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Puncak Jaya, part 5: the Gold Mine

You missed part 4? read it here

My idea of a gold mine was a dark tunnel, some small wheeled carts and a bunch of short people digging with their pick  and singing aloud (another version would include an old bearded and armed pioneer ready to jump on his horse to run and register the newly found treasure at the nearby village). Well, as with Santa Claus, the actual thing is very different: none of the above exists (not even the dark tunnel!!), rather massive Caterpillar trucks, a more than 3,000ft-deep multi layer pit, a 40+miles long mine area with processing facilities, villages, schools and hospitals. Jaw-dropping impressive. After all is the largest gold mine in the world (operated by the US-based Freeport and the Indonesian government).

We had decided to take the path through the mine as quite a few team members were sick and problems with the porters would have made our way back via the normal route difficult. A decision that we knew would be a big gamble as the security at the mine and their policy do not encourage (=welcome) trekkers on their premises.

A short 1-hour trek and we get to the edge of the mine where the huge trucks (whose tiresIMG_1661small are 8ft/2.5mt high – imagine their size!) unload the debris from the digging and the massive explosions deep inside the mine pits. We don’t venture further because of the continuous traffic of the trucks and the strong rain and we just wait to be spotted by the mine security- which eventually happen mid afternoon. We are soaked. After several discussions, one member of the team is hospitalized due to injuries, dehydration and fatigue, while the others are denied access (fortunately given basic food and drinking water): we resort to find shelter in an abandoned container which is in more than distressed conditions. Dark is coming and we better get organized for the night: we cover the holes and window-like openings to prevent the wind and the incessant rain to get in and my German-Austrian-Swiss fellows develop an highly advanced engineering system to funnel the dropping water outside from the ceiling using whatever we find around.

The reasonably cold and wet night leaves us fairly tired in the morning and whatever leftover snacks we have provide some form of breakfast. We start brainstorming about the possible scenarios at hand and a second interaction with the mine security team, initially confrontational then turning more understanding, shows that we risk being here for a while. A satellite phone is put to great use and several local embassies are contacted to try and unlock the situation – our confidence and mood were at their lowest this morning and now start improving as we receive reassuring messages that actions are being taken. The wait begins and I roam around and look at the rocks and stones on the ground: I keep stepping on golden nuggets and stones with a golden layer. If this is pretty much an abandoned area, imagine what the rest of the mine contains!! After all, I find afterwards, this mine produces 1 million ounces of gold yearly – almost $1.7billion, down from 2.6 million ounces in 2009 - and employs 20,000 people, mostly locals, therefore being a critical contributor to the economy of this region.

This makes me wonder what the other mountains and hills around the mine, including Puncak Jaya itself, hide, given that they are part of the same range and the same rock formations, and whether they risk facing a similar destiny in the next 10 years or so. Mmmhhhh!

It’s getting dark and we are readying for another container-night, when red-blue lights illuminate the walls: it’s security informing us that we will be driven to the mine’s police station. This is good news: our calls for assistance worked and we will spend the night in a proper building, though we don’t know what chain if events this will trigger.

Which we quickly find out: the Indonesian foreign ministry and the presidential office have been contacted and willIMG_1685small be informed of the situation following what will be a 7-hours long interrogation in the night by the police who wants to know (and needs to report on) our conditions, motives and reasons for being there – A 10pages report is eventually prepared and we are asked to approve and sign it, before it is sent up the ranks.

A few hours sleep and a convoy with fully armed escort and armored vehicles is ready to bring us back to the airport – the area will drive through from the mine is often theatre of ambushes and shooting, as the presence of the mine is fiercely opposed by the Movement for a Free Papua. The police chief tells us, in case of ambush, to stay inside and not to move until he tells us so – I (want to) think more to scare us than anything else, though similar incidents happened in the recent past.

IMG_1691smallThe uneventful drive ends at the regional police station, where I go through some more questioning and a crowd of journalists and photographers awaits us: the news of the lost trekkers and the rescue operation of the brave police assisted by the benevolent mining company will make it to the front page of several newspapers, to the amusement of some journalists and the trekkers. Here is another article on the Jakarta Globe (correction: it was 10 of us..).

My last reflection goes to the future of this area and how its mountains, jungle and people will be affected in the future: such a vulnerable ecosystem with a weak voice in the large scheme (few hundreds trekkers/climbers come here yearly and Papua with its marked cultural differences is only politically part of Indonesia) may be so easily destroyed by materialistic ambitions (native Americans and Australian aborigines are just obvious examples). I am exploring what it takes to make it a Unesco-protected world heritage site.

It has been a wonderfully rich and intense expedition, which I would re-do tomorrow. The last part of this journey will be the collaboration with Summit Stories’ partner BCP (the Balinese Children’s project), whose mission is to support rural Balinese communities with educational programs : I will conduct workshops about international culture and entrepreneurship in local schools in rural parts of Bali.

To be continued…

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