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Bishop speaks up for workers in Indonesian mining dispute

Wants government to intervene and provide welfare for laid off staff at Papua copper mine

Bishop speaks up for workers in Indonesian mining dispute

Freeport-McMoran employees dance during a rally in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources building in Jakarta on March 7. A controversial U-turn on mineral exports has sparked turmoil in Indonesia's key mining sector, providing a fresh headache for firms struggling to work in Southeast Asia's biggest economy. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

A bishop in Papua has called for government aid for thousands of Papuans made jobless as a result of a bitter contractual dispute between the government and U.S.-based mining giant PT Freeport McMoran Inc.

The row, which has reduced operations at the world's second biggest copper mine in Papua's Mimika district by about 60 percent, stems from Indonesia seeking to change mining industry regulations over ore processing and foreign ownership.

The government wants to cap copper concentrate exports to boost its domestic smelting industry.

Freeport says the regulations breach its current contract with the government, which runs until 2021. The company says the rules would also affect contracts it has with its customers overseas.

However, the dispute has resulted in job losses for contractors and workers.

"The company has laid off more than a thousand workers. It also threatens to reduce ongoing programs offered to the local community, such as scholarships and health-care services. This is a problem," Bishop John Philip Saklil of Jayapura told ucanews.com.

The prelate recalled that he and some Papuans owning indigenous land rights, known as hak ulayat, met with Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan on Feb. 27 in Jakarta to find a solution to the problem.

"Such a lay-off has victimized many people who depend solely on the company. Many other Papuans, benefit from the programs," he said.

According to the local Manpower, Transmigration and Public Housing Agency nearly 1,100 workers were laid off as a result of the dispute.

"They dreamed of a good future but then were laid off. Many still have debts to pay. It is not easy for them. Now everyone is worried about their future," Bishop Saklil said.  

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A local tribal leader said laid off indigenous people could revert to old traditional activities like hunting to get by, but mining activities have caused havoc with the local ecosystem.

"Due to polluted waters, their feet and hands start to hurt when they go into rivers. Also, animals living in or near rivers have died. So how can we hunt to live?" Amungme tribal leader Yanes Natkimu said.

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