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Drowning deaths at disused mines in Indonesia renew calls for action

  • Two children have drowned in abandoned mining pits in the Indonesian Bornean city of Samarinda, bringing the toll from such accidents there to 35 in the last eight years.
  • Officials say the victims and their families are to blame — an attitude that has raised the ire of local activists.
  • The activists have demanded stronger enforcement of regulations requiring mining companies to fill in and restore their disused mining sites.
  • An audit has shown that most mining companies simply don’t comply. And with few consequences or liability for the deaths, there seems little incentive for the companies to change their practices.

SAMARINDA, Indonesia — Activists have lambasted the seemingly apathetic official response to the recent deaths of two children who drowned in abandoned mining pits in the Indonesian Bornean city of Samarinda.

The pits, which are supposed to be filled in once operations are over, have long been a hazard for residents of Samarinda and nearby areas that form Indonesia’s coal heartland. Thirty-five people have drowned in these rainwater-filled pits in the past eight years, most of them children.

On the afternoon of May 29, 12-year-old Natasya Aprilia Dewi fell into one such crater previously operated by PT Insani Bara Perkasa (IBP), a subsidiary of Jakarta-listed PT Resource Alam Indonesia. She was taken to a nearby hospital, but died later in the day.

On June 22, Ahmad Setiawan, 10, went swimming and drowned in another pit at an IBP concession. The site was reportedly unfenced and unguarded, and was adjacent to a residential neighborhood.

Children in East Kalimantan play near an abandoned open-pit coal mine near their homes. Image courtesy of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

These aren’t the first incidents of drowning at IBP sites in East Kalimantan province, where Samarinda is located and where the company holds concessions spanning a combined 24,500 hectares (60,500 acres). In 2012, an 11-year-old drowned at one of its sites, and in 2016 two children, ages 5 and 17, also drowned. No one has been held liable for any of those deaths.

“This company is problematic, yet it is not shut down,” said Pradarma Rupang, an activist with the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam) in East Kalimantan province, where Samarinda is located.

He said the sites of the two most recent drownings didn’t have security guards or fences or signs to warn off people from entering.

“This is all too similar to the previous cases of child deaths” from drowning in open-pit coal mines, Rupang said.

Under Indonesian law, mining companies are responsible for filling in and regreening their disused mining sites; indeed, one of the requirements for obtaining an operating permit is to establish a dedicated reclamation fund to cover these expenses. Yet this obligation is frequently flouted — with deadly consequences.

The rainwater-filled crater of an unreclaimed coal mine. These deep lakes pose a drowning hazard for people from nearby communities. Image by Tommy Apriando/Mongabay Indonesia.

In response to the latest death, that of 10-year-old Ahmad, an official blamed the parents for not looking after their son properly.

“If you ask me who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m sorry to say that it’s the parents’ fault,” said Wahyu Widhi, head of the East Kalimantan Mining and Energy Agency. “This is an underage kid, not an adult. I’ve got two kids, it’s my responsibility to watch over them.”

He added: “Please, anyone who has kids, watch over them, because this is our responsibility to God.”

Wahyu’s response echoes a sentiment that seems to have become the provincial administration’s official stance on the matter. East Kalimantan Governor Isran Noor has publicly been quoted as suggesting that drowning in these open-pit mines was the children’s “destiny,” and that the pits themselves were haunted.

Mongabay contacted the deputy governor, Hadi Mulyadi, for comment on the matter, but he responded with only an apology emoji.

Activists have lashed out at this positioning and demanded that officials crack down on the mining companies for not fulfilling their obligations.

“Kids are dying and locals are putting up a fight, but the government seems to be turning a blind eye,” Rupang said. “And so is the East Kalimantan police; people file reports with them, but nothing advances [to court].

“East Kalimantan isn’t a child-friendly province,” he added.

“The government must protect the people. Is there nothing else they can do other than blame the victim’s family?”

East Kalimantan is Indonesia’s coal heartland, where abandoned pits scar the landscape and pose safety threats to communities.

Previous reporting by Mongabay found that as of December 2015, only 338 of the 856 commercial license holders registered with the East Kalimantan Mining and Energy Agency had the legally mandated reclamation guarantee funds in place.

This failure by the local government to enforce regulations was confirmed in 2016 by federal auditors, who found that many companies operating in the province either had not completed reclamation plans at all, or did not have the specified guarantees in place.

Herdiansyah Hamzah, a legal expert at Samarinda’s Mulawarman University, said the police could theoretically pursue charges against the companies for criminal negligence, which could see top executives face up to five years in prison. He added the government should also revoke the licenses of companies “whose concessions have claimed lives.”

Herdiansyah said the blame lay fully with the companies for failing to restore their mining sites, and not with the parents. He also criticized the response by local officials.

“For me, the government has failed to exercise a sense of humanity for the lost lives,” Herdiansyah said.

Rupang added: “The government appears to be treating this as commonplace, when in fact the provincial government and legislature should be taking strict measures against the companies.”

People in East Kalimantan help rescue a child in a water-filled crater that was previously mined for coal. Image courtesy of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

Wahyu, the head of the mining agency, said his office had launched an investigation into the recent deaths, but insisted that blame shouldn’t be apportioned.

“I have reported this to the governor,” he said. “I have also spoken with Jatam. Let’s not blame each other, let’s resolve this together. As a government representative, I admit we can’t do this alone.”

Wahyu said his office would also submit the findings of the investigation to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Jakarta.

“Hopefully the ministry will follow up on the report,” he said. “If they decide to deploy a team, we will present our findings with transparency. Nothing is hidden.”

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here and here on our Indonesian site on June 7 and 26, 2019.

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