Indonesia’s Mining Pains

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Indonesia’s Mining Pains

The island of Sumba might be thought of by some as undiscovered. Some locals may wish that were really so.

The low hill in front of us was bathed in golden light as the sun set gloriously over Sumba, Eastern Indonesia. Markus Todo, a village elder, pointed to the summit, saying “that mountain we consider to be the navel of our culture; our ancestors each took a rock and went up the mountain to make peace in that clump of trees. It’s where we have our most important ceremonies.” We were standing on an exposed clay bed where, a year before, drilling gear brought in by Australia’s Hillgrove Resources and their local partner PT Fathi, was destroyed by fire

As the Freeport mine in Indonesia’s West Papua is struck by violent protests, there are growing concerns about the consequences of mining in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia. There are increasing doubts about the benefit the Indonesian people can expect from mining operations, as well as questions about what rights local people should have in deciding the use to which their land is put. A proposed mining project on the small, ecologically and socially fragile island of Sumba, dry and prone to climate extremes, throws these issues into sharp relief, alongside the complicated questions of a peoples’ right to resist or refuse economic development on the basis of protecting tradition.

Sumba is the kind of island typically labelled “undiscovered” by travel writers. Unlike the more raucous Bali, Sumba clings to itspatriarchal tradition of wild horse events known as pasola. The island’s inhabitants bury their dead in huge elaborately carved stone coffins that are then surrounded by the houses of the living.  Steeped in tradition and poverty, Sumba suffers from an unreliable electricity supply and endemic malaria.  Already degraded pastures and farmlands came under even more pressure last year under a deal with a Swedish company to make land available for biofuels. In the early 1990s, lucrative gold seams were found in and around the island’s national parks.

Whereas West Papuans have been resisting the massive, albeit extremely lucrative, Freeport mine since 1995, when the first major riots broke out, Sumba’s people began objecting to exploration undertaken by Australian mining behemoth BHP in the early 1990’s. After the protests showed no signs of abating, BHP on-sold the exploration licence to Hillgrove Resources, and their Indonesian partners PT Fathi, who have begun exploration activities in Sumba.

At 1,000 square kilometers, the mining companies’ six-year exploration lease covers approximately 30 percent of Sumba’s land mass and traverses three provincial boundaries, giving the governor of Sumba the final say in any conflict between provincial governments and the community. While two provinces support the mine, West Sumba’s leader is reportedly not at all pleased.  There are significant fears of the social and ecological damage the mine could wreak upon the fragile island.

A legal quagmire

Josep Nongnish, head of the Forestry Police in the Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park in West Sumba, smiles as he recounts the restrictions he faces in simply doing his job. “My car has been sabotaged three times,” he says.  “The police confiscated our guns, so we can’t defend ourselves.”  A quiet but determined man, Nongnish is describing what happened after he and his team arrested three company geologists and 26 labourers digging at least one kilometer inside park boundaries. The miners deny any wrongdoing.

“We sent three warning letters to the company telling them to cease and desist from activities in the Park, but they ignored our warnings,” Nongnish explains, “we organised a patrol. The police refused to help, as they support the company, so we got support from the military.” 

“Things got hot very quickly,” he recalls, “the police, the Camat (district head) and staff from the Department of Mines surrounded the office told us to release the men, and to pay the company for the time and productivity we had wasted.  We had to let them go.”

Hot and nasty would be a good characterisation of the situation in Sumba. In April, there were demonstrations and riots against the mining projects.  Unperturbed, both companies affirmed that they would go ahead with drilling.

In an interview, Ahmad Chandra of PT Fathi assured the Jakarta Post that the company’s actions had the support of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. Nongnish disputes this, producing a letter signed by Minister of Forestry Zukifli Hasan, supporting the Forestry Police and offering to send a high level delegation to visit Sumba later this year to investigate allegations of intimidation.  If exploration in national parks continues – there is another gold-bearing seam in Wainggametti national park covered by important remnants of steppe forest – he may be forced to step in.

Bill Kemmery of Hillgrove says his company is “exploring, not mining.”

"Our license conditions provide us with the legal right to explore under specific terms and conditions – with which we are compliant.  We haven’t been required to acquire any land.” He maintains, however, that should the company move into development of any sites, “then some form of compensation would…be negotiated with the legal title holders.”

Such promises don’t impress Umbo Manurara, an elder of one of the nine main sukus or tribal groups, “The land they are using is tanah adat (customary owned land).  We can’t sell tanah adat.  The mining people have no right to use tanah adat.  Christian, Hindu, Muslim, no matter.  We are united against the mine.”

Dutch colonial rule gave Indonesia a remarkable and perhaps somewhat misplaced affinity for the rule of law.  Wedges of complex and at times contradictory law apply to mining and environmental management, allowing mining companies to exploit legislative gaps. When Hillgrove took over the lease, there was no requirement to do environmental impact studies for exploration.  This is about to change.  The previous Minister for the Environment Sonny Keraf threatened to cancel PT Fathi’s licence when informed that exploration in Sumba involved removal of over eight tons of ore from one site.

PT Fathi is something of an enigma.  Few can offer any authoritative indication of who the company’s principals are. Hendrik Siregar of the Mining Advocacy Group in Jakarta notes that the company managed to get an IUP (Ijin Usaha Pertambangan or Mining Business Permit) before the law establishing such permits was passed in December 2009.  “How could PT Fathi get an IUP when the Act has not yet been validated?” he asks, pointing also to documents indicating the company hasn’t yet been awarded the “Clean and Clear” status needed to commence mining.  Nonetheless, Hillgrove’s press releases and company statements optimistically insist they will begin mining in 2010/2011, before a full Environmental Impact Statement (AMDAL) has been completed and approved.  A mining engineer, speaking under condition of anonymity, indicated that this could only mean the mining operations would not meet environmental standards. “An AMDAL takes at least a year to prepare,” he said. “So they would be cutting corners if they did it in the time available.”

Locals are concerned that PT Fathi’s connections ensure that environmental monitoring may not be done.  “We are a long way from Jakarta and those who could enforce the law. Once nature is gone, it is gone worries forever,” worries Umbu Sumu, a sandalwood farmer.

“The people here believe that all the rivers arise in Wainggameti,” explains Bosko Hoka, a Kupang based journalist, as we drove past verdant paddy fields fed by crystal clear streams; for the people of Sumba “water is more precious than gold.”

Julius Umbo Motu, a dignified man in a faded sarong living in a village below the exploration site is concerned that exploration is occurring in fragile ecosystems including savannah grassland.  “The mine is inside important watershed areas.  This is a dry island, we depend on that water.  Now the police are keeping us from our traditional lands – land and streams that are ours.”

The mine’s consequences are not only ecological.  Sumba feminist Margareta Gabi has concerns about some of the social problems mining may produce. “Sumba women have very high self respect, but already there are rumours of prostitution around the sites in central Sumba,” she says. “The women work as pembantus (household helpers) for the miners who promise to marry them. They leave the women in disgrace.”

“Families are being split by this mine,” worries Ronny Malelak, head of the Waikabubak Catholic diocese. “I’m afraid of great civil violence. The company is offering money to those who support the mine and we have evidence of intimidation of those who don’t agree.”

One has to admire the spirit, tenacity and savvy of poor, under-resourced communities in their fight against wealthy and well-connected companies not averse to dirty tactics. The People’s Front against Mining in Sumba (better known as Barisan Rakyat Anti Tambang di Sumba or BRANTAS) thinks they have a strong legal case to prevent the mining.  “Mining isn’t on the spatial plan for Sumba,” Antony Wulang explains.  He also thinks community sentiment against the mine will be telling. “We collected well over anti mining 400 signatures in a few days.”

Australian mining companies are coming under increasingly intense criticism in the Asia-Pacific. BHP’s acrimonious experiences in Papua New Guinea and Gag Island and the current dispute between Australian company Oceana Gold and the indigenous peoples in the Philippines are symptomatic of rising regional anger at the perceived injustice of mining companies’ activities.

Nor can Asian communities expect any support from Australia.  The plodding Australian Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, recently gave little hope to Australian farmers protesting coal seam gas mining, reiterating that indigenous people and farmers had no right of veto.

“We want green gold, not gold gold,” opines Todo as the sun finally disappeared. If mining in Sumba continues to go ahead despite community opposition, there’s unfortunately little hope for this.

Melody Kemp is a Southeast Asia-based writer.