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Bornean villagers who fought off a mine prepare to do battle again

Mining pits like this one near a residential area pose a threat to the safety of residents, especially children. Image by JATAM East Kalimantan.

  • In 2010, the government of West Kutai district in Indonesian Borneo granted a mining permit to PT Kencana Wilsa. Local Dayak villagers say they did not give their permission.
  • After demanding the mining company pay a customary fine, locals believed the company had abandoned its plans to mine. But company officials told the government they had reached an agreement with the villagers.
  • In June, workers returned to map the area, raising fears among villagers that their customary forest and their water source will be destroyed by mining.

“We stayed quiet for a while because after the customary fine they never came back,” said Markus, deputy head of the village council in Ongko Asa, a traditional Dayak village in East Kalimantan province, in Indonesian Borneo, that is resisting plans to mine coal in their traditional territory. “But then they came back.”

Markus’s village is one of six in the district of West Kutai whose leaders sought to apply customary law and penalize PT Kencana Wilsa, a coal mining company granted a business permit by the local government. According to opponents of the project, the permit was granted despite the lack of approval from the villagers.

In 2010, the West Kutai district government granted PT Kencana Wilsa a permit to operate in six villages: Ongko Asa, Muara Asa, Geleo Asa, Pepas Asa, Juaq Asa and Muara Benangaq. But when the company came to the villages to announce its plans, it met with rejection. Tribal elders then gathered and decided to apply customary law and fine the company.

At the time, Markus says, the company complied with requests from the village leadership, including paying the fine. The villagers thought the company would put to rest its mining plans.

However, Markus says, following the payment of the fine, the company told the government that it had reached a consensus with local residents.

In June 2018, mining company representatives, accompanied by officials from the local environment agency, came to map areas in the six villages.

“[The company] has the permit from the West Kutai district government under [former district chief Ismail] Thomas. Although Mr. Thomas is no longer chief, the permit is still valid and was used by the West Kutai Environment Agency to approve the plan to mine coal in our village,” Markus said.

Residents of Ongko Asa village in West Kutai district, East Kalimantan province, have vowed to oppose efforts to mine for coal in their area. Image by Yovanda/Mongabay Indonesia.

PT Kencana Wilsa is owned by Singapore-listed Geo Energy Resources, which also owns another coal company operating in West Kutai, PT Bumi Enggang Katulistiwa (BEK). The antigraft NGO Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) alleges in a 2013 report that during then district chief Ismael Thomas’s first term in office, “BEK was granted a large-scale permit for coal mining, and this company was suspected to be linked with Ismael Thomas.” Thomas was also responsible for issuing the permit for PT Kencana Wilsa, although it is not clear whether he is linked, directly or indirectly, to the company.

Markus added that the government said PT Kencana Wilsa had satisfactorily completed the mandatory environmental impact assessment (AMDAL) to earn the permit. But the villagers never saw the assessment, he said.

“The environmental impact assessment that the West Kutai government keeps talking about was never shown to the residents. Back then, we went to the government office [to request clarification] but we were ignored because it was a transition time between district chief Thomas to the new chief,” he said.

Pradarma Rupang, an organizer at the East Kalimantan branch of the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), says the district government and the company have not been transparent by not making the required documents publicly available, particularly the environmental impact assessment and construction permit.

“The company has not been transparent and this should not be allowed. The government should be looking at the residents’ condition, and not taking unilateral decisions about mining that would destroy the lives of residents in the six targeted villages,” Rupang said.

A shift in control of the project in the past year has further muddied the waters. Fery Yunedi, head of mine engineering for a different firm, PT Galindo Lestari, told Mongabay-Indonesia that his firm has taken over the project and is working to resolve the problems it says it has inherited from PT Kencana Wilsa.

PT Galindo did not respond to inquiries about the specifics of the deal between the two companies. According to Sarianto Karno, one of the representatives of the Ongko Asa villagers, local people were not informed of any change in ownership. The company never explained anything about a “takeover” during meetings with villagers, he said. “The permit is on behalf of PT. Kencana Wilsa and documents for public consultations are also on behalf of this company,” he said, adding that the permit and environmental impact processes are also still in the name of PT Kencana Wilsa.

Mining pits like this one near a residential area pose a threat to the safety of residents, especially children. Image courtesy of JATAM East Kalimantan.

Losing customary forest and farms

According to Markus, the area to be mined lies at the heart of West Kutai, just 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the West Kutai government offices. On the mining permit map published by the West Kutai government, all six villages are included as part of the mining zone, meaning the company is technically free to mine even in residential areas.

The village of Ongko Asa is home to more than 400 residents, almost all of them members of the Dayak Tunjung tribe.

“The land slated to be mined is a productive area with local plantations and farms. The first area to be mined is Mount Layung, our source of water. If that water source vanishes, our village would vanish too. Our farms and plantations would vanish. We would suffer,” Markus said.

Moreover, in order to open the land for mining, the customary forest belonging to Ongko Asa village would have to be cut down. The forest, named Hemak Bojooq, has been guarded by locals for hundreds of years.

“Our customary forest would be cut down. That was part of the 2010 announcement by the company. If [the forest] is gone, we would no longer have a source of income,” Markus said.

He noted that while the company never intimidated the villagers, it had instead focused on lobbying the local government and residents, promising job opportunities. However, he said the villagers, most of them farmers, would be unsuited for the jobs being offered.

“Even though we are promised jobs, we don’t want that. We are sure that would only be temporary, meanwhile we want to live forever in our village,” he said.

Following the company’s latest visit, the villagers have resumed their resistance, and plan on taking their case to all the relevant government agencies, from the village to the provincial level. “We will visit all of them, we will fight,” Markus said.

Coal that fell off a barge washes up on a beach. Image by Junaidi/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Threatening texts

In mid-July, dozens of Ongko Asa villagers organized a press conference in Samarinda, the provincial capital, with the support of JATAM to raise awareness about the current situation facing the villages.

A week after the press conference, residents in the six villages reported that they received threatening text messages. The texts came from someone claiming to be the West Kutai Police’s chief detective, Ida Bagus, and demanded the contact information for JATAM officials who were helping the villagers.

Contacted by mobile phone, Ida Bagus said he had never sent the texts to the Ongko Asa villagers. He also said he had never received any reports from either the villagers or the company about the mining dispute.

“I would like to emphasize: no reports were filed. I never sent any texts about this because I never received any reports [about the issue],” he said.

JATAM organizer Rupang said the texts and the lack of transparency on the part of the company and local officials were all part of a strategy to undermine the villagers’ resistance so that they would give up their rights to the land. “[Thy’re trying] to weaken the residents,” he said.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site in a series of articles on June 20, 2018, and July 21, 2018.

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