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Governor halts work on coal railway being built without permits in Indonesian Borneo

  • During a field visit to Katingan Regency in Central Kalimantan, Mongabay-Indonesia observed that developers of a coal-transport rail line had already cleared forest land and constructed around two kilometers of track.
  • Government sources confirmed the developer did not have the necessary permits to begin work on the project.
  • On May 23, the Central Kalimantan governor announced that work on the project had been suspended, although he did not signal any intent to initiate law-enforcement actions against the developer.

After coming under public scrutiny, Central Kalimantan Governor Sugianto Sabran halted the construction of a railroad being built to transport coal through forested areas of the province.

The governor’s decision followed a May 21 report by Mongabay’s Indonesian sister site, which documented that the developers of the Katingan-Gunung Mas coal railway had cleared forest land and laid roughly two kilometers (1.25 miles) of track despite apparently not having secured all of the necessary permits.

Mongabay-Indonesia also observed the presence of excavators, workers and stacks of building material during a field visit to Tewang Karangan Village in the Katingan Regency of Indonesian Borneo’s Central Kalimantan Province. The project — designed to transport coal 90 kilometers to Katingan from the neighboring Gunung Mas Regency — also includes a coal port on the banks of the Katingan River in Tewang Karangan Village. Preliminary construction of the port had also commenced.

Residents and environment activists fear the project will divide wildlife habitats and communities, pollute the river, damage local people’s livelihoods and spark conflict between local landholders.

Given the potential social and environmental impacts, Indonesian law requires project developer PT Sinar Usaha Sejati (SUS) to secure multiple licenses before launching such a project, including an approved Environmental Impact Assessment, a special route permit to cross through more than one regency, and a permit to operate in a forest area.

Roughly two kilometers of railroad track had already been built by mid-May. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay-Indonesia.

Missing permits

Arin Dius Nanyan, supervising project coordinator for PT Lahang Bumi Persada, a contractor appointed by PT SUS to run the project, conceded in mid-May that licensing is still in process, but argued the coal railway is a national strategic project.

“The licensing is still being arranged,” Nanyan told Mongabay-Indonesia. “They wouldn’t be working if there wasn’t already a plan. Thing is, this is a government program, a result of [Indonesian President] Jokowi’s visit to Russia. If I’m not mistaken, there are five investor companies involved, including this one,” he said.

By contrast, officials from the Ministry of Transportation said the route under construction by PT SUS is not part of the national railway network plan. “All the permits are from the provincial government because this is a provincial railway,” said Joice Hutajulu, head of public relations for the ministry’s railway division.

In a May 15 interview, the Gunung Mas regent, Arton S. Dohong, denied knowledge of the ongoing construction. “While the majority of the rail construction area is in Gunung Mas, we are not aware of receiving any reports,” he said. “Concerning the matter of the permits, we also do not know. If you ask, ‘Did the Gunung Mas government not know?’ Yes, we certainly did not know.”

Since the project passes through the regency, the Gunung Mas government should have been informed of the project. “We value and obey the rules of Indonesia,” said Dohong. He said he did not submit a complaint to PT SUS, either orally or in writing, because he himself did not know about the project.

“We didn’t know. If we knew, we could reprimand them. But there wasn’t anything,” the regent said. Dohong noted that PT SUS has been operating in the area since 2016 and said his government has supervised a permit to transport coal from the mining site in the regency’s capital, Kuala Kurun: “If you are speaking of this, I acknowledge the approval from the Gunung Mas government. If you’re talking about the one to Katingan, we did not know.”

Heavy machinery was being used to build the railroad, and forest already cleared for the tracks. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay-Indonesia.

In fact, the mining permit held by PT SUS allows only for exploration. The company has not yet secured permits for coal exploitation, let alone the construction of a coal railroad.

The company also does not appear to have secured the necessary permissions to begin clearing forest land.

At the Central Kalimantan Forestry Service, Abraham O.B. Aronggear, head of planning and utilization of forests, confirmed the railway does not yet have the necessary documentation from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. “SUS is still in the process of submitting for a borrow-to-use permit. Actually, before the permit is issued by the central government, there cannot be activity in the area. Now they are already doing land-clearing activities,” he said.

On May 16, Mongabay-Indonesia raised the issue with Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar, who said the ministry would look into it.

“First, it will be checked whether this is part of a national strategic project,” the minister said. “Second, if it really is splitting the forest, we should also check the status of this forest. There is also the issue of the permits, and others. I will send a team down as quickly as possible.”

Rasio Ridho Sani, director general of law enforcement at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, confirmed that a team was deployed to the area on May 17-18, where they observed the tracks in the forest and construction work on the river port.

“We are in the process of compiling facts in the field. While deeply examining aspects related to their licensing, we are also looking into the permit for the use of forest areas,” he said. The ministry is also reviewing the project’s impact on the community. If the company is proven to have operated without permission, they will be exposed to criminal law, Sani asserted.

The provincial governor, however, has not mentioned any law enforcement actions.

“They are wrong, of course they are wrong,” said Governor Sabran on May 23, referring to PT SUS. “But we must remember the funds they are disbursing are not small. We, of course, need investors, and once they complete the legal process we will support them,” he said.

HM Asera, public relations coordinator for PT SUS and also a member of the Central Kalimantan Parliament said the company will follow the instructions of the governor. Work will resume as soon as the permits are complete. “The instructions are not to cancel the project. It is only temporary. I, along with the investors, have already met with the governor to discuss this,” Asera said.

Before work was finally halted last week, the company had acquired and cleared land and begun constructing the rail line. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay-Indonesia.

The view from the village

Rambang, village head of Tewang Karangan told Mongabay on May 14 that he had already submitted a complaint about the railway construction, but that development continued.

“As far as I know, permission came from the center,” Rambang said. “There was a warning because they did not present a permit. They said the permit was in process, that negotiations were ongoing with the ministries and president. This, according to them, is a cooperative project between the central government and Russia.” Several citizen complaints have also been submitted since work on the project began in 2016, Rambang added, but so far no action had been taken.

“We are still waiting for this to happen. We insist that someone help the people,” he said.

Before work started, Rambang said, the company should have signed agreements with the community over issues like the supply of clean water and the construction of places of worship.

“Truly, our village is a victim of the companies. In the past, when I was young, many companies came in but nothing positive ever resulted. When companies come in, they should bring prosperity. The people will be disturbed by this project.

“According to [the company], 30 hectares will be turned into the harbor. The length of the rail coming into our district is 15 kilometers. The environmental impact is not yet felt during the construction process, but it will surely be felt in the future.”

Rambang fears a coal port along the river will lead to water pollution. The section of river that will be turned into a port is used by the locals to catch catfish, he said, and also as a water source during the dry season, when residents’ wells dry up.

“In the long-term, there will of course be negative things,” he said. “They must not be allowed to build a coal port along the river. I myself reject this development. When the construction process is complete, and shipments of coal are flowing smoothly, what will we get? What work will there be? If there is no railroad, we can work. But with this recommendation from the center, what can we do? There is no chance for us.”

Rambang also said that only about 40 percent of the necessary land acquisition has been completed, and that transfers were made without coordination with community officials. “The village government has data. This is to avoid conflict,” he said. “A lot of the land is problematic, but they still went ahead. There will be potential conflicts. Like this, SUS is playing land owners off each other.”

PT SUS contractor Arin contested this, saying that the majority of land acquisition in Tewang Karangan is already complete. Out of a total of 31 hectares, he said, only a few have not yet finished the acquisition and compensation process.

Stacks of construction materials line the tracks. Environmental activists fear the railway will have far-reaching impacts on the local environment, including habitat fragmentation. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay-Indonesia.

Next steps

In addition to the impacts on Tewang Karangan village, experts point to other risks, such as the fragmentation of forest ecosystems due to deforestation along the railway. This could threaten endangered species like the orangutan, said Nordin, executive director of environment NGO Save Our Borneo.

Simpun Sampurna, from the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) said construction also threatens the region’s indigenous people, since the planned rail route passes through customary land, including tracts held by the Tehang people.

Dimas Novian Hartono, executive director of Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI)-Central Kalimantan, said he appreciates the steps taken by the governor but stressed the need for law enforcement actions against PT SUS.

“It is clearly demonstrated that the company has violated and failed to heed the applicable rules, so there must be a legal process —at minimum, sanctions,” Hartono said May 24.

Nordin of Save our Borneo argued that violations be investigated because forest has already been cut. The company, he said, must be held responsible for the environmental impacts it has already caused. “While it is halted, the violations that have already been committed must be investigated. If the Forestry Law has been violated, the offender can make compensation.”

If law enforcement action does not proceed, it will set a bad precedent, he said. In addition, he argued, any parties backing the project from behind the scenes must be held accountable.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site in a series of articles on May 21 and May 24, 2017.

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