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Breakthrough: Indonesia’s highest court orders release of mining data

  • The ruling is the result of a freedom of information request filed by NGOs in 2014.
  • It pertains to Kutai Kartanegara, a district in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.
  • It could set a precedent for other freedom of information requests in the natural resources sector, whose opacity has come under increasing assault by civil society.

On March 10, Indonesian activists won a major battle in the war for transparency over natural resources when their Supreme Court ordered the coal-happy Kutai Kartanegara district government to hand over a vast trove of licensing data. The case had originated in the country’s Public Information Commission (KIP), which is increasingly being used by civil society to obtain data related to the extractive, agribusiness and forestry sectors.

The NGO coalition that filed the case, the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), is still waiting for the documents, although the district head, Rita Widyasari, said on March 21 that they would soon be released.

The trove includes concession maps and information about the owners and shareholders of mining companies in Kutai Kartanegara, the district with more coal mines than any other. Jatam expects the data will shed new light on nepotism and corruption in the licensing process, and on who might be operating outside their concession boundaries or in a protected area.

“It will be very useful for investigating environmental and mining crimes,” Merah Johansyah, the head of Jatam’s central committee, told Mongabay. He added that the coalition would call on the police to obtain the licensing data by force if it stayed secret for much longer.

A man in Indonesia's West Kutai district stands in front of a coal mine whose operator he says encroached on his land. West Kutai is next to Kutai Kartanegara. Photo by Philip Jacobson
A man in Indonesia’s West Kutai district stands in front of a coal mine whose operator he says encroached on his land. West Kutai is next to Kutai Kartanegara. Photo by Philip Jacobson

Indonesia’s district governments are notoriously corrupt, especially when it comes to the issuance of permits for things like coal mines and oil palm plantations. The former Kutai Kartanegara head, Syaukani Hasan Rais, who is also Widyasari’s father, was sentenced to six years imprisonment for graft in 2008.

Jatam asked Widyasari’s administration for the data in December 2013, and it filed the freedom of information request with KIP the following April. In March 2014, the KIP ruled in Jatam’s favor, but the government appealed. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, where the district was represented by 14 lawyers.

“Nothing is being hidden,” Widyasari said last week. “We were only afraid the data would be misused. I will ask the mining office to release the data.”

That’s the same argument the forestry ministry has used to deny access to concession data in digital shapefile format, which NGOs say they need to conduct meaningful satellite analysis for land-based industries, which are generally opaque and rife with illegality. Greenpeace has gone to the KIP over a variety of shapefile data related to the oil palm, pulpwood and mining sectors, and it recently unveiled a new mapping tool, called Kepo Hutan, with unprecedented (though not comprehensive) concession data that had been manually collected from local government offices across the archipelago.

“I agree that we cannot allow misuse,” Bambang Widjojanto, former deputy head of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), said last week as part of a panel discussion at the mapping tool’s launch in Jakarta. “However, if it is open to the public than any misuse can be detected easily.”

A coal barge floats down the Mahakam River in Indonesia's East Kalimantan province. Photo by Philip Jacobson
A coal barge floats down the Mahakam River in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province. Photo by Philip Jacobson

Widjojanto made the point that an official does not necessarily have to actively abuse her authority to be accused of corruption. “Will disclosing the maps educate people? If these maps are not disclosed and causes people to become uneducated then that is against the constitution of the people of Indonesia,” he said.

KIP chief Abdulhamid Dipopramono, who also spoke on the panel, said public agencies should be more proactive about sharing data. “The problem is that the information is not given if there’s no lawsuit,” he said.

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