The Tube
One morning an e- mail with a single Indonesian- language word in the sub-
ject line arrived in my mailbox: Merdeka!!! The message came from an ad-
dress I didn’t recognize, akeharvest@yahoo.com, and announced startling
news: “Praise be to God! Today at mile 73 the gold pipe of the thief has bro-
ken open.”1 Unsolicited e- mails from West Papua had become routine sur-
prises for me. This note was different. Ake Harvest reported that the flow of
wealth out of his land was being disrupted and rechanneled.
The “thief” referred to Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc., whose
slurry pipe burst open on March 9, 2006, at about 5:00 a.m. “Gold is flowing
out. . . . Everyone is going out with buckets to collect the gold,” Ake Harvest
announced. Later, the corporate communications representative at Free-
port told a local newspaper that the pipe had simply worn out. Word on the
streets, I learned after placing calls to friends, was that the pipe, a blue tube
about eight inches in diameter, had deliberately been cut open about one
hundred yards from an Indonesian military post.2
At seventy miles long, Freeport’s slurry pipe was a relatively small piece
of the world’s supply chain for gold and copper. Still, this short pipe had
become a literal and figural embodiment of global economic injustice. The
breaking open of Freeport’s pipeline was not a singular event. It offers an
opportunity to reflect on the inequalities built into the architecture of the
modern world system over the longue durée of history.3
West Papua’s literal pipelines were extensions of figural pipes that criss-
crossed other parts of the world at earlier moments of history. A “trans-
atlantic tube” connected the Caribbean to the modern world system in the
sixteenth century, according to Antonio Benítez- Rojo, a noted Latin Ameri-
can novelist and cultural theorist. Diverse valuables—gold, silver, sugar,
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