Responding to pressure from groups such as the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, the Obama Administration has just announced that the United States will finally adopt a national action plan on combating global corruption, especially when it involves questionable foreign payments by transnational corporations that serve to undermine human rights. The White House statement notes that “the extractives industry is especially susceptible to corruption.”
True that. In fact, U.S.-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan is an egregious case of a company that is reported to have made extensive payments to officials in the Indonesian military and national police who have responded harshly to popular protests over the environmental, labor and human rights practices of the company, which operates one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines at the Grasberg site (photo) in West Papua. There have been reports over the years that the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission were investigating the company for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but no charges ever emerged.
Here is some background on the story: Freeport moved into Indonesia in 1967, only two years after Suharto’s military coup in which hundreds of thousands of opponents were killed. The company developed close ties with the regime and was able to structure its operations in a way that was unusually profitable. Benefits promised to local indigenous people never fully materialized, and the mining operation caused extensive downstream pollution in three rivers.
Until the mid-1990s these issues were not widely reported, but then Freeport’s practices started to attract more attention. In April 1995 the Australian Council for Overseas Aid issued a report describing the oppressive conditions faced by the Amungme people living near the mine. It also described a series of protests against Freeport that were met with a harsh response from the Indonesian military. A follow-up press release by the Council accused the army of killing unarmed civilians. An article in The Nation in the summer of 1995 provided additional details, including an allegation that Freeport was helping to pay the costs of the military force.
In November 1995, despite reported lobbying efforts on the part of Freeport director Henry Kissinger, the Clinton Administration took the unprecedented step of cancelling the company’s $100 million in insurance coverage through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation because of the damage its mining operation was doing to the tropical rain forest and rivers (the human rights issue was not mentioned).
The company responded with an aggressive public relations campaign in which it attacked its critics both in Indonesia and abroad. Freeport also negotiated a restoration of its OPIC insurance in exchange for a promise to create a trust fund to finance environmental initiatives at the Grasberg site. Within a few months, however, Freeport decided to give up its OPIC coverage and proceeded to increase its output, which meant higher levels of tailings and pollution.
The criticism of Freeport continued. It faced protests by students and faculty members at Loyola University in New Orleans (where the company’s headquarters were located at the time) who called attention both to the situation in Indonesia and to hazardous waste dumping into the Mississippi River by Freeport’s local phosphate processing plant. Another hotbed of protest was the University of Texas, the alma mater of Freeport’s chairman and CEO James (Jim Bob) Moffett and the recipient of substantial grants from the company and from Moffett personally, who had a building named after him in return.
After its ally Suharto resigned amid corruption charges in 1998, Freeport had to take a less combative position. The company brought in Gabrielle McDonald, the first African-American woman to serve as a U.S. District Court judge, as its special counsel on human rights and vowed to share more of the wealth from Grasberg with the people of West Papua. But little actually changed.
Freeport found itself at the center of a new controversy over worker safety. In October 2003 eight employees were killed in a massive landslide at Grasberg that an initial government investigation concluded was probably the result of management negligence. A few weeks later, the government reversed itself, attributing the landslide to a “natural occurrence” and allowing the company to resume normal operations.
In 2005 Global Witness published a report that elaborated on the accusations that Freeport was making direct payments to members of the Indonesian military, especially a general named Mahidin Simbolon. In an investigative report published on December 27, 2005, the New York Times said it had obtained evidence that Freeport had made payments totaling $20 million to members of the Indonesian military in the period from 1998 to 2004. (A 2011 estimate by Indonesia Corruption Watch put company payments to the national police at $79 million over the previous decade.)
Reports such as these raised concerns among some of Freeport’s institutional investors. The New York City Comptroller, who oversees the city’s public pension funds, charged that the company might have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Back in Indonesia, protests escalated. In 2006 the military responded to anti-Freeport student demonstrations by instituting what amounted to martial law in the city of Jayapura. Around the same time, the Indonesian government released the results of an investigation by independent experts concluding that the company was dumping nearly 700,000 tons of waste into waterways every day. In 2006 the Norwegian Ministry of Finance cited Freeport’s environmental record in Indonesia as the reason for excluding the company from its investment portfolio.
In 2007 workers at the Grasberg mine staged sit-down strikes to demand changes in management practices along with improved wages and benefits. More strikes occurred in 2011. Two years later, more than two dozen workers were killed in a tunnel collapse at Grasberg. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights charged that the company could have prevented the conditions that caused the accident.
Freeport’s questionable labor, environmental and human rights practices continue, yet aside from that OPIC cancellation two decades ago it has faced little in the way of penalties. It remains to be seen whether the new Obama Administration policy changes this sorry state of affairs.
Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Freeport-McMoRan, which can be found here.