Conservation news

In Indonesia’s coal heartland, jaded voters weigh the ‘same old’ candidates

Rukka, a resident of Teluk Dalam village in Kutai Kartanegara, shows an abandoned coal mine pit. The water, he says, flows into the nearby Nangka River. Photo by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Years of rampant natural resources exploitation and mismanagement in East Kalimantan, the coal-mining heartland of Indonesia, have resulted in voter apathy as the province goes to the polls for a new governor this week.
  • All the candidates are veteran local officials, most implicated in corruption cases, fueling a sense that there will be little improvement in the management of the province’s mines, regardless of who wins.
  • Environmental activists say none of the candidates appear to be concerned about the environment, with no definitive programs on environmental conservation in any of their stated campaign platforms.

SAMARINDA, Indonesia — Rahmawati, a homemaker, remembers being ill on a December day in 2014, at her home in Samarinda, the capital of the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, when her son died.

She heard about it from his friends. They’d been playing outside, they told her, when her son, Muhammad Raihan Saputra, fell into an abandoned open-pit coal mine about 200 meters (650 feet) from the house. He drowned in the water-filled crater. He was 10.

Saputra was one of at least 28 people, mostly children, confirmed to have drowned in the disused mining pits that pepper East Kalimantan, Indonesia’s coal heartland. More than 630 of these pits are scattered throughout the province, in defiance of Indonesian law requiring mining companies to fill in pits that are no longer in use and regreen and restore mining sites.

Since Saputra’s death, Rahmawati has sought justice for her son, demanding the government punish the mining companies responsible for leaving behind the deadly pits.

Rahmawati holds a photo of her son, Muhammad Raihan Saputra, who was 10 years old when he drowned in an abandoned mine pit. Image by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Her appeals have been futile. At one point, local authorities promised to close the mining pit where Saputra drowned. But they covered only part of it, using discarded sheet metal. They never fenced off the area to prevent children from entering the site, Rahmawati said.

“I’ve asked the governor [of East Kalimantan] and Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya to let no more children to become victims of mining pits,” she told Mongabay Indonesia recently. “Just let me alone feel [the pain]. Don’t let other mothers lose their children.”

On June 27, Rahmawati will have the chance to usher in a new chapter for the province, when she and 2.3 million other residents of East Kalimantan cast their votes for one of four candidates vying to be the new governor. But Rahmawati said she had no illusions that the new administration would be any more sympathetic to the problem of the abandoned pits than the current one.

“Why should I vote for any of them? They’re the same old [people],” she said. “None of them has responded to my complaints.”

Coal boom

The blast zone of a coal mine sits in close proximity to a residential area in East Kalimantan. Image by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay-Indonesia.

East Kalimantan is one of 171 administrative regions in Indonesia going to the polls for governors, district heads and mayors, but stands out for its economic clout.

The province holds 28 percent of the country’s coal reserves, and the boom in mining since decentralization at the turn of the millennium has seen over half the province blanketed in mining concessions: More than 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) of land, an area the size of West Virginia, has been licensed out to the coal-mining industry. In Samarinda alone, mining concessions span 70 percent of the total land area.

While the industry has boosted the province’s economy, it’s come at the expense of forests and farmland, and driven a decline in both water availability and quality. It’s also strongly linked with corruption — a perennial problem in Indonesia’s bureaucracy in general, but practiced at much greater intensity in resource-rich provinces and districts where local leaders have full autonomy to farm out permits and concessions to bribe-paying cronies.

In 2006, anti-corruption investigators arrested Syaukani Hasan Rais, the head of Kutai Kartanegara district, on charges of abusing his power to benefit of coal mining companies. As of 2009, the district had issued 687 mining permits, 247 of them in the 2007-2008 period alone — about one permit every other day. Syaukani was subsequently tried, convicted and jailed. But the story didn’t end there.

His daughter, Rita Widyasari, not only succeeded her father in winning the 2010 election for district head; she was also duly arrested for allegedly taking a bribe in connection with the issuance of a permit for an oil palm plantation in 2017. She is currently standing trial in Jakarta, where local media have dubbed her the “queen of coal” for the sheer number of permits issued by her administration.

Corruption in the mining sector is particularly rampant during election years, according to Pradarma Rupang, from the East Kalimantan chapter of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam). He said anyone could pay a bribe of 50 million to 60 million rupiah ($3,500 to $4,200) to local officials to get approval for their environmental impact analysis document, known as an Amdal and a prerequisite for obtaining a mining permit.

Signs in the Nangka River area of Kutai Kartanegara ahead of the election protest “land-grabbing” for mining and palm oil. Image by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Voter apathy

The chronic mismanagement of the mining industry has jaded voters like Rahmawati, who said she felt none of the candidates running for governor this year would do anything to improve how mines were run and regulated in the province. “Neither I nor my husband will go to the polling station,” she said.

That kind of voter apathy is reflected in the low turnout in previous elections. Only 55 percent of 2.7 million eligible voters cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election, in 2013. (The voter pool is smaller this time around, following the establishment of the new province of North Kalimantan, carved out of East Kalimantan.)

The central government has set a voter turnout target of 77.5 percent for all elections this year. That’s going to be “quite tough” to achieve in East Kalimantan, according to Awang Faroek Ishak, the outgoing governor.

The four candidates looking to succeed Awang, who is limited to two terms in office, are all long-serving officials in East Kalimantan. They include Isran Noor, the former head of East Kutai district, and Andi Sofyan Hasdam, ex-mayor of the city of Bontang.

The third candidate, Syaharie Jaang, is the current mayor of Samarinda, and the last one, Rusmadi Wongso, serves as the provincial secretary of East Kalimantan administration —Awang’s de facto number two. (Awang, the incumbent, still has a horse in the race: his son, Awang Ferdian Hidayat, is Syaharie’s running mate.)

Some have been implicated in corruption in the past. Isran was questioned by the national anti-corruption commission, the KPK, in 2014 in relation to an investigation into a 100-square-kilometer (39-square-mile) coal-mining concession in East Kutai.

Andi, meanwhile, was convicted in 2012 for his role in the misuse of the Bontang municipal budget. He was acquitted on appeal in 2014.

Las­t year, Syaharie was questioned by police in an investigation into a corruption case related to illegal fees at Samarinda’s Samudera Palaran Port, the main coal-export hub.

Jatam’s Rupang said none of the candidates appeared to be concerned about the environment, with no definitive programs on environmental conservation in any of their stated campaign platforms.

“None of them have talked about the way out of the [environmental] crisis [in East Kalimantan],” he said.

Mongabay Indonesia reached out to the four candidates for an interview, but none were available.

During a televised debate last month, the candidates were asked what their plans were to mitigate the impact of the mining industry in the province. Syaharie’s proposed solution made no mention of tighter enforcement of licensing requirements or more stringent clean-up monitoring. Instead, he said, “we will plant one million trees in five years.”

A coal barge in the Samarinda River estuary. The coal produced in the region is used in power plants or sold for export. Image by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay-Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site in a series of articles on June 17, 2018, and June 19, 2018.

Banner Image: Rukka, a resident of Teluk Dalam village in Kutai Kartanegara, shows an abandoned coal mine pit. The water, he says, flows into the nearby Nangka River. Photo by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay-Indonesia.

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