Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Mining paradise

Mining paradise
Published: May 11, 2014

Local communities resist mining development on Sulawesi’s Bangka Island

Tessa Toumbourou

Bangka residents resist a boat from PT MMP    Nelce Buwole

It’s Christmas Eve 2013 on the Manado coast at the northern tip of Sulawesi. The road I travel with two friends weaves through green hills and small villages bustling with Christmas preparations as we make our way past market stalls filled with delicacies. Fresh meat, yams, pineapples, tomatoes and chillies are piled high alongside a huge variety of fireworks. We eventually pull into what was once an exclusive resort, now abandoned. Its green lawns extend to a black sand beach. From the shore, Bangka Island is a hazy outline on the horizon, rising up from the glinting sea.

We are heading to explore Bangka’s coral reefs, reported to be some of the most diverse and beautiful in the world. Despite its ecological significance, Bangka sits just outside the marine protected area and national park of its neighbouring island, Bunaken. As a result, Bangka’s marine systems are threatened by mining devastation. Since 2010, PT Mikgro Metal Perdana (PT MMP), a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Aempire Resource Group, has been working to obtain rights to mine iron ore on the island.

Recent legal changes in Indonesia have allowed North Sulawesi’s provincial government to issue permits for a Chinese iron ore mining operation on tiny Bangka Island, despite local resistance. Provincial leaders argue that the mine will bring economic development to the region. Island residents, resort managers, and diving enthusiasts counter that the mine will threaten coral reefs and local fishing livelihoods. The mining developments are proving particularly contentious with the World Coral Reef Conference set for May 2014 in the regional capital of Manado.

Local opposition

Bangka Island’s 2700 residents make their living fishing, tending coconut and cashew plantations, and catering to a growing tourism trade based on the coral reef. Residents are virtually united in their rejection of the mine, concerned it will threaten coral reefs and diminish fishing yields. Riyanni Djangkaru, professional diver and editor-in-chief of DiveMag Indonesia, worries about the risks mining on Bangka will pose to nearby tourist sites. ‘If the water around the island of Bangka is polluted because of mining activities, this will automatically lead to the damage of the sea and underwater species in famous tourist spots such as Bunaken and Lembeh,’ she told the Jakarta Globe in October 2013.

At the jetty we are met by Owen Tap, owner of the resort Mimpi Indah, one of five eco-resorts on Bangka. A sun-bleached German, he is professional despite wearing only yellow swimming briefs. We pile onto the resort’s dive boat for the 45-minute trip to Bangka. The ocean is almost completely smooth, disturbed only by the frothy wake from our boat. From a distance there appear to be few signs of life on the island. Drawing near we spot coconut plantations, smoke from a cooking fire, and the colourful sails of Bangka’s fishing boats.

We reach the resort, tucked under what appears to be a forest grove. Built of sand-coloured coconut wood and heavy bamboo, the resort’s structures include a dining area and four separate bungalows a polite distance apart. ‘All the buildings were made from sustainably sourced timbers’, Owen tells us. The resort took over seven years to complete.

The dining area sits above a mangrove lagoon of darting fish. Over lunch we spot squirrels, butterflies, and a dozing lizard. Tarsiers are known to make nocturnal appearances. The beach is empty but there’s plenty of noise. Cicadas buzz in the knotty jungle behind, an unseen bird chimes a soft bell call, and the ocean makes a smacking hiss as the surf finishes in a tiny neat wave on the reef shelf.

The resort has erected a Christmas tree out of beer and sprite cans – green, red and white. Solemn-faced staff have their photo taken standing beside the tree. Everyone is dressed up for the occasion with scrubbed faces and combed hair. Dinner is a feast of pork, beef and wild venison from the island’s hinterlands, vegetables from its garden, and pudding for dessert. Prayers are shared, then there’s a polite pause while we wait for each other to start eating until the staff begin, rushing to make the evening mass at the island’s Catholic church. Ulva, co-owner of the resort and Owen’s wife, welcomes guests, feeds her children, and ensures everyone is having a good time. Her calm makes running a resort and raising three young children look like a cinch.

Despite appearances, an undercurrent of concern ripples across the island. Ulva explains what island residents are facing. ‘The governor and the district head have given their approval to a Chinese company to mine iron ore without asking permission from local people. The government argues that the mine will bring development. But at such a terrible cost! Once it’s gone, you can’t buy a reef back!’

The next day, we join a boat full of divers to go snorkelling. We are dropped off on a corner of the island where the reef falls away to endless blue. I lose all sense of time exploring the reef, mesmerised by its impressive corals – gold piping, intricate weaves, waving ferns, sunken volcanoes – and infinite variations of coloured fish. I swim back to the boat when I can feel the skin on my legs prickling from too much sun. The boat hands keep an eye on the distance from the reef. We wait for the divers to emerge. The older of the two men is wiry with hands that rasp on the ropes as he draws in the anchor. He is from one of the four villages on the island, where the mining site would be located. I ask him what villagers make of the proposed mine. ‘Even though the district head, who lives on the mainland and never comes here, has given the mine a permit, the village rejects it. The villagers will resist as far as they can. We will not allow any mining equipment onto the island’ he says.

Owen ponders at the real interests behind the proposed mining. ‘The strange thing is that iron ore is not worth very much. It is devalued as a commodity metal. I hear there are huge stockpiles yet to be processed in China. The mine may cost more to set up than the iron ore is worth. Perhaps there is something else in the ground. Or perhaps it is strategic; if they ruin one island they can more easily justify moving into the rest of the province’, he says. He points out that iron ore mines have a working life of only four or five years. ‘What happens to local people after that?’

Mining takes hold

In July 2012 North Minahasa’s District Head, Sompie Singal, granted an exploration license to PT MMP to prospect for iron ore deposits on the island. The license area covered nearly half of the island, meaning that residents would have to be relocated if mining goes ahead. Administrative decentralisation in Indonesia puts such decisions into the hands of district heads rather than at the provincial or national level.

Maria Taraman, an environmental activist with local non-government organisation (NGO) Tunas Hijau (Green Sprout), has been involved in supporting local opposition to the mining. ‘The Bangka community rejects the mining. They don’t want their ancestral heritage ruined by mining. They don’t want to be moved to another location,’ says Taraman. WALHI (Friends of the Earth) North Sulawesi are advocating for closure of even the exploratory mine, arguing that Indonesia’s Constitutional Law No. 27/2007 prohibits mineral and metal mining on small islands. The implementing regulations for the law prohibit mining on any island smaller than 2000 square kilometres (200,000 hectares). At only 419 square kilometres, Bangka is well under that minimum size.

An alliance of Bangka residents and resort managers demanded that Manado’s Administrative High Court cancel the exploration license that District Head Singal had approved. In August 2012 the court rejected their request. Unperturbed, the alliance appealed to the Makassar Administrative High Court, which ruled in their favour in March 2013, agreeing that the mine permit was unconstitutional, based on laws related to coastal and small island management, environmental protection including the requirements to produce a environmental impact analysis (AMDAL), and laws relating to minerals and coal. The court order required District Head Singal to revoke the mining permit.

Yet the court ruling and island residents’ opposition were not enough to block the mine. Despite the court’s previous decision, in July 2013 the district head approved a permit for full production mining operations by PT MMP, changing the permit status from an exploratory to an operational license.

In an attempt to overturn the Makassar Administrative High Court decision, the North Minahasa district head and PT MMP appealed the Manado Administrative High Court decision to Indonesia’s Supreme Court in Jakarta. In September 2013 the Supreme Court ruled against the district head and the mining company, upholding the Makassar court’s March 2013 decision. This should have required North Minahasa’s district head to cancel the mining licences granted to PT MMP. Yet to date, the local government has taken no action to revoke the mine license.

A rock star cause

This disregard for the provincial court decision was a wake-up call to the environmental community and diving enthusiasts alike, showing the potential for big business to strong arm government to approve the proposed mine. Mine opponents formed a broader alliance, uniting environmental groups, students, local residents, and resort managers. Kaka, rock star and diving hobbyist, added his voice.

Bangka Island enjoys a near cult status in Indonesia amongst self proclaimed ‘Slankers’, as a favourite dive location of Kaka, who has visited the island four times. Kaka has got to know the villages on these visits. His voice has brought attention to the anti-mine protests, which include an online petition (See the petition at petition site Change.org). ‘My God, they have been there for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years’, Kaka writes. ‘Almost one hundred percent of the residents are against the mining plan’. The petition’s slogan is simple – ‘No mining on small islands. Save Bangka’. Since September 2013 the petition has gained nearly 19,000 signatures.

North Sulawesi political leaders change tactics

Following the Supreme Court decision, Governor of North Sulawesi Sinyo Harry Sarundajang and District Head Singal have taken a different approach: to change the region’s spatial plan. ‘The North Sulawesi governor pushed the provincial parliament to agree to modify the RTRW (provincial spatial plan),’ said a manager at a nearby resort on the mainland (which is likely to be polluted by Bangka mining operations) and member of the Save Bangka Island Initiative. In November 2013, the North Sulawesi parliament caved in to pressure from the governor and district head, and approved a modified spatial plan that re-zoned Bangka island from an island area intended for tourism, fishing and agriculture (invoking appropriate environmental protections) to a status that designates the island for its mineral potential, appropriate for exploration and eventual mine operation.

Pressure to change the rules to allow mining on Bangka didn’t stop in Sulawesi.  Only weeks after the re-zoning, in December 2013, the Indonesian parliament revised Law no. 27/2007 to allow large-scale extractive industry investment on five small islands previously protected by small island conservation provisions – including Bangka. The revision was enacted very quietly. A special government commission was established to support the initiative to permit mining of small islands, led by former Minister for Fisheries, Rokhmin Dahuri, who was released early from prison in 2009 after completing just four and a half years of a seven year sentence for misuse of public funds.

Sanctioned by the newly amended laws and spatial plan, mining developments have begun on Bangka. Environmental advocate Taraman told me that on 15 January, 2014, when excavation machinery first arrived on Bangka, ‘island residents gathered and insisted to the boat crew they would not allow heavy machinery onto the island.’

Fishermen and residents have allied with the AMMALTA (People’s Alliance Against Mining), a group with around 5000 members formed in 2005 in a previous struggle against a gold mine on the North Sulawesi mainland. The group’s leader Revoldi Koleangan says that since early January PT MMP, supported and facilitated by military police, have started to survey the land and offer payments to islanders willing to sell. Koleangan has heard reports that islanders resisting the mining developments have been intimidated, shot at and arrested.

On 18 February another ship owned by PT MMP arrived at Bangka Island with a military police escort. The ship carried an excavator and several large trucks. Dozens of boats sailed by fishermen and villagers from Bangka and neighbouring islands surrounded the ship in an attempt to prevent offloading of mining equipment onto the island. Two days later a second ship carrying drilling equipment forced its way onto the island, unloading near Kahuku village despite protests by fishermen and villagers.

Bangka residents protested, demanding that police force the company to leave on the grounds of the Supreme Court’s annulment of the mining permit. They also pointed to a letter issued by Komnas HAM, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights, informing the police not to act on behalf of PT MMP since the company’s mining license had been cancelled by law. The police agreed to meet with fifteen representatives from the fishing community and the mining company on a police ship. The district police chief agreed to evict the company if a copy of the Supreme Court order could be produced within three days.

tessa 1Bangka Island mining Gidion Yuris Triawan

A copy of the Supreme Court decision was not available in the timeframe the police allowed, despite several attempts by AMMALTA proponents to obtain a copy. Subsequently, the company began excavation and construction, including a road near Kahuku village. According to AMMALTA, some families, mainly in Ehe village (situated on a hillside with little agricultural value) have agreed to sell their land to the company, giving in to promises they would be relocated to new houses in an area of mangroves on the southern end of the island. While these agreements have not yet been settled, ‘The company has begun evicting local citizens, even though they have only been paid one third of an agreed settlement amount’, Taraman reports via email (19 March 2014). ‘PT MMP promised to build settlements for residents, but to date not one has been built yet.’

On 20 March the Supreme Court verdict finally arrived on Bangka Island. Islander delegates representing AMMALTA have decided to head to Jakarta to file a complaint with the chief of the national police to demand the Supreme Court verdict be upheld and that the company leave the island. Meanwhile in Manado, North Sulawesi’s capital, preparations proceed for the World Reef Conference in May 2014, with delegates expected from 50 countries. Environment groups say the conference should not be allowed to go ahead if mining begins on Bangka Island, which would betray the principles of the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) adopted in Manado in 2009. ‘[The CTI] was set up to preserve small islands and coastal areas for future generations by opening up limited economic development in the sectors of fishery, agriculture and environmentally friendly small scale industries’, says one of the organisers.

District Head Singal argues that mining on Bangka won’t compromise the environment. ‘Who says this will destroy the environment? We will adhere to all rules. If [the mining] does destroy the environment I am ready to close it down, but if not we will continue. This is for the community too’, Singal told beritamanado.com in January. Singal also criticizes Kaka’s petition: ‘What does he know about our region, he is an outsider’. Comments on the Save Bangka Island Facebook page were quick to point out Singal’s inconsistency. ‘Sompie [Singal] is also from outside Bangka, he wouldn’t even care if Bangka sunk,’ wrote one commenter. It’s also difficult to overlook the fact that the mining company is hardly local.

Residents steel themselves against an uncertain future

To contribute to the island’s development, Owen and Ulva, along with owners of the island’s four other resorts, are pooling their resources and have established a NGO, called Pulau Suara (Island Voice). They take a 5 Euro donation from each guest to fund community initiatives (most guests are foreigners). One of their programs is training teenagers to earn their diving certificates. ‘We trained eight boys, who were straight away employed by local resorts,’ Ulva says proudly. ‘Next time we want to train even more. We hope in this way local young people can see a life for themselves here, instead of having to leave to find an income to protect the sustainability of this island’s future.’ Pulau Suara’s priority is to set up water sanitation and to continue training young people in skills to gain long-term employment as dive instructors. ‘We hope to give Bangka people a positive future, so that locals don’t feel they have to leave to find work.’

Bangka people who oppose the mine, including dive resort managers, residents and fisher people who rely on the reefs for their livelihoods, are challenging the interests of an entrenched local elite, set to benefit from mining Bangka. Inevitably Bangka Island’s future will depend on foreign investment, through economies provided by either mining or diving. Dive resort managers and local activists will have to work fast to ensure that local people gain from the dive economy, to maximise benefits for islanders and to protect the islands fragile reef ecosystems against impacts of mining, which may devastate reefs and forests and threaten both the dive and fishing economy.

Mining is moving in fast on Bangka Island, dividing a once a cohesive island community. This divide-and-conquer approach has worked in the favour of extractives industries in other parts of Indonesia also faced with pressure from a growing domestic and international demand for mineral and energy resources. Yet the resolve of Bangka people is strong, and in the lead up to the World Coral Reef Conference in May, protest groups are taking a stand against provincial leadership whose decisions have ignored the priorities of their constituencies to protect the reefs and fishing livelihoods – topics that are main themes of the conference.

Should the protest groups lose their struggle, the implications for the surrounding diving tourist economy and local food security are likely to be significant. As with other locations allocated for mining in Indonesia, the full social, cultural, economic and economic costs must be factored into decision-making over land use. These social and environmental costs must not be thrust upon local communities, who are the least able to shoulder additional burdens.


Tessa Toumbourou <tessatoumbourou@hotmail.com> is an environmental governance researcher based in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 116: Apr-Jun 2014{jcomments on}

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