- Eleven workers were killed by a landslide at an illegal coal mining site in Muara Enim district in Indonesia's South Sumatra province.
- South Sumatra has Indonesia's largest known coal resources, which have drawn both legal and illegal miners.
- Illegal mining continues to be a problem in the province. The local government shut down eight such sites in 2019, some of which were in the same district as the site of the accident.
- The area's large coal reserves prompted the Indonesian government, in cooperation with China, to build a power plant near the site of the accident.
Eleven road construction workers were killed on Oct. 21 by a landslide at an illegal coal mining site in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province.
The workers were found buried under soil from a hill above the road, although there were no rains or other weather conditions that might otherwise have triggered a landslide at the time of the incident.
The accident, which occurred in Penyandingan village, is the latest in a series of incidents involving illegal coal mining in the province.
High coal potential
Indonesia has the world’s sixth-largest proven coal reserves, with about 3.5% of global proven coal reserves. The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources reported that the country has 37 billion tons of coal reserves, enough to allow the country to maintain production for the next 62 years. Its total coal resources, including deposits that may not be economically feasible to mine, are estimated to stand at around 147 billion tons.
As other countries transition toward renewable resources, Indonesia shows no sign of abandoning coal. In 2020, Indonesia’s coal production is targeted at 550 million tons, the majority (around 395 million tons) to be exported, with the rest for domestic use. And while the government has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also plans rapid growth in coal-fired power plants, with 39 new plants under construction and 68 announced as of 2019.
South Sumatra province, where the incident occurred, has the country’s largest known deposits of coal, which the country’s energy ministry puts at around 50.226 billion tons. And Muara Enim district, where the landslide occurred, has some of the province’s greatest coal resources, at an estimated 9.78 billion tons. Out of the total 1.1 million hectares (2.8 million acres) of coal concession area in South Sumatra, around 77,930 hectares (192,500 acres) are registered in Muara Enim. These registered operations are covered by 13 coal mining permits.
The wealth of coal has also prompted the government to propose building new coal-fired power plants in close proximity to the district’s mines. One such project, PLTU Sumsel 8, is located in Tanjung Lalang village, not far from where the workers were found buried. The 1,240-megawatt power plant is being built by the company Huadian Bukit Asam Power, a consortium of state-owned China Huadian Corporation (55% stake) and Indonesian state-controlled mining and energy firm PT Bukit Asam (45% stake), with $1.26 billion in financing from the Export-Import Bank of China.
Illegal mines claiming lives
In addition to the legal coal concessions, there are an estimated 748,300 hectares (1.85 million acres) of illegal mining in the district. The South Sumatra government took action against eight illegal coal mines in 2019, including sites in Muara Enim district.
According to Robert Heri, head of the South Sumatra Energy and Mineral Resources Agency, as quoted by CNN Indonesia, these eight illegal mines deprived the state of some 432 billion rupiah (nearly$30 million) per year in unpaid royalties. This estimate does not include environmental losses, such as old mine pits that have not been reclaimed.
Yenrizal Tarmizi, environmental communication expert from Raden Fatah Palembang State Islamic University, said the accident in Muara Enim could have been avoided had the government taken stronger steps to curb illegal mining.
“This incident would not have happened if the government was effective in curbing illegal mines. Illegal mining such as for gold and coal often causes accidents that claim lives,” he said.
Yenrizal attributed the proliferation of illegal coal mines to the high demand for the fossil fuel. “If the government didn’t rely on coal as an energy source, maybe not so many people would be hunting for it,” he says. “But look now, everyone is hunting for coal, both foreigners and local people.”
Faisal, the police chief of Tanjung Agung precinct in Muara Enim, told Mongabay Indonesia that the site of the accident sits on land that belongs to and is managed by residents of nearby villages in the same district.
The victims were mostly local farmers, along with mine workers from nearby Lampung and West Java provinces. They ranged in age from 25 to 60 years old.
Their bodies were taken to the Tanjung Agung community health center before being handed over to their families for burial.
Coal mining activities and the construction of power plants in the province has not only claimed human lives, but also accelerated environmental degradation. The expansion of mining, both legal and illegal, has diminished and fragmented the natural habitat of the Sumatran tiger, squeezing the critically endangered big cat into increasingly smaller swaths of land and raising the risk of wildlife conflict.
Pius Ginting, executive director of the Society for Ecological Action and Emancipation of the People (AEER), said coal mining and the construction of the power plants in Muara Enim have led to human-wildlife conflicts.
“So far, there have been four conflicts between humans and tigers in South Sumatra that have caused [human] casualties, one of which was near the location of the Sumsel 8 power plant,” Pius said.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Oct. 22, 2020.
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