Freeport McMoRan as told by Joseph Conrad
The novel opens with a panoramic sweep. The reader is brought face-to-face with nature in the raw: a stark landscape, dramatic, haunting and to a large extent devoid of people. We find ourselves very far from the center of civilization.
Next we see a desolate bay subject to unpredictable ocean currents, and a town clinging to the seashore. Then, in the distance, looming over the scene: mountains — sheer and impenetrable — framing and closing off the vista.
As the novel progresses, we enter a world of greed and political intrigue, of obsessions sparked off by the fabulously lucrative mineral resources located deep within the mountains.
Funded by a group of shadowy, cold-blooded financiers from America, the mine reaps great profits and bedevils generations of the region’s inhabitants. Most of the local communities remain frustrated and resentful of the wealth in which they can never share. As a result, each of the mine’s shipments departs under the tight guard of heavily armed paramilitary escorts. The convoys race through the hostile terrain, fearful of what lies just beyond the ribbon-like road linking the mine to the shore and thereon to markets across the globe.
The novelist portrays a society addled by corruption, the corrosive power of the immense wealth having gnawed away at the civic conscience of those who have been entrusted to govern. Indeed, the province where the mine is located has long since become a hotbed of separatism.
Though it might seem like it, I am not describing Freeport-McMoRan’s giant Grasberg mine in Papua, the world’s largest gold and third largest copper mine, which has been under siege for months from strikers demanding higher pay. I’m summarizing Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo,” a novel published in 1904.
The story is set in a period not unlike our own, when globalization reigned supreme and international financiers scoured the world for resources to fuel the newly expanding industries of America and Europe. Of course, nowadays these players have been augmented by the Russians, the Chinese and the Indians, so many of whom are determined to extract the earth’s wealth with little concern for the consequences.
“Nostromo” may not be as well known as its slimmer and altogether more chilling companion, “Heart of Darkness,” set amid the blood-curdling brutality of the Belgian Congo and later the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s groundbreaking Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now.”
Nonetheless, with “Nostromo” Conrad created his most comprehensive and all-encompassing novel, bringing to life an entire world in the imaginary, resource-rich Republic of Costaguana.
Here we discover a society sustained (and indeed poisoned) by the San Tome silver mines. Strip away the veneer of polite society or expensive imported clothes and we’re in a terrain as vicious and morally bankrupt as colonial Congo. This is a world where “the heart of darkness” really lies deep inside us, where normal people are reduced to savages simply by being cut off from communion with other human beings.
At the center of it all is Nostromo, the fiercely loyal and principled Italian condottieri. Like the Anglo-Latino mine owner Charles Gould, Nostromo is honest, hard-working and idealistic. Both men are convinced that they can overcome the insidious allure of San Tome’s silver by the dint of their own willpower.
By the end of the novel, however, almost all the major characters are dead or hopelessly discredited. The silver, which to the protagonists had represented a means to wealth, independence or power, has poisoned their souls.
Though the language and context may seem archaic, “Nostromo” provides us with an eerie, albeit literary insight into what may or may not be going on in Papua and other resource-rich regions.
Indeed, Conrad, with his fascination for life on the margins of civilization, was among the most “modern” of novelists. He understood the debilitating impact that modern capitalism and extractive economic activities like mining could have, not only politically and environmentally but also spiritually. He charted the jealousy, greed and paranoia that often reduced societies to primordial violence and mob rule.
We may never know what is actually taking place at Grasberg — the reporting is too opaque and Papua is too far away. But novels like “Nostromo” allow us an insight into the dark side of the current natural resources boom. Which raises the question: To what lengths are we truly prepared to go for prosperity?
(Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia. This appeared originally as a commentary in the Jakarta Globe.)