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Watchdog denounces arrests of four anti-mining activists in Indonesia

One of the three college students who oppose sand mining in Bima. Image courtesy of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

  • Police in South Sulawesi province have arrested a resident of the island of Wawonii in connection to his opposition to plans to mine the island for nickel.
  • The arrest comes just over a week after police detained and charged three university students over a protest against iron ore mining operations in Bima district, West Nusa Tenggara province.
  • Environmental activists have called the recent arrests part of a pattern of systematic efforts to silence community-led opposition to destructive mining activities.
  • Activists have called on the government and police to release the four protesters and investigate their allegations of violations by the mining companies in question.

JAKARTA — Police in Indonesia have arrested four people in two separate cases over their opposition to mining activity, prompting accusations of criminalization from an environmental watchdog.

On Nov. 24, police in Southeast Sulawesi province arrested Jasmin, a resident of the island of Wawonii, where opposition to planned mining operations has long simmered. PT Gema Kreasi Perdana, one of the mining firms involved, which stands accused of lacking an environmental permit, had filed a police report on Aug. 24 against Jasmin and 20 others who had protested against its activities in Wawonii. Jasmin was the only one arrested by police.

The company is part of the Harita Group, a conglomerate owned by Indonesia’s wealthy Lim family, a major player in the country’s fast-growing nickel sector.

Mining companies in Wawonii have reported a total of 27 people to the police, three of whom have subsequently been arrested, according to reports.

Jasmin has actively opposed mining operations in his homeland of Wawonii Island. Image courtesy of the Front of Southeast Sulawesi People Defending Wawonii.

Jasmin’s arrest comes on the heels of police in Bima district, West Nusa Tenggara province, detaining and charging three university students — M. Natsir, Hasbul Fizai, and Gendra — on Nov. 16 in connection with a protest on July 22. The protest — one of several that locals have held in recent years to demand the closure of iron ore mines run by PT Jagat Mahesa Karya and PT Intan Lianda Mandiri — turned violent, with the protesters breaking windows at a local government office.

Many residents there say the mining activities threaten their livelihoods and that some of the operations are illegal.

The arrest of the students followed a police report filed by the Bima district government against the protesters, local media reported. The arrest also prompted a new wave of protest against the government that took place on Nov. 25, with demonstrators demanding the release of the students. The government office damaged in the earlier protest has reportedly been torn down and completely renovated.

The three university students, in blue T-shirts, were arrested in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, in connection with a protest that turned violent against iron ore mining in the region. Image courtesy of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

Anti-mining activists in Indonesia have long faced a backlash for their advocacy. Earlier this year, Murdani, the head of the West Nusa Tenggara chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), survived an arson attack. Assailants barricaded him inside his house and set it on fire, but he managed to escape to safety.

Murdani said he suspected the attack was related to his work against sand mining. His group has fought against illegal sand mines and called on the local government to issue a moratorium on issuing permits for new mines.

The arrests this month have prompted environmental and human rights activists to call on the police and government to release the protestors and stop the violence against them. There were 171 recorded cases of violence against activists from 2010 to 2018, with most of the victims environmental activists, according to the Indonesian Human Protection Foundation (YPII).

“Protests are actually a verbal form of lodging a report by the people to the police, but why is it the protesters who end up being arrested by the police?” Muhammad Jamil, who heads the legal division at the Indonesian mining watchdog group Jatam, told Mongabay.

Jamil said imprisoning protesters or activists was typically done in a bid to silence their cause. “This appears to be happening in a systematic fashion,” he said.

The island of Wawonii in Southeast Sulawesi province. Image by Alzena2nd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
A view of the sea in Wawonii. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Jamil said the arrests also demonstrated the police’s tendency to act on complaints filed by companies and governments, while ignoring complaints put forward by community members and activists.

“We condemn this cherry-picking by the police in responding to opposition against mining,” he said.

Mining activities in Indonesia often face resistance from residents concerned about the attendant environmental damage, including air and water pollution. Many mining companies are also embroiled in land conflicts with local residents, several of which have resulted in unresolved deaths. And their impact continues to be felt even after they’ve ended their operations: abandoned and rain-filled mining pits, which the operators are legally required to remediate, have claimed the lives of several people, mostly children.

Some of the high-profile conflicts that have erupted over opposition to mining operations include the 2015 murder of Salim Kancil, a farmer who organized protests against a sand mine in East Java; and an attack in November 2018 on Jatam’s office in East Kalimantan province.

Environmental activists have called on the government, police and the national human rights commission, known as Komnas HAM, to investigate the mining concessions at the center of these disputes. They also urged the police in particular to look into allegations of violations in the arrest of protesters and activists.

“If the people can’t rely on the authorities to voice their complaint without fear of being arrested, then who else can they turn to? Nobody would want to report to the police,” Jamil said.

Many residents in Bima district, West Nusa Tenggara province, are opposed to the iron ore mining operations on the northeastern coast. Image courtesy of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

Banner image of one of the three university students arrested in November after a July protest against iron ore mining operations in their area, courtesy of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

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