- Indonesia’s national human rights commission and the national ombudsman have weighed in on a dispute over plans to mine nickel on the remote island of Wawonii.
- Residents have protested over the plans, which they say threaten their fishing grounds and freshwater sources.
- Local authorities have sent out mixed messages on whether the project will proceed, while the company involved has continued clearing villagers’ land.
- The rights commission has called for a halt to criminal investigations of the land defenders, while the ombudsman has called for all the permits to be scrapped.
KENDARI, Indonesia — A conflict between residents of a remote Indonesian island and a nickel-mining company trying to operate there has gained national attention.
In September, the National Commission on Human Rights, known as Komnas HAM, visited the eastern Indonesian island of Wawonii to follow up on a report that 20 locals had been “criminalized” for defending their lands from the company. During the visit, Komnas HAM chairman Ahmad Taufan Damanik asked the police to “temporarily stop” investigating locals.
“It doesn’t mean we’re saying there has or hasn’t been [criminalization],” Taufan said. The request to put investigations on hold, he said, was meant to give the situation a chance to calm down.
In March, violent protests erupted in Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province, over mining projects that Wawonii residents say threaten their fishing grounds and freshwater sources. Thousands of people from the island flooded into the nearby city for the demonstrations, calling for the 15 projects to be cancelled.
The protests died down after Deputy Governor Lukman Abunawas promised that the permits for all 15 projects would be revoked. But the following month, Governor Ali Mazi walked back that promise, saying several of the licenses would only be frozen. Then in July, a video spread online of a woman in Wawonii screaming at an excavator plowing her land. The machine belonged to one of the companies whose permits had been supposedly frozen, PT Gema Kreasi Perdana (GKP), owned by Indonesia’s billionaire Lim family.
By the end of last month, GKP had reported 20 locals to the police after they tried to stop excavators from operating. Bambang Murtiyoso, GKP’s operational director, did not respond to requests for comment.
La Ode Ida, a senior official from the national ombudsman’s office, has also spoken out on the issue. He called for all all outstanding mining concessions in Wawonii to be cancelled.
Ida is among those who interpret Indonesia’s 2007 and 2014 laws on small islands to mean that industrial-scale mining on any island smaller than 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles), like Wawonii, is banned.
“The situation needs to be fixed,” he told Mongabay. “The governor should revoke the permits.”
Mastri Susilo, the ombudsman for Southeast Sulawesi province, has formed a team to examine the circumstances under which the permits were issued. Wawonii residents have complained that they were never consulted by the company as part of the permit process, as required by law.
“We’re unsure when we will have results because we’re still collecting materials. We’re limited in our staffing,” Mastri told Mongabay.
Wawonii’s villages survive mostly from the earnings of cloves, nutmeg and cashews. Rice is mostly imported from the Sulawesi mainland, but water, fish and crustaceans are plentiful.
“If mining comes to our village, it’s not just about whether we can fish or not — our entire way of living will be destroyed,” Abdul Masri, 60, said by phone from his home in Roko-Roko, a village in GKP’s land concession.
Abdul has taught two generations of fishers, but without the ability to fish and his land gone, he doesn’t think there will be another way to live.
Just before every sunset in Roko-Roko, the ocean recedes to reveal crustacean and seaweed ecosystems in the sand. Parents and their children often descend on the shallow pools to harvest shells and snails to be boiled for dinner. That is, if there’s not already a hefty catch of small fish and tuna from a day at sea.
In the last several months, GKP has built a jetty a near these areas. Soon, there could be trucks loading ore onto docked nickel barges, and Wawonii’s red sediment may increasingly find its way into the ocean.
Protesters across the country late last month took to the streets to oppose parliamentary moves to pass several bills that they said would suppress democratic freedoms, including bills that rewrite the rules governing the nation’s anti-corruption agency, land conflicts, and permits for mines.
In Kendari, protests formed, but on the first day, two students died, one of them shot through the chest. Activists against mining in Wawonii joined the protests to voice concerns over a land reform bill that threatened to make it easier for companies to evict locals and press criminal charges against land defenders. Some used the Wawonii case to rally protesters over a megaphone, considering most residents don’t have land certificates, and the forests are under the care of the central government who can lend them to companies for decades at a time.
“The protests were directly related to Wawonii,” said Mando Maskuri, 23, an organizer of the anti-mining protests in Kendari and a Wawonii native himself. “For example, the bills about land and mining are in stark contradiction with the local community, because they only harm us.”
Follow Ian Morse on Twitter: @ianjmorse
Banner: Mando Maskuri in Roko-Roko. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.
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