- Residents of the island of Kabaena in Indonesia registered their home as a “tourism village” seven years ago in a bid to ward off a planned nickel mine.
- They say they fear that mining activity will disrupt their water sources and despoil the forests that they hold sacred.
- Mining activities have proliferated in other districts in the province, driven by a boom for the nickel used in rechargeable batteries and stainless steel.
- While the notion of being a tourism village has meant mining can’t proceed here, the villagers say they’re not getting the full support they expected to boost their economy this way.
TANGKENO, Indonesia — Teenagers pound cowhide drums to dancers weaving their feet between bamboo stalks on this stage beneath the stars. It’s the island of Kabaena’s annual indigenous culture festival, and its residents are afraid that if the tradition comes to an end, the island will be relinquished to mining companies.
The soil beneath the stage is a crimson, nickel-rich red. The mountains behind it stretch to the kilometer-high peak littered with garnierite, a bluish-green rock and indicator of high nickel content.
For seven years on Kabaena, this weeklong festival has warded off miners looking to shave off the island’s cap for an almost Manhattan-sized fount of nickel. The conflict has set off a community initiative to create local wealth against a national initiative to spur business development.
“Even though you can’t see them, the mountains channel our water. The forest are the dams, and the water flows through them,” says Abdul Madjid Ege, the head of Tangkeno village. The stage lights up his village each year like a lighthouse at the top of this island in Southeast Sulawesi province, where mines have spread across coastlines.
Registered as a tourism village, Tangkeno receives district government support to maintain its natural landscape, including the springs that flow across the island. A mining company has already been given an operating permit over the area, but starting to dig would set government offices against each other. Indeed, that was the intention.
“The island’s water source was under threat, so friends planned to set up a tourism [initiative] to counter it, and because of the potential for tourism,” Nur Hidayati, the executive director of Walhi, an Indonesian environmental NGO, said of the decision taken in 2013.
Shortly before it received operating permits, while NGOs were devising plans to set up a tourism hotspot, PT Bakti Bumi Sulawesi (BBS) cookie-cut Tangkeno out of its land concession. Shaved off the mining area was a rectangle of 1.1 square kilometers (0.4 square miles), its borders pressed up against homes and splitting farms and indigenous land.
Left within the concession area are lands claimed vital for indigenous life, as well as more than 35 square kilometers (14 square miles), 73 percent of the area, that is classified as protected forest, which prohibits mining, according to data from the nation’s anti-corruption agency.
But PT BBS holds all the legal licenses to begin digging around the “Land in the Clouds,” as the village’s entrance reads. A spokesperson for its parent company, Shanghai-based Huadi Nickel-Alloy Indonesia, told Mongabay there weren’t yet plans to mine.
As Indonesia looks to spur investment in its nickel industry to grasp at a volatile market growing with the rising demand in the battery and steel markets, it has diverted licensing powers from the district to the provincial level, further from local sources and leaving district governments in the dark. With the tourism village — the only one of its kind in Bombana district, where Tangkeno is located — locals make sure their voice is heard.
“Those who made the map [of the mining concession] didn’t come here and see the landscape for themselves. They only saw a map of the area and drew lines all over it,” Madjid said. Although locals’ homes have been removed from the concession, the town’s customary area, mapped in 2012 by local NGOs, stretches far across valleys and mountains.
“Whether or not the resistance will be recognized by the government, we’re still going to defend it,” Madjid said.
Since Kabaena’s first mining permits were issued in 2006, the island has seen more than half of its 906 square kilometers (350 square miles) licensed out to mining companies. Twenty of the 28 operational mining areas are registered for nickel on this island of 41,000 people. At least 13 of the 28 have begun digging.
When PT BBS was allowed to begin exploring in 2010, during a spurt of national nickel growth, workers seeking soil samples began showing up in Madjid’s village.
“Once I heard they were coming in, I demanded they come see me,” Madjid said from his home office in Tangkeno. He asked them why they were “sneaking around” his village, then made them dump their soil samples on his front lawn.
“I told them, ‘You don’t need to know the quality of nickel here, because if you know the quality, I know the company will be rich enough to buy it all, and the indigenous people here will be cornered.’”
Environmental activists, teaming up with the district government, registered Tangkeno as a tourism village, putting it at the center of development plans in Kabaena.
“This island really has been under threat of mining. Downhill already has operating mines, and at the top is the island’s water supply,” said Nur, the Walhi director.
Tangkeno has long been the cultural center of Kabaena, an island with a distinct language and intricate, mythical stories that stretch across the Indonesian archipelago and finish in the forests of Kabaena. One spring, famed to bring good luck to those who swim in it, had showered former governor Nur Alam before he won an election victory. He’s now serving a 15-year prison sentence for abusing his power to license a mining company from which he received money on Kabaena’s southern coastline.
Four water springs lie within PT BBS’s concession, and for as long as Madjid knows, they have been protected by indigenous custom. The springs flow to every corner of Kabaena, he says, meaning potential water scarcity across the island if they are disturbed, or filled with sediment as often happens when land is cleared.
“This mountain, if we destroy it, will trigger a catastrophe, so we made the forest there opali, meaning we aren’t allowed to cut it down and exploit it for ourselves,” Madjid said.
Whether Tangkeno’s residential area remains in the concession area is irrelevant to Madjid. In 2012, environmentalists and indigenous rights activists mapped out Tangkeno’s borders as locals knew them. The borders follow the ridges of mountains and the curves of rivers. The residential area cut out from the PT BBS concession is only a small portion.
Nur and the island’s activists saw the area’s potential for tourism, but Madjid was unsure. Still, he allowed the district government to repair roads, fund renovations, and build a plaza for the annual festival that has since attracted thousands of local tourists and hundreds of international ones.
Visitors come to see seven ancient forts built long before the Dutch colonialists’ arrival, as well as the almost 360-degree view from the top of the mountains. If visitors are lucky enough to get a conversation with Madjid, he’ll tell of the island’s stories of genies and magic, some of them conjured up to sway residents from digging up protected areas like the water springs.
“The district head [Tafdil] said in his opening statement at the first Tangkeno Festival that the festival meant mining businesses were no longer allowed to try to mine this area, because it would strip the village of its meaning,” Madjid remembers.
In 2014, however, new laws redirected mining licensing to the provincial government, leaving Tafdil and the district government in the dark. When the province grants a permit or changes a concession area, his district government is not involved. Tafdil says that as a result he knows very little about the mining in his district.
“All power over mining has been pulled back to the province. They have no requirement to tell me anything,” he said from his home in Bombana. “Who’s at fault? The central government is” for changing the policies, he added.
Tafdil’s government had approved the mining operating permit in 2012, and the next year, he set up the tourism village stretching across its borders, but when asked, he said he would support the local community if it came into conflict with the mine.
“We will try to make sure our people are safe, safe from conflict. If conflict arises, that’s our jurisdiction and we will lend a hand,” he said.
The province now retains authority to issue permits, but provincial head of minerals licensing Nining Rahmatia said the province doesn’t have the authority over permits issued by the districts before 2014. Tafdil and Nining are unclear who is authorized to revoke the permit or ensure it doesn’t affect water springs or protected forests.
“We can protect the tourism village, but we can’t protect the area around it,” Tafdil said.
Elsewhere in this province, district heads have historically favored businesses at the expense of locals. In North Konawe, the last 10 years have also seen mines spread across coastlines. The district head during that period, Aswad Sulaiman, is now in the midst of a corruption investigation.
Beginning next year, the Indonesian government will forbid the export of any raw nickel ore, likely forcing the closure of many mines without the capital to build a smelting facility. Huadi already runs a smelter nearby in South Sulawesi, and a spokesperson said the Kabaena mine would only start working to fill the smelter’s quota if needed.
Like most of the investment in nickel mining in Indonesia, PT BBS is Chinese. The 49-square-kilometer (19-square-mile) operational mining concession that stretches from the peaks of Kabaena to its southern coastline is owned by two Chinese companies, Shanghai Huadi Industrial and Huadi Nickel-Alloy Indonesia, and a third Indonesian-registered company, PT Duta Nikel Sulawesi. Because it’s a foreign company, the central government has the authority to regulate it, according to Nining. A Sulawesi local, Jos Yanto, appears as a director for PT BBS and a few other companies, but could not be contacted.
Kabaena and the nearby island of Wawonii are classified under Indonesian law as “small islands,” where government must prioritize conservation, tourism and local livelihoods, among other things, according to a 2007 law. The national ombudsman’s office, which investigates citizen complaints, has said it would investigate the legality of mining on both islands. In March, when protests erupted around mining development in Wawonii, the deputy head of the anti-corruption agency indicated mining on the islands may conflict with the small-islands law, and the National Commission on Human Rights began investigating whether locals had been criminalized.
Tangkeno has been made into a village whose existence deters mining; but when mining first came to Kabaena, Madjid said, residents of the island only thought about the purported opportunity to enrich themselves.
“Now that Kabaena is full of mining areas, people have started to worry. Their island is being pummeled by mines, and in the end we may become like Gebe,” Madjid said, referring to an island in North Maluku province where decades of nickel mining have resulted in severed water sources and community conflict, according to the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), an environmental NGO. Before information about Gebe was shared widely, Tangkeno residents didn’t have an example of what could happen to Kabaena, Madjid said.
Indigenous groups around Indonesia have begun to develop villages into tourist destinations as an alternative to industrial-scale projects.
However, Sahrul Gelo, a local leader who helped set up the tourism village, says it hasn’t met the expectations that drove its founding. Various organizations helped establish the village, he says, but haven’t followed through on supporting it and developing a “creative economy,” for example, that could entice travelers to spend more money on trinkets while they stay in Tangkeno.
“It’s not necessarily a failure, though, because we’ve already proved to the local people that the tourism potential is possible, and other villages have started to think about their tourism potential,” he said from his home in Kabaena.
The festival’s seven years have brought some changes to Tangkeno, but not the kind mining companies have promised Madjid if the village were to be relocated. Madjid jokes that his village’s opposition to mining that has prevented island-wide disaster deserves some compensation itself.
“We’re fighting off the mine, so we’re defending our poverty,” he says with a laugh. “I’m happier living simply than living in luxury but on top of the ruins of others.”
Follow Ian Morse on Twitter: @ianjmorse
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.