amungme tobacco, but they wouldn’t meet with each other. Each party would lay down what the other wanted, then stand back about fifty meters and watch the other guy. The other guy came, looked at it, and if he was happy, he would lay down something else in exchange. He still wouldn’t take what he wanted right away, but would go back, consult with the group, and if everything was ok, a trade would occur.

Jina Muller (Kal’s wife and a documentary film-maker who sat in on the interview): You only need a very small number of people–around twenty two– to form a village, especially in the mountains where it’s so vertical and there are hardly any big plots of land that can be farmed. People didn’t travel that much. They would stay close to their plot of land–farm it for up to fifteen years–and then find another plot where they would start another garden. They also husbanded pigs, making it difficult to move around.

When was the first contact with the outside world?

Now, the first outsiders to come into contact with the Amungme hill tribe were members of a British ornithological mission in 1909-10. And then nothing till 1936, when three Dutch geologists went up to find huge copper deposits. But nothing further was done because the area was so remote. It might as well have been on the moon.

The Amungme were amazed [at this first contact]. They were literally still living in the Stone Age. You know the way they show amazement? They tap their finger nails on their penis sheaths.

Then we have the coastal Kamoro. The Kamoro to the west were already traders [with the surrounding islands]–so they had some metal tools–whereas the Kamoro to the east [were more isolated]. After 1926-27, this is when the Kamoro really come under the influence of the Dutch and Roman Catholicism.

So when did Jim Bob [James Robert Moffet, the chairman of Freeport] decide to mine in Papua?

Jim Bob is one of those American success stories: very poor boy, no father, puts himself through university on a football scholarship, becomes an exploration geologist, tough, he-man, macho-paracho, and then takes over this small exploration company, Freeport. Around this time, President Suharto takes over Indonesia and opens the country up to foreign investment [in the mid 1960s]. Freeport was the first large Western company to sign a contract of work agreement with the new government. This showed confidence in the new government when no one wanted to invest in this formerly communist country. No one thinks about this when Freeport is criticised. They took a huge risk.

There are so many ways of looking at Freeport. You want to make it look good, I can make Freeport look good. You want to make Freeport look bad, I can make Freeport look bad. What do you want?


No agenda here. So there was a copper mine before there was a gold mine?

Yes, but it’s mined out now.

The first shipment of copper ore concentrate went out in 1972. I first came to Freeport in 1985. There was a road leading down from [the mine in] the mountains to Tembagapura [a town built by Freeport to support the mining operations]. There were a lot of non-Amungme Papuan migrants, all attracted to the mine like bees to honey, and they were selling their women into prostitution for the Freeport employees, and they were living off the Freeport garbage dumps.

At the time [before the discovery of the Grassberg mine], Freeport thought it was only going to be in Papua for another seven years, so the attitude was “who cares, we’re going to be out of here.”

So that was my first experience with Freeport–not very nice from the Papuan point of view, but from the whites’ point of view it was wonderful. I found the best bar east of Jakarta with four kinds of tequila, which was wonderful. I mean, where else in this universe, east of Jakarta, will you find a bar with four kinds of tequila? I like tequila–I lived in Mexico once.

Tell us about Tembagapura. It’s this big town with football fields in the middle of nowhere.

Freeport built Tembagapura in the widest valley in that area. If you fly over that land, you’ll see that even Tembagapura isn’t that big, and what a feat of engineering it was to build so many buildings in that small space.

The Amungme say that all their best agricultural land was taken over by Freeport. Well, according to the Indonesian law at the time, any land that didn’t have a building on it and that was not being tilled belonged to the government. It was up to the government to dispose of it as they pleased.

In shifting agriculture [as practised by the Amungme] you work a plot of land, but then you have to leave it fallow for anywhere from five to twenty-five years. So any land that was not being used [as with Tembagapura], the government leased it to Freeport.

The Amungme didn’t even have any concept of property rights [in the Western sense]. No one spoke Bahasa Indonesia, so how were you going to explain things to these guys? You gave someone a steel axe and they were like, “Woah! Take my land, holy smokes.”

This was how most land was acquired in Papua, no?

Under the Transmigrasi policy, seven to eight thousand Javanese were resettled in Papua. The lands for their settlement were acquired from Papuan tribes. The government would say, “You’re the leader aren’t you?” And the guy would say, “Yes, yes, of course I’m the leader.” And the government would say, “Here’s 50,000 Rupiah.” “Oh thank you very much.” “Put your thumbprint here.” And ok, lands were obtained. I’m exaggerating but to an extent that’s how things did happen—still happen in fact.

People will still say, “I own this piece of land,” and they sell it to somebody who doesn’t know, and then that guys starts to build a house and the real owner comes by and even he may not be the real owner—then everything comes to a screeching halt. For years afterwards, you see piles of bricks just sitting there on the land.

Because theoretically in Papua, there’s no private ownership, it’s clan or group ownership. So in order to sell anything, the whole group has to agree but one member of the clan is in Jayapura [the capital] or there’s a woman who happens to be married to a Javanese guy in Jakarta. Do they agree? Who knows if they agree? They might say, “Wait a minute, I didn’t agree to this.”

But if you plant a fruit tree or a sago tree, that belongs to an individual person and not the whole group. But only the tree. So there is at least that concept of private ownership.

So in no time, lands were acquired, mines were dug. What was the environmental impact of the capitalist imperative?

All the environmental damage has to be looked at in context.

At the time Freeport started mining, they weren’t better or worse than any other company anywhere else. You know, the Americans killing the Indians, the Australians killing the aboriginals–it was standard back then. They were darker skinned, so you killed them and they didn’t count.

And by comparison to OK Tedi [formerly a BHP-operated mine across the border in Papua New Guinea, today the site of an environmental disaster] Freeport are a bunch of angels. Freeport never used chemicals like mercury or cyanide when they were making concentrate from ore.

Compare Freeport to some mines in the US, and it ain’t so good. But then there is no way a mine in a third world country is going to conform to the standards of the US or Australia. A white-skinned man dying compared to a black-skinned man dying? Just look at the BBC. If there’s two whites that die in a train accident in the US, it’s big news. Fifty blacks die somewhere in India, who cares? “Oh India, 50 dead.”

The problem is when they don’t get all the the copper or gold out (that’s why you have almost 20,000 gold panners today). There’s a thing called bioavailability, which makes it easier for plants and animals to absorb the copper or gold ions. And this is affected by the acidity of the tailings [the mine waste]. The more acid, the more bioavailability.

The heavier tailings settle down and the finer tailings go out to sea. So the bioavailability is more an issue for marine organisms. Most of the vegetation that gets killed in the tailings area is a result of simple stifling– tailings cutting off oxygen.

My friend Bruce Marsh came in around 1990, after Grassberg was discovered, and started Freeport’s environmental program.

Freeport has built two levees so the tailings are contained between these levees all the way to the sea. When the tailings come down from the mountain, it’s very steep, almost a gorge.

Now this is something that’s not done in OK Tedi. The tailings in OK Tedi have spread and killed all the farmland primarily through stifling, but they also use cyanide. If you want some place really awful, I tell you OK Tedi is really bad. Right now BHP got out of OK Tedi and they gave it over to the Papua New Guinea government. It was just too expensive to fix the tailings problem. So they threw up their hands and said, “We’re out of here.”

In America, mines contain their tailings. In the US, most mines are further inland and so they don’t have a problem [finding land to dispose of their tailings].

Freeport also has a whole program of tailings reclamation. They have started a lime mine in the area to reduce the acidity of the tailings. Before, there was nothing that grew on the tailings river. Now, in the middle of the tailings area you can see trees growing that weren’t there when this first started. If Freeport stopped work today, in probably less than a hundred years you wouldn’t know the difference between east and west. The vegetation would grow back as before except for some hardwood species. The lime mine is key to the reclamation of the tailings.

I stopped looking at the environmental program seven to eight years ago, so I can’t tell you about the impact of the tailings that flow out to sea.

Freeport does have mangrove specialists coming in to check and make sure that the fish are OK.

What, if any, benefits have accrued to the Kamoro and Amungme from Grassberg? 

My co-author, the guy who helped me write the book on the Amungme, had about three years of formal education. But he had street smarts, so he got his two kids into high school and then to Darwin [Australia] to finish their high school and learn English. Both kids have university degrees from Australia. One married and stayed there and doesn’t want to come back. But for the average Amungme, I’m not so sure about whether Freeport has been a good thing or now.

Lets talk more about the Kamoro because I know more about the Kamoro.

Because of the fact that there’s now a town [Timika] with a lot of straight hairs [non-Papuan Indonesians] with money, good schools and good hospitals, the Kamoro come there and take advantage of that.

Now how do they get their money? Any way they can.

There’s a lot of government money, a lot of Freeport money, and if you have any smarts you can join a group that gets money legally or illegally. I think at least a third of the Kamoro who live around Timika get their money from either the government or Freeport and through dubious means. They may say they want to raise pigs, so they go to Freeport’s one percent fund. “Here’s five of us who want to raise pigs, we want ten million rupiah.” Do they raise pigs or not, who knows? Some may, some may not.

For the other Kamoro, the fact that there is a market for their products–shark fins, coconut, firewood, sago, crabs, all kinds of sea products–in Timika has been a great help.

Education is a real problem out in the villages [vs. Timika] because it’s hard to get teachers to stay in the villages. They are bored. A Javanese guy who has lived in Jakarta or some big place, what does he do? He can’t go around with the local women unless he happens to want to marry them, and they’re not so good looking. He goes to Timika and doesn’t come back for three weeks. In the meanwhile there is no teacher in the village.

Some people have relatives who live in Timika, and if they want their kids to get a better education, they just have their kids stay with that relative so they can go to school.

But how important is it to get a good education? If there’s no jobs for you, I’m not sure it is such a good idea. Maybe it’s better not to get such a good education and keep to your traditional lifestyle.

If you have a health problem, you can stay with a relative with Timika while you get treatment in the hospital.

Freeport and the government also have a Malaria control program, because Malaria is the main source of death, especially for kids. I’ve gone to several programs where I bring mosquito nets to the villages. Now do they use them? Some families use the mosquito nets to go fishing. You know that old saying you can lead the horse to water…I’ve seen people use mosquito nets with holes in them!

Were they getting jobs with Freeport?

To work for Freeport, you have to pass a test of Indonesian and mathematics. Not quadratic equations, but basic stuff. And to do that you have to have at least secondary school.

Freeport has a training program now, training people to become carpenters and electricians. This is the kind of thing that was needed from the beginning. Of course, they didn’t do it from the beginning, but after a while Freeport acquired a social conscience and did these things. They have over a thousand students now.

JM: It is impossible to explain to someone who has not even seen a toaster—an old fashioned 1950s toaster—how to work a machine, which buttons to press, why and when. And you know they [the Amungme and Kamoro] were still very much getting used to the concept of time. They would come when they wanted and leave when they wanted.

They all feel that Freeport should give them a job, but, “Can you read? Can you calculate? Are you going to be a safety liability to your fellow worker?”

They don’t consider these things.

KM:  How does a modern mining company employ someone from the stone age?

Freeport tried.

How hard did they try? Could they have tried harder? Freeport is doing a fair job now, that’s as far as I’ll go.

How did they deal with the psychological fallout?  It must have been huge.

People cannot stay in the Stone Age in the modern world.  The question is, under what auspices can they make the transition?

In the [neighbouring] Asmat [tribe] area, the Roman Catholic church wanted them to preserve the local culture as much as possible, minus headhunting and warfare. Almost everything was ok—ancestor worship, etc. So the Asmat tribe had a fairly nice, pleasant transition.

As a point of contrast, the Kamoro never had anything like that. The Dutch government and the Roman Catholic church told them, “You’re wasting your time with your culture. Your culture is worthless—stop it, build roads, start doing modern-type things, wear clothes.”

So many of the Kamoro rituals fell by the wayside because of neglect. Not so much because of being forbidden, although some things were. So the Kamoro thought, “Because these guys have all this technology, the steel axes, all this stuff, they must be better than we are. Let’s be as much as possible like them.”

Now when I came in, I tried to tell the Kamoro to keep doing what they were doing, that their traditional culture is fine. I told them to keep carving, but they weren’t going to do it unless there was a market for it. So my thing was to try to get them to keep their traditional culture by carving. And I also take guests for 2-3 nights to show that outsiders appreciate their culture. This is my paradigm.

They are proud to show what they are good at—like we all are. I don’t mind talking to you about Papua—I know what I’m talking about. I’ve always wanted to show the Kamoro to the outside world, what are they good at, what’s attractive. I think their carvings are good to sell. So I proposed this program to Freeport, and Freeport accepted. I’m grateful to Freeport, although my eyes are wide open. Could they do more? Of course they could do more.

Alcoholism is a big problem because their culture is gone. The new culture is not adequate, and they don’t know what to do. And their enzymes don’t break down alcohol like they do for other people.

JM: You feel useless when the guy from Bugis [in the neighbouring island of Sulawesi] gets a job with Freeport instead of you. And he’s got the house, the motorcycle, the fridge and the TV. And you’re still living in the wooden plank house. It’s like your manhood is broken in a way. But it’s not your fault. You just didn’t have the education. Whereas these guys, they have the education, and they came with money and connections.

And so for the Kamoro, whom the government doesn’t care too much about, the biggest challenge is the voluntary migrants who come from Western Indonesia. There’s no way they can catch up.

KM: Twice, I tried to set a Kamoro up in small business—selling provisions, tin food, rice. I buy the first lot—before I left we worked everything out. You know, “Each kilo of fish you sell for so much, each kilo of rice, etc..” I come back after a month or two. The shop is empty and there’s no money. You know, “My father-in-law came and he wanted 3 tins of fish because he fell sick and couldn’t work. And then my friend came and he wanted two kilos of rice.” It takes someone from the outside to say, “No, unless you pay you don’t get anything.”

They have a concept of money, but the concept of friendship, family ties, is stronger than that of money. [Emphasis added.] That’s lovely but it doesn’t make any sense business-wise.

JM: In a village setting, we have seen a guy catch a big fish and share the fish with a neighbour. The next day, the neighbour will catch a big fish and give him some. But when faced with the bright lights of Timika, the Kamoro are overwhelmed.

KM: There is some cash in these villages. The Bugis set up shop in these villages. They don’t give any credit though. I would be the same—it’s easier just to give things away.

JM: We’ve talked to them many times about the value of money, but it doesn’t sink in. For example, they don’t get why one of their carvings should be valued at a higher price than any other carving. They have carvers at all different levels, so we obviously price the carvings according to the quality. But one guy gets angry because he wonders why the other guy can command higher prices.

They don’t get the concept of “better”—everyone and everything is equal. It sounds like utopia. In the old days, it was fine. But it doesn’t work in the modern world.

KM: And to forget all that, they drink.

In our society, a man works hard for thirty to fifty years, and then he retires, to do what? Fish and talk with his friends. A Kamoro, at age twenty, goes fishing and talks to his friends. Why bother going to work for fifty years when you can do it from the age of fifteen or twenty?

The point is there’s enough land to sustain the people the way they are–if they don’t give it all over to palm oil plantations. So if you stay in your village, there’s no problem for you to feed your family, and if you want to build a house, there’s all the materials for you to build your house. There’s fish, sago, there’s no problem. You can be self-sustaining. It’s when you start getting into a money economy, that’s when the problems start.

Seeing the modern world in such a short period of time has been really disruptive for the Kamoro. Too much for them to process too fast.