“Below a Mountain of Wealth, A River of Waste”
February 5th, 2015
In what was previously “one of the world’s last untouched landscapes” (Perlez and Bonner 2005), complete with remote tribes donning loincloths and “a pristine rainforest … granted special status by the United Nations” (Perlez and Bonner 2005), one will find the quintessential Promethean and egocentric company, Freeport-McMoRan. Freeport transformed the area of Papua, Indonesia from its former state of an undisturbed land of diverse jungle and estuaries teeming with wildlife to one filled with heavy industrial mining infrastructure and the oppressing and overflowing sludge that comes along with it (Perlez and Bonner 2005). The company effectively ignored the “triple-bottom line” (Roberts 2011) approach to sustainability, in favor of solely economic and profit-driven pursuits, all while making numerous unethical and illegal decisions along the way. Through this ignorance of the triple bottom line, a Promethean framework, and an egocentric ethic, Freeport has singlehandedly destroyed not only an entire river region, wetlands, and rainforest, but disrupted indigenous peoples’ way of life and encouraged corruption in a military and government (Perlez and Bonner 2005). Both the social and environmental degradation have been immense.
Due to their Promethean values, Freeport likely believes that “capitalism and market improve rather than harm life,” and that “nature is seen only in its utility to humans and has no intrinsic value” (Smith 2009). The presence of Freeport has seen Papua to grow from a few hundred inhabitants to over 100,000, coupled with a rise in alcohol prevalence, AIDS and prostitution, and heavy military occupation and violence (Perlez and Bonner 2005). The infrastructure built and the $152 million invested to build schools and medical facilities in the area is said to be primarily for Freeport’s benefit, rather than the Papuans (Perlez and Bonner 2005). Thus, their lives are not being improved, but arguably harmed by the development and capitalism in the region. The Promethean framework, according to Smith, is largely flawed here, as he describes the perspective as believing development and capitalism always improve quality of life (Smith, 2009). Furthermore, the company has been particularly ruthless in practicing the Promethean belief of seeing nature for its utility by “dumping almost a billion tons of mine waste” that is similar to concrete, along with toxic sediments, into rivers, wetlands, and coastal estuaries in the area (Perlez and Bonner 2005; Smith 2009)he resulting “massive die-off of vegetation” (Perlez and Bonner 2005) and disappearance of fish are a testament to the company’s egocentric ethic and the high priority it places on maximizing shareholder’s profit over protecting the environment, wildlife, and indigenous cultures of Papua.
Similarly, the military presence is taking a deathly toll on the inhabitants of the area, as over 160 deaths were contributed to militant and police violence, as well as “numerous human right violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and arbitrary detention.” (Perlez and Bonner 2005). While these acts are not directly attributed to Freeport, the deeply intertwined relationship between the company, military, and police is quite obvious. The company not only turns a blind eye, but encourages the military through illegal payments to keep protests from locals, environmental groups, and NGOs at bay so they can continue to operate on an “almost unimaginable scale” (Perlez and Bonner 2005) and maximize profit- also an egocentric and Promethean value (Merchant 1992).
Freeport would benefit from adopting a triple bottom line approach towards their future affairs in Indonesia. More specifically, they should adopt The Natural Step (TNS), which is “an approach to sustainability in organisations that seeks to provide an overarching reference framework for environmental and social sustainability.” (Roberts 2011) It details four conditions developed from basic scientific principles, defines environmental limits on humans, and builds in equality (Roberts 2011). It requires eliminating “our contribution to the progressive build-up of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust … [and] chemicals and compounds produced by society”; “our contribution to the … degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes”; and “our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs” (Roberts 2011). All of these principles are quite relevant to the Freeport case, and, though simplistic, provide a good framework for Freeport to use to become a more sustainable company.
Merchant, Carolyn. 1992. “Environmental Ethics and Political Conflict.” Radical Ecology: the search for a livable world. New York: Routledge (63-87).
Perlez, Jane and Raymond Bonner, “Below a Mountain of Wealth, a River of Waste,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/27/international/asia/27gold.html?pagewanted =all&_r=0 (Accessed February 1, 2015).
Roberts, Jane. 2011. “Environmental Policy Making in Organizations.” Environmental Policy. New York: Routledge (124-144).
Smith, Zachary. 2009. “Public Opinion and the Environment.” The Environmental Policy Paradox. New Jersey: Pearson (26-31).
About Kacey Merlini
I am a sophomore Environmental Social Science major at Davidson College particularly focusing on the political, economic, and social impacts of renewable energy systems and food policy. I also play lacrosse at Davidson, and in my free time I enjoy spending time outdoors and photography.