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An island mapped for mines gets a reprieve after violent protests

  • Residents of Wawonii have staged huge protests demanding the cancellation of mining permits on the island, located in Indonesia’s Southeast Sulawesi province.
  • Last week, the deputy governor of Southeast Sulawesi, Lukman Abunawas, said he and Governor Ali Mazi had decided to revoke the permits, promising to do so within 10 days.
  • The announcement came after a video surfaced showing police officers beating a student taking part in the protests.

KENDARI, Indonesia — A coil of barbed wire separated Southeast Sulawesi Deputy Governor Lukman Abunawas and his police escort from the angry crowd as he read out the statement they had long been waiting for.

Over the past two weeks, protests here demanding a permanent stop to mining on the nearby island of Wawonii had turned increasingly violent. College students and anti-riot police had exchanged stones and tear gas. Property had been damaged. With each day, more and more farmers were arriving in Kendari, the provincial capital, to join the demonstrations.

Lukman had apparently seen enough.

“I don’t want to harm my own family in Wawonii,” he announced. “I’m ready to risk my position and even my life. We will revoke the permits in Wawonii.”

Lukman is uniquely placed to decide the fates of the mining concessions on Wawonii, an island no larger than New York City. He was the man who issued the permits, back when he was the head of Konawe district. Since then, the authority over mining permits has been transferred to the provincial level. On March 13, Lukman told the crowd he had met with Governor Ali Mazi, and that within 10 days, the permits would be revoked. Lukman also signed a statement to that effect.

Lukman Abunawas, the deputy governor of Southeast Sulawesi, addresses the protesters on March 13. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

A few days earlier, after a night in which several policemen were bloodied by rocks hurled from the crowd, students were arrested and two cars were damaged, Governor Ali had called a press conference to announce that he was imposing a temporary halt to mining on Wawonii. But for the island’s farmers and those who supported their cause, it wasn’t enough.

“We’re fighting for revocation,” said Sulhan, chair of the Kendari branch of Indonesia’s Muslim Students Association, or HMI. “We don’t want a moratorium. We want the permits to be cancelled.”

Since 2014, hundreds of mining permits held by companies across Indonesia have been annulled as part of an official effort to combat the prevailing state of illegality in the sector. The initiative, and a similar one in the palm oil sector, has been spurred by the nation’s anti-corruption agency, the KPK.

Wawonii lies off the coast of the starfish-shaped, Florida-sized island of Sulawesi. Image by Alzena2nd/Wikimedia Commons.

The mayhem in Kendari caught the national spotlight on March 18, when deputy KPK commissioner Laode Syarif tweeted an image showing the extent of the area licensed out to mining firms in Wawonii and in Kabaena, another island in the province. He said the permits “not only violate [a 2007 law on small-islands management] but also constitute a crime against the environment and humanity.”

The environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, one of several cabinet members tagged in Laode’s tweet, replied that she was looking into the matter, but was unfamiliar with the details as her ministry had not issued the permits.

Nationwide, permits to plant oil palms and mine coal have received the most attention. But Southeast Sulawesi is home to vast nickel deposits, and their management has not gone unsullied by graft. In 2017, the head of North Konawe district, Aswad Sulaiman, was charged with corruptly issuing nickel-mining licenses to companies; the case is pending, though Aswad was sentenced six years in prison in a separate graft case last year. A former governor of the province, Nur Alam, received 12 years’ imprisonment for his role in another corruption case related to licensing for nickel mining.

In Wawonii, residents have fought back. Following a round of protests last year, the provincial legislature formed a special committee to review plans for mining on the island. The body eventually recommended that the governor revoke the permits, as did the head of the district encompassing Wawonii. (Several years ago, the island broke from Konawe to form a new jurisdiction, Konawe Islands district.)

As 2019 got underway, however, and the permits were still in place, the demonstrations escalated.

On March 4, protesters massed in front of the governor’s office and tried to break through a security barricade, before finally retreating and staging a mock “die-in.” Two days later, after marching from Halu Oleo University to the governor’s office, they managed to pour into the building’s courtyard, prompting police to fire tear gas into the crowd.

Students stage a mock burial to express their opposition to mining in Wawonii. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

Some fainted, while others were rushed to hospital. Mostly, they scattered in every direction, unable to open their eyes because of the pain. After the demonstration, a video emerged of the officers chasing down and thrashing a young protester with what appeared to be iron rods.

Demo Tolak Tambang Wawonii

“Our friends were beaten by the police like animals,” said Mando Maskuri, a field coordinator for the demonstrations.

The injured that day included four policemen as well as four students and three farmers from Wawonii. One of the farmers was a 53-year-old woman named Hasinah. At the hospital, where she was recovering from exposure to the tear gas, she said she would continue to fight for the permits to be cancelled.

“This is the consequence of our struggle,” she said. “We will die a slow death if our land is mined. Better to die at a demonstration in Kendari.”

A woman faces the police at one of the protests in Kendari. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

The companies with permits to mine on the island include PT Alatoma Karya, PT Bumi Konawe Mining, PT Derawan Berjaya Mining, PT Gema Kreasi Perdana, PT Kimco Citra Mandiri, PT Konawe Bakti Pratama, PT Hasta Karya Megacipta, PT Pasir Berjaya Mining, PT Cipta Puri Sejahtera, PT Natanya Mitra Energy, PT Investa Pratama Inti Karya and PT Kharisman Kreasi Abadi (some companies have more than one permit).

Officials have previously expressed concern that companies could sue if their permits were annulled, which has happened elsewhere in Indonesia. Still, after Lukman, the deputy governor, committed to revoke the permits and suggested that the governor was on board, opponents of the mines are optimistic that the administration will follow through. Some farmers are already starting to return to Wawonii.

“We just want to maintain our culture,” said Mando, the field coordinator. “We are farmers and entrepreneurs selling cashews and copra. Not miners. We are afraid it will damage the environment. This is why we’re fighting.”

A graphic being used to promote the #SaveWawonii campaign against mining on the island. Image by Fajar A. Sidik.

A previous version of this article mistakenly said Aswad Sulaiman had been imprisoned for corruptly issuing nickel-mining permits. In fact, he that case is still pending. Aswad was sentenced in a separate corruption case last year. 

Banner: One of the students who was beaten by the police. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

This story was reported in part by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Mar. 8 and 14, 2019.

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