199 (15.07.18)



3. Ilyas Road, Indonesia

How a road into the clouds has unlocked $40bn of copper

In 1936, a group of mountaineers, including Dutch geologist Jean Jacques Dozy, set out to climb the tallest mountain in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies. 4,000 metres up, Dozy found a black wall of rock that was oozing green-blue copper, but his discovery was ignored in the mayhem of two world wars. Then in 1960, geologists working for American copper miner Freeport sent up another expedition: equipped with helicopters and light aircraft, and protected from cannibals by American marines, they re-discovered Dozy's ore and put the mine into production. By the mid-1980s it was largely mined-out, until Freeport's geologists found a larger deposit, containing $40bn of copper and gold, 3km nearer the peak, up near-vertical rock. The existing mine was already remote, only accessible via a cable car that took mineworkers and equipment off the edge of a 700-metre cliff. Mother Nature had planted an orebody where it was impossible to access, and “she said come get it,” Freeport's bosses remember. An Indonesian contractor, Ilyas Hamid, says he asked for a bulldozer, two mechanics and fuel. He stripped down the machine, flew the parts to the top of the mountain, rebuilt it and drove off the edge. Guided by choppers, Ilyas picked-out a route down the rock face, descending 1,200 metres. “Incredible,” Freeport's engineers marvelled. “You can go over anytime. He almost did... He's kind of a mellow guy, but inside he's a tiger.” Grasberg has had a questionable history: it has been dynamited by rebel groups and in 2005, The New York Times uncovered payments of nearly $20m to police and military bosses. Rio Tinto meanwhile sold out of the mine for $3.5bn this week, saying there is a “difference between a world-class resource and a world-class business.” But the road (now known as Ilyas Road), remains the only route into an operation that generates $3bn to $6bn of metal each year; close it and the mine stops. Flanked by tropical jungle and waterfalls, Ilyas road is “stunningly beautiful,” according to visitors. “It zig zags uphill into the clouds.”

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9 mins

It takes around ten minutes to drive up the steepest section of Ilyas Road, but whenever it is closed due to shootings the entire operation stops

1.1m ozs

Grasberg produces roughly half a million tonnes of copper each year and over 1 million ounces of gold, making it the world's largest gold operation


Grasberg has generated over $17bn in taxes in Indonesia, but the payments have been overshadowed by undisclosed handouts to local police and military bosses