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Notes from a gold rush in Timika

  • Veronika Kusumaryati

    The Jakarta Post

Timika, West Papua | Wed, August 14, 2013 | 01:14 pm
Notes from a gold rush in Timika

Still: Standing empty, huge American-style two-lane blacktop roads. There is no easy way to understand the layout of Timika, or of its organization, if such a thing exists in the first place.

It'€™s raining outside. It has been cold and gloomy in the last couple days. Timika, the capital city of Mimika regency, is located in the southern part of West Papua. Like any place just south of the equator, it has a steady and patient rain. British explorer Alexander Frederick R. Wollaston once described the situation as follows: '€œHeavens! How it rained! Can this forest, with its horrible monotony and impregnability, be equaled by any other in the world?'€ In the year that Wollaston was in Papua, rain fell for 330 days.

The forest is largely gone, although the monotony persists. Unsurprisingly, Timika is just another typical Indonesian town: badly designed, sprawling, evincing a lack of pedestrians and packed with shops small and big.

This is a city with no past. Everything seems as if it were built in the past 10 years or so. Residential buildings and stores are painted yellow or blue, with a fence made out of low quality and cheap steel. Places are named '€œSP1'€, '€œSP2'€ and the like, following the New Order'€™s unimaginative transmigration programs. Others are gated communities, built by the company for their workers from America, Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Gelael and Kentucky Fried Chicken are located downtown, where a street kid can be seen sniffing what looks like glue. There are a handful of national banks and the offices of some airlines. A Ford dealership sells vehicles to mining workers and the emerging bourgeoisie, thanks to a copper and gold rush that has lasted longer than the ones in California.

Frontier town: Timika is a city with no past, and everything seems as if it were built in the past 10 years or so.Frontier town: Timika is a city with no past, and everything seems as if it were built in the past 10 years or so.
There is lumba-lumba karaoke and a bar. There is an old hideous, greasy market where the Bugis seem to have all the stalls while Maduranese women sell bananas and a handful of Papuan women bring fresh produce from the neighborhood. There are coffee shops where one can have a cup of black coffee for 50 US cents and browse the Internet while listening to local power brokers conduct their
transactions.

Nearby is a ghetto that a friend calls the Soweto of Timika. It'€™s not as bad as that '€” or even as bad as Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea '€” but the market is grim and dark, stores are fronted by steel gates and graffiti is everywhere. Several of the houses have been burned down in what newspapers have called '€œtribal wars'€. Now, the homes lie abandoned, evidence of how social dissatisfaction can easily be inflamed. The place is also noteworthy for its sheer rebellious quality: There are no flagpoles lest someone raise the now-banned Morning Star Flag that is the symbol of the OPM separatist movement.

There is no easy way to understand the layout of Timika, or of its organization, if such a thing exists in the first place. There are several cities attached to each other: Timika, Kuala Kencana and Tembaga Pura, all in Mimika regency. Kuala Kencana is basically an American town: clearly delineated two-lane blacktop, rows of low rise apartments, company housing with a two-car parking lots, well-regulated traffic, green space, a golf course, a shopping center, a mosque and churches, and '€” although it'€™s not that special '€” a military base.

Tembagapura is another company town, created to cater mining workers and their families. It'€™s only accessible for those who have a company ID card. The company has made a tidy, hygienic and an orderly place to live.

By any measure, the regency is run by the company. Are you surprised? Not really. It seems natural. But it'€™s a power that needs a mosquito net attached to every window and door, lest those barbarian creatures bite and inject a nightmare. Malarial fever lives among the southerners.

Promises, promises: Political posters line a street in Timika.Promises, promises: Political posters line a street in Timika.
It was, a community development officer said, '€œa logical consequence of a mining company'€. Another consequence, as the miners leave their wives and spouses at home, is the proliferation of prostitution, and, along with it, syphilis, HIV/AIDS. Mimika has one of the highest HIV rates in the nation.

A person I spoke to discussed the '€œlogical consequences of development'€, by which he meant the company. Other consequences include the poverty of the local residents, which the company and the government describe as a result of being left behind. But that was not discussed. Not out loud. People in Timika love to assume that you know what they are talking about. In fact, you will indeed know what they are talking about.

During a trip from Kuala Kencana to Timika, my Javanese driver told me about his expensive hobbies. He'€™s retired after working 20 years at the mining site. With obvious enthusiasm, he told me about his photography venture and automatic remote control cars that cost him more than Rp 7 million (US$679). He and his fellow workers imported those toys directly from Hong Kong, Japan, or the US. For photography, buying a $1,200 lens seemed natural. '€œThere is so much money here,'€ he said.

My driver was not wrong. By any definition, $700 or $1,200 is nothing in Mimika. The amount of money circulating in the area is staggering. In the late 1980s, when the company found Grasberg'€™s gold reserves (the largest in the world), it booked $1 billion in annual revenue. However, it was not until the 1996 riot that the company reserved 1 percent of that for the '€œlocal communities'€.

The night that I arrived, residents were gathering for a congregation. Jesus is badly needed in a place like Timika. Jesus'€™ advocates have been working to win the souls of the Asmats, the Marinds, the Amungmes and the Kamoros to preventing them from a punishment of fire.

Meanwhile, the NGOs work hard to tackle social problems and the government is busy learning how to govern. Money flies from one place to another. I saw a Dani woman passing by with a fancy Blackberry while young Kamoros and Amungmes had their ears plugged with headphones. The snow-capped mountain disappears, but the fog is like a dazzling as it descends from the highlands. The fog brings bows, arrows and knives. Another brings glistening copper and gold ore.

At work: Vendors at an open air market that is grim and dark, where stores are fronted by steel gates and graffiti is everywhere.At work: Vendors at an open air market that is grim and dark, where stores are fronted by steel gates and graffiti is everywhere.

Burned out: Other consequences of development include the poverty of the local residents, which the company and the government describe as a result of being left behind.Burned out: Other consequences of development include the poverty of the local residents, which the company and the government describe as a result of being left behind.
'€” Photos by Veronika Kusumaryati

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