World Rainforest Movement

Indonesia: Growing pressure for mining in forests

Mining is one of Indonesia’s biggest revenue-earners, but it is also destroying the natural resources on which tens of millions of rural and urban Indonesians depend for their livelihoods and health. These resources include the archipelago’s once vast forests which are now being destroyed faster than ever before.

The problems of mining and forest destruction cannot help but be closely intertwined in Indonesia since so much of the country’s land surface is (or used to be) forest, and so much of the rock underneath contains commercially valuable minerals.

Forests (including degraded and fragmented forests) now cover less than half the country’s total land area of 189 million hectares. These forests are divided into areas which can be exploited (production forests); those which can be converted to other uses such as plantations or rice fields (conversion forests) and areas which must not be exploited (to protect watersheds, provide wildlife sanctuaries etc). This last type includes protection forests (officially 35 million hectares) and conservation forests (19 million hectares).

Meanwhile, mining concessions cover an estimated 47 to 67 million hectares and the total forest area with potential for mining has been estimated as high as 84.7 million ha. Of existing concessions, a staggering 11,400,000 hectares overlap with protection and conservation forests alone, with the biggest overlaps in West Papua, Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Since the new Forestry Act in 1999, open-pit mining has been banned in these forests, putting the exploration and mine development activities of around 150 companies in limbo. Indonesian NGOs, led by mining advocacy network JATAM, have mounted a vigorous campaign to maintain the ban. But there is intense pressure to circumvent it from the international mining industry, pro-industry members of the Jakarta administration and foreign governments. The issue has fuelled a major row between the Forestry Ministry, which wants to maintain protection forest status and other ministries, led by Indonesia’s Energy and Mineral Resources Minister, Purnomo Yusgiantoro. This has resulted in the long delay in deciding the fate of mining concessions issued before 1999.

In April, the Forestry Ministry reluctantly announced that six companies could go ahead with mining – in three of these areas the forest boundaries were changed to accommodate them. A decision on twenty two companies was supposed to be due at the end of June, but on June 17th, Purnomo announced
that fifteen companies (including 3 of the concessions already mentioned by the forestry ministry) would be permitted to go ahead subject to presidential agreement. He said investment from the four biggest concessions alone amounted to USD 9 billion. NGOs predict that a pro-mining decision will lead to more conflict with local communities whose lands will be taken for mining, causing more pollution of water courses and more fatal floods and landslides as forest cover is lost.

A decision against forest protection will also be a continuation of a policy which dates back to the early years of former President Suharto’s regime. Suharto always favoured the interests of investors (and the prospects of lining his own pockets) over those of ordinary Indonesians who paid the hidden costs of mining for their livelihoods, economy, culture and health.

Many of the powerful industry players profiting during the Suharto era, are those who today complain about the ban on mining in protection forests, about the lack of legal certainty caused by Indonesia’s decentralisation programme, and by the state’s failure to deal with protesters and illegal miners threatening their operations. They include Rio Tinto, Freeport MacMoran, BHP-Billiton, Newmont, BP and Inco – all major multinationals whose operations have caused conflict with local communities and environmental damage in many countries. What these companies fail to acknowledge is their own role in sustaining a dictatorship based on the forcible plunder of natural resources and theft of land and forests from its people. It is no wonder that, during the brief post-Suharto period when there was a need to make concessions to an angry population, the mining industry lost some of its privileges.

Today, the justification for allowing mining in protection forests, is the need for investment to help Indonesia out of its protracted economic crisis – a move supported by Indonesia’s creditors in the international community. But NGOs are sceptical whether revenues from mining could even begin to make up for the long term environmental and social damage that mining brings – even without the corruption which ensures that very little trickles down to communities.

Of course there is also the profit motive – one that strikes a chord with Indonesia’s military which depends on extra-budgetary ‘business activities’ for as much as 75% of its income. Profit also drives a financial overlap between mining and forests since military business interests span both logging and mining-related activities. They range from contracts to guard large foreign mining operations (handsomely paid by the company concerned), to direct involvement in illegal mining and logging operations in league with corrupt local government officials and entrepreneurs who care nothing for the impact on the forests and on local peoples. Brimob, the Indonesian special forces police, are also involved, especially in guarding company sites and dealing with opposition. In the conflict zones of Aceh and West Papua, where rich forest and mineral resources provide ample opportunities for profits, the military has provoked conflict in order to justify their continued presence there.

Now, profiting from the global anti-terrorism agenda and close relations with President Megawati, the military are asserting greater influence over Indonesian politics. This has severe implications for all Indonesians, who could well see a return to the “security approach” of the Suharto years, where disputes over lands and resources are settled by military intervention. For indigenous peoples and other forest-dwelling communities whose lands contain mineral resources demanded by world markets, the outlook is very bleak. Increased military influence will mean more forced evictions to make way for mines, more destruction of forest resources and more intimidation and violence against protesters. It also means a harder struggle to secure recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to own and manage their forest lands.

By Carolyn Marr, Down to Earth, International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia, e-mail: ,
Sources DTE newsletters (53/54, 55 & 57 – see ), and media sources. For more information on the campaign to stop mining in protection and conservation forests see .

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