The mining permit of a company engaged in a long-running conflict with Aceh villagers has expired.
Because the company failed to file paperwork on time, the Indonesian government has rejected the company’s request to extend the permit.
Without a permit, the company cannot legally continue to operate in its concession.
A mining project in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosytem that has for years pitted environmental activists and local residents against mineral mining company PT Wanyang Mining Gayoindo (PT WMG) appears to have met a major roadblock.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has declined to renew the company’s permit, which expired in March 2017. The move should bring to a halt the firm’s activities in Aceh province’s Pining forests.
“[The company] requested a permit extension, but the request was filed after the last permit expired. Therefore, we can’t process the extension,” Bambang Susigit, the minerals business supervision director at the ministry, told Mongabay. He added that the ministry had sent a letter informing PT WMG of its decision.
The decision came amid strong opposition to the project, and allegations that the company’s previous permits to explore for minerals in Aceh’s Pining subdistrict were issued by local governments without the necessary documentation.
The ministry’s decision marks a new phase in the ongoing conflict between PT WMG and the villagers of Pining, who for years have been fighting against mining expansion into their territory.
PT WMG has attempted since 2009 to explore and mine for minerals in Pining, an area roughly the size of Los Angeles inhabited by 4,745 people. The company is hoping to find a commerically exploitable source of galena, a mineral ore often mined for its silver content.
Its operation is situated inside the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the largest expanses of tropical rainforest in the world and a critical biodiversity hotspot famed as the last place on earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers and elephants coexist in the wild.
The sensitivity of the ecosystem has raised concerns over the potential environmental impact of the mining operations, prompting the villagers of Pining, with the help of activists, to pursue legal actions against the mining operation.
The villagers themselves have deep ties with the Leuser Ecosystem. They are part of the Gayo tribe, an ethnic group indigenous to the highlands of Aceh.
Many Pining villagers’ livelihoods rely upon the Pining forests, said Aman Jarum, a respected figure in the community. “This life in the forests gives birth to various traditions directly in touch with nature, which are being utilized as economic resources,” he added. Many of the villagers plant perennial crops on hilly terrain and rice on flat land within the village. The surrounding forests provide water resources.
With this strong reliance comes a great respect towards nature, and villagers view much of the forest surrounding them as traditional communal land, Jarum explained. “Our ancestors always left a message [for us] to protect the Leuser forests, to not damage them with any kind of activities,” he said.
Many locals have joined hands with civil society groups to fight against the mine. Last year, hundreds of Pining villagers signed a petition called “opening a mine is forbidden until doomsday.” Locals also erected a monument proclaiming “Pining forests are owned by Pining villagers. Opening a mine is forbidden until doomsday.”
“We never see mining as something that benefits farmers. It would only destroy the forests. Mining is not a solution to empower people because it is against our ancestors’ spatial planning,” Jarum said.
Farwiza Farhan, the executive director of conservation NGO Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA), said that a full mining operation inside the Pining forests would certainly degrade the environment, affecting water sources for villages and cities downstream.
“Aceh has a lot of natural resources. What we often forgot is actually those that are important for our lives, such as water, because it is free, and thus we take it for granted,” she said in an interview. “Thousands of hectares [of mining area] are not small and very likely to damage water sources for Pining villagers.”
At the same time, another group of villagers supports the presence of PT WMG in their area, hoping the mine will bring economic opportunities.
“Right now [the community] is split. We’ve just returned from the field and there were already local people who started supporting [PT WMG]. The company must’ve given them sweet promises. They should’ve been fair in informing both the positive and the negative side [of mining],” said Adam Lubis, executive director of the Mine Monitoring Network (JMT), an NGO based in North Sumatra province.
For eight years, the villagers have been under pressure from the presence of PT WMG, a 90-percent-owned subsidiary of the Beijing Wanyang Zhongsheng investment Co. Limited.
PT WMG first attempted to establish a mining operation in the Pining forests in 2009. Gayo Lues district head Ibnu Hasim allocated the company 6,345 hectares (24.5 square miles) of land inside Pining subdistrict.
Since then, the Gayo Lues district government has issued the company several permits in the area.
In March 2010, Hasim issued PT WMG a three-year mining exploration permit. In February 2013, Hasim extend the exploration permit for two years, but reduced the concession to 4,300 hectares of land.
Then, in October 2014, then Aceh governor Zaini Abdullah issued a moratorium on mineral and coal mining permits, in hopes of improving governance and supervision of the province’s mining industry. The moratorium is still in place, having been extended in 2016 until October 2017.
Hasim nonetheless extended PT WMG’s exploration permit in February 2015. This time, the permit was good until March 2017, although in May 2016 the area covered by the permit was again reduced, this time to 2,643 hectares.
During this time, the company has limited its operations to exploration and surveying, as allowed under the permits.
After the last permit expired in March, the company applied for a mining permit to operate and produce from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. However, since the company did not apply for a new permit until after its existing one expired, the ministry rejected the application, effectively stripping the company of the right to carry out operations in the Pining area.
“If it’s true, then the current activities done by PT WMP are illegal and could be reported to the police,” said Lubis.
Questions over legality
PT WMG’s mining permits have been flawed from the start, alleges the mine monitoring group JMT.
Mongabay’s attempts to contact the company’s office by phone, and its representative via social media, went unanswered.
Based on a legal analysis of the company’s permits, JMT found no legal document proving the exploration permit was granted after a public bidding process, as is required under the 2009 Mineral and Coal Mining Law (pdf).
JMT also questions the legality of the environmental permit issued by the local government in 2012, alleging that PT WMG did not possess an environmental analysis document called an environmental management scheme and environmental monitoring scheme (UKL-UPL), a prerequisite for an environmental permit to be issued.
JMT’s legal analysis also noted that the majority of Wanyang Mining Gayoindo’s concession lies within protected forest area.
In order to operate in such areas, the company should have obtained a forest area utilization permit [IPPKH], which is issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said Lubis from the JMT. However, Aceh Forestry Agency said in 2016 that Wanyang Mining Gayoindo, along with 11 other mining companies located in 3 districts (Central Aceh, Gayo Lues and Southeast Aceh) did not yet have this permit.
“So it’s illegal,” Lubis said.
Lubis said he had filed a report to the police, alleging that there were irregularities in the environmental permit issued by the head of the environmental agency in Gayo Lues.
“We’ve complained to the Aceh Police. We just have to wait for a few more witnesses to be summoned by the police,” he said.
Following the ministry’s decision to not issue a mining permit for PT WMG, activists said additional legal actions could be pursued if the company continues operating without a valid permit.
“We want to push them [the villagers] to pursue legal actions so that they don’t turn into anarchy. This is our effort to reduce conflicts,” Nurul Ikhsan, legal advisor of Aceh Society Action Movement (GeRAM), a grassroots movement aiming to protect the Leuser Ecosystem, said in an interview.
According to Susigit, people could report the company to government mining inspectors.
“Just report it. There are mining inspectors in provincial level,” he said.
Banner image: A young Sumatran elephant, one of the many species whose habitats are threatened by Indonesia’s plans to develop its mining industry and the infrastructure that supports it. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
This story was reported in part by Mongabay’s Indonesia team, with an earlier version published on our Indonesian site on Sept. 26, 2017.
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