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Indonesia: Tensions in Mining Operations

by Kafil YaminInter Press Service
February 23rd, 2004

KOTABARU, Indonesia - The government and Dayak villagers have called in fresh troops as tension intensifies over disputed mining operations on Sebuku, an island of some 3,000 residents in central Indonesia.

Government forces added 60 soldiers to their garrison on the island earlier this week, bringing the government troop total to 190. The move came after 100 Dayak warriors arrived, bringing their total to 300.

Government forces have been posted to ensure continued operations by PT Bahana Cakrawala Sebuku (BCS), a majority Australian-owned mining company. The Dayak say their warriors protect villagers from unwarranted, random attacks by the soldiers.

Locals accuse BCS of paying too little for their land and of causing environmental destruction in fragile ecosystems and on land the villagers consider sacred. The company says it has honoured the terms of compensation plans agreed with the villagers.

Since early February, hundreds of Sebuku residents have blocked access to mining areas. This is the third time they have staged such protests since mining operations began in 1995. Since then, local farms, forests and mountains have been converted into mines, often with the use of explosives.

Residents have demanded that BCS suspend operations until it can guarantee no further environmental destruction. Instead, they say, operations and new exploration have increased and encroached on protected areas and their private property.

Earlier this month, after troops clamped down against protesters, villagers toughened their stance: They now want the company to completely halt all operations until it fulfils not only their environmental but also their financial demands.

''Our patience has run out. All understanding, tolerance, and peaceful means are not useful. They give us no choice but firming our attitude. We reject mining,'' said Abidin, an elder of the Sebuku people. ''If they resort to use of force, we will fight back. That is the only way now to defend this land of ours,'' he added.

The villagers' campaign is aided by an alliance of activist groups including the Water Foundation, the Institute for Traditional Community Empowerment (LPMA), the Indonesian Forum on the Environment (Walhi), the Indonesia Green Sky Foundation (YCHI), and the anti-mining network Jatam.

Alliance spokesman Zufri, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, urged the police and the military not to interfere in the dispute. ''Instead, the local people deserve security and protection from the police and the military. We remind them that they are there to serve the society, not this selfish company,'' Zufri said.

Berry Nahdian Furqon, chairman of Walhi's South Kalimantan branch, said that villagers' hostility to the mining company had intensified and that he hoped bloodshed could be avoided.

''None of us want bloodshed. If the company and the security insist in going ahead with this mining business without paying respect to people's rights, then the worst will certainly come. We really don't want it,'' he said.

Berry, who has tracked the conflict since it began, said tension was the highest he had seen.

Villagers, he said, had ''come to the conclusion that this is not about fair compensation or environmental impact anymore. It is about the presence of the mining company. Their stand is firmed now, and they don't want the mining company on their land,'' Berry said.

Muhammad Safaruddin, a fisherman, said mining had hit even the livelihoods of people who worked the sea, not the land. ''They dump their waste directly into the beach area through the river, causing fish along the river and seashore to disappear. Now we have to go far out into the sea to get only a handful of fish,'' he said.

Abidin, a village elder, said villagers were prepared for further economic setbacks but drew the line at allowing the mining company to continue. ''Gone are the days of good life on this land of ours. But we don't want the whole life gone,'' he said. ''This is the only reason why we are fighting now, because we still have this life.''

Villagers said that BCS paid only 5,000 rupiah (60 cents) for each square metre of the land it acquired from locals, whereas the customary rate was 50,000 rupiah (six dollars).

But Hasbiyadhi Munawir, a BCS lawyer, said the rate had been set in agreement with local villagers.

Indonesian law does not spell out a specific rate for compensation but dictates that the rate be based on negotiations between landowners and buyers or concessionaires.

Munawir said that in addition to paying agreed-upon rates, the company has built roads to open remote places on the island.

''Now villages are no longer isolated. We are building infrastructure and helping develop the community,'' he said.

BCS received top community development honours from Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri earlier this year.

Mining ministry data show that Sebuku has produced 10 tonnes of coal, mainly for export, and that it has remaining coal deposits of around 14 tonnes. The island has also huge copper and iron deposits.

BCS' original concession area for coal mining was 30,000 hectares but in the past few years this has expanded, going into protected forest areas and local settlements.

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