- In 2018, after houses in nearby villages began to collapse into abandoned mine shafts below, residents of Sikalang village in West Sumatra province began to suspect that a nearby coal company was tunneling outside of its permitted area.
- Villagers, assisted by green group Walhi, successfully pushed the provincial authorities to investigate potential violations by miner CV Tahiti Coal.
- The investigation revealed that the company was illegally tunneling outside of its concession boundaries, and recommended law enforcement take up the matter.
- Police say investigations are ongoing, while activists say the case should serve as a cautionary example for other mining firms in the region.
SAWAHLUNTO, Indonesia — Manap says he’s worried about his garden. What he thought would be a nice retirement project after years of working in coal mines is quickly turning into a disaster.
“I planted 300 clove bushes, but 200 died,” he tells Mongabay Indonesia. Manap, a resident of Sikalang village in the town of Sawahlunto, West Sumatra province, has tried planting a variety crops, but he suspects that recent changes in soil fertility and moisture content are responsible for his lack of success — changes that many other villagers have attributed to a nearby coal mine that’s expanded well beyond its permitted area and is getting closer to their land.
Manap’s 1.5-hectare (3.7-acre) farm is located on the side of a hill behind Sikalang village. At the top of the hill, beyond the rows of struggling plants, the land drops away suddenly, revealing a barren wasteland spreading out from three unnaturally turquoise ponds.
“That’s an old mine pit,” Manap says, pointing to the murky bodies of water separated by haul road. He says the government had promised the area would be reclaimed and turned into a recreational lake with rides and other tourist attractions.
There are no paddle boats, but loaded trucks lumber by, heavy with coal. The coal comes from the web of mine shafts operated by a company called CV Tahiti Coal. Unlike the many open-pit mines found in other parts of the region, the Tahiti Coal mine consists of a network of tunnels that follow coal seams deep underground, with dozens of branches shooting off in many directions. Due to their subterranean nature, it’s difficult for Manap and his neighbors to know exactly where the tunnels reach.
The villagers of Sikalang began to suspect that the mine was operating outside of its concession in 2018, when several houses in neighboring villages began to crack and collapse into abandoned mine shafts running beneath them.
Worried that the Tahiti Coal mine might also be tunneling under their village, they brought their concerns to the local police, who attempted to host a dialogue between the villagers and the mining company. But the talks stalled, leaving the residents still in the dark about whether they were in harm’s way. They continued to push their case further up the chain of government, enlisting the help of the West Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
Finally, in October 2019, the residents of Sikalang and Walhi representatives got the chance to testify before the West Sumatra provincial legislature. Two weeks later, a legislative commission visited the mine. Following another legislative hearing in December that year, with provincial mining and environmental officials testifying, the commission determined that Tahiti Coal’s mining activities had indeed broken the law. It called for law enforcement action against the company, inspections of its current activities, and an investigation into whether it had paid its royalties for the previous two years.
The site inspection by the provincial mining board, whose findings were released in March 2020, concluded that two of the mine shafts inspected extended well outside of Tahiti Coal’s permitted area. One shaft ran 421 meters (1,381 feet), of which 325 m (1,066 ft), or 77%, fell outside the miner’s boundary. The other extended 80 m (262 ft) beyond the boundary. The mining board ordered Tahiti Coal to remeasure its mine shafts and submit an updated map of the true extent of its operations.
Neither Walhi nor the residents of Sikalang ever learned whether this survey was carried out. But in January this year, drone footage captured by members of a local youth organization provided clear evidence that mining operations had continued to within 100 m (328 ft) of several properties — a clear violation of regulations that require mines to be at least 500 m (1,640 ft) from any residential area.
Mongabay Indonesia attempted to contact Ismet, a director at Tahiti Coal, for comment via telephone. He said he was in a meeting and would call back. As of publication, there has been no response.
In February, Walhi submitted a follow-up letter to the West Sumatra government and police, requesting a full accounting of the status of the complaints against Tahiti Coal. The mining board responded that it had found indications that Tahiti Coal had operated outside its concession, but gave no indication of whether the company had carried out the survey. The police, meanwhile, have opened an investigation based on Walhi’s report.
“Walhi West Sumatra is committed to continuing to work together with law enforcement for the sake of ecological justice in West Sumatra,” Uslaini, executive director of Walhi West Sumatra, said after speaking with police investigators. The organization says it wants to both mitigate any environmental damage and ensure that residents like Manap no longer have to worry that their homes and farms will be destroyed by illegal activity.
Tommy Adam, head of advocacy at Walhi West Sumatra, says he hopes holding Tahiti Coal accountable will serve as a warning to other miners operating in the region. Tahiti Coal is a relatively small operation, employing 264 workers and producing 6,000 tons of coal per month. The region has long been home to coal mining since Dutch geologists first identified the potential of the Ombilin basin in the 1860s.
Tommy says he has a message for mining companies in West Sumatra: “Do not sacrifice the environment or the people who live near mining areas for the sake of profit.”
Banner image: mining operations near Sikalang village, by Jaka Hendra Baittri/Mongabay Indonesia.
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