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Did Illegal Tin Mines Really Steal $26 Billion From the Indonesian State?

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Did Illegal Tin Mines Really Steal $26 Billion From the Indonesian State?

The Indonesian government recently brought corruption charges against Harvey Moeis, a wealthy businessman with interests in the mining sector.

Did Illegal Tin Mines Really Steal $26 Billion From the Indonesian State?

A former tin mine on Bangka Belitung island, off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Credit: Photo 290437918 | Indonesia Tin Mine © Sodri Sodri |

Indonesia’s attorney general recently brought corruption charges against Harvey Moeis, a wealthy businessman who primarily holds interests in the mining sector. Moeis and his wife, celebrity Sandra Dewi, had in recent years gained some notoriety on social media for their ostentatious displays of wealth.

Moeis is accused of establishing illegal mining operations on concessions that actually belonged to state-owned mining firm PT Timah. This was apparently done in collusion with PT Timah officials, including a former presidential director who has also been charged. Over a dozen people have been named as suspects in the case so far.

This has led to a widely reported claim that Moeis was “part of an enormous $26 billion theft of funds from a state-owned mining operation.” It’s unfortunate that it is being reported that way because it’s not true. That figure came from an expert who estimated $26 billion was the total value of environmental and ecological damages incurred by the unpermitted mining operations.

Properly permitted mines in Indonesia are, according to the letter of the law, supposed to take steps to mitigate the environmental impact of their operations. The assumption here is that because these mines were illegal, they did not do that and it resulted in $26 billion of environmental damage.

But these regulations are not always thoroughly enforced even in legally permitted mines, so it is somewhat of a stretch to attach this figure, which is at best a highly uncertain estimate, to the events at hand. The figure was likely used as a means to attract more public scrutiny to the case, in which case it worked quite well. But whatever Moeis and his collaborators are accused of, they did not directly pocket $26 billion of PT Timah’s money.

PT Timah is a state-owned tin miner. In 2023, they had about $800 million in assets and $386 million in equity. Among these assets are the rights to lots of mining concessions, which in Indonesia are called IUPs or mining business permits. As of 2023, they held 125 permits which gave them the right to conduct mining activities on 473,000 hectares of land throughout Indonesia. Their largest holdings, totaling around 117,000 hectares, are located on the tin-rich island of Bangka Belitung.

It is in Bangka Belitung where the criminal conspiracy to defraud the state allegedly happened. Apparently, PT Timah allowed unpermitted mining companies to set up operations on some of their concessions. So instead of PT Timah operating the mines, earnings were siphoned off by these privately owned firms. PT Timah, according to reports, even leased these firms’ smelting equipment which doesn’t seem like something you would do if you wanted to maintain a low profile.

So why did the attorney general move on this illegal mining scheme now? One possible reason is that PT Timah, along with several other mining companies, has recently been consolidated under a single state-owned holding company called MIND ID. This has been done to more closely coordinate their operations in the pursuit of nationally strategic goals. It’s possible that as these assets have come under tighter state control and supervision, the illegal tin mining scheme at PT Timah was discovered.

Something else worth noting is that of all the mining companies that have been consolidated under the umbrella of MIND ID recently, PT Timah is one of the least profitable. In fact, in 2023 they lost money, recording negative earnings of $28 million. Most of the other mining companies that are part of MIND ID are much more profitable than that.

I do not have any specific information about this case and how it came to fruition. But I do know, as a matter of general logic, that if you are a big state-owned tin mining company and you are involved in illegal mining operations on the side, it would be a good idea to make sure that your primary tin mining business remains profitable. Otherwise, you are inviting unwanted scrutiny of your finances and operations at a time when the state is tightening control over certain strategic mining holdings.