- Helmud Hontong, deputy head of the Sangihe Islands district in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi province, who was a staunch opponent of a planned gold mine in the district, died under mysterious circumstances on a commercial flight last week.
- Human rights and environmental activists have called for an independent investigation into Hontong’s sudden death, saying it might be connected to his stance against the concession that covers nearly three-fifths of the district’s land area.
- Hontong’s death is the latest in a disturbing pattern of environmental defenders dying under suspicious circumstances in Indonesia.
- Environmentalists say they’re worried that the mining activity will lead to ecological destruction in Sangihe and exacerbate any potential damage from an earthquake in this seismically active region.
JAKARTA — Human rights and environmental activists have called for an investigation following the sudden death of a top government official in a remote Indonesian archipelago who was opposed to a planned mine covering more than half of his district.
Helmud Hontong, the deputy head of Sangihe district in North Sulawesi province, died June 9 on board a flight from Bali to Makassar, South Sulawesi. Witnesses said he had appeared healthy earlier, but later complained of a sore throat and experienced hacking coughs and bleeding from his mouth and nose. He was 58.
The abrupt nature of his death has sparked speculation that it may have been linked to his strong opposition to a gold mining concession held by PT Tambang Mas Sangihe that covers 42,000 hectares (103,800 acres), or nearly three-fifths of Sangihe district’s total land area of 73,698 hectares (182,112 acres). TMS is 70% owned by Canadian miner Sangihe Gold Corporation, with the rest of held by three Indonesian firms: PT Sungai Balayan Sejati, PT Sangihe Prima Mineral, and PT Sangihe Pratama Mineral.
The North Sulawesi police on June 14 said an autopsy had shown no indications that Hontong may have been poisoned. Instead, they said it appeared he died from medical complications. The police added they were expecting the results from another forensics test in the next two weeks.
“His death seems so mysterious and suspicious,” Merah Johansyah, the national coordinator of Indonesia’s Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), said as quoted by local media. “This is such a high-profile case because he was a district leader who openly opposed mining.”
Hontong’s death is the latest in a disturbing pattern of environmental defenders dying under suspicious circumstances in Indonesia. From 2010 to 2018, there were 171 recorded cases of violence against activists in Indonesia, according to Ainul Yaqin from the Indonesian Human Protection Foundation (YPII). Most of the victims were environmental activists.
In April, Hontong had sent a letter to the Indonesian energy ministry seeking the revocation of the operation permit that the ministry had granted to TMS in January.
Despite the concession’s size, the operating permit currently allows the company to mine gold and copper on 65.8 hectares (163 acres) of land, home to an estimated 3.16 million ounces of reserves, until January 2054. The mining site is also home to 80 villages, according to Jatam. The NGO has pointed to a statement from the company saying the mining site will be expanded.
According to the energy ministry, 4,500 hectares of the total concession has been prospected to be mined by TMS. The ministry said in a statement received by Mongabay on June 14 that it would evaluate the company’s concession and possibly reduce its size based on the area that won’t be used for mining activity.
“The government will continue to strictly monitor on the field the mining activities by PT TMS so they follow the regulations and won’t create environmental disaster or endanger the people,” the energy ministry statement read.
The operating permit was issued following the approval of TMS’s environmental impact assessment, locally known as an Amdal, by the North Sulawesi provincial government in September 2020. However, many residents have criticized the company for its poor community outreach, saying that it failed to address their concerns if they decided to sell their land.
“If this village is turned into a mine and our land switches ownership, then how will we make a living? How will we raise our kids? Where will we move to?” said Elbi Pieter who, like most people in Sangihe, depends on farming and traditional fishing for his livelihood.
Environmentalists have also lambasted the Indonesian government’s decision to grant the mining concession to TMS in the first place. Under a 2014 law on coastal zoning, small islands like Sangihe are off-limits to mining, but this restriction was scrapped under a widely criticized deregulation bill that was passed last year.
“Ever since the passage of the omnibus law, so many mining permits in small islands are waiting to be issued,” said Jull Takaliuang, a coordinator of the Save Sangihe Island (SSI) Movement, referring to the deregulation bill.
The SSI Movement in April started an online petition calling on President Joko Widodo to revoke TMS’s permit. The petition has been signed by more than 90,000 people as of June 14. The movement is also planning to mount a lawsuit against the company’s permits in administrative court; file a report with the national anti-corruption agency; and submit a formal letter of opposition from the people of Sangihe to the president.
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