- The Indigenous Lom people of Tuing hamlet have been guarding their area from the environmental dangers of mining activity for centuries; theirs is the only hamlet left in their community still free from tin mines.
- Tin mining dominates the economy in Bangka, an island off southeast Sumatra, but growing demand for the metal has wrought devastating ecological impact to the island that was once a paradise.
- The waters off Tuing now face a similar fate after zoning plans for coastal areas recently approved by the local government allow for mining to take place.
- The Lom people say they stand against the local government and state-owned miner PT Timah in proceeding with a mining plan that might push the island’s oldest community traditions into extinction.
BANGKA, Indonesia — In the lore of Bangka Island, one of the world’s main tin-producing centers, the rocky, white-sand beach of Tuing holds a special place.
Tuing Beach is one of several areas around Bangka, off the southeast coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, where locals believe they can spot the footprints of Akek Antak, a mythological figure who appears prominently in oral tradition here.
Often called the “White Arab,” Akek Antak is thought by some historians to have been a Sufi mystic who actually lived around the 10th century, around the time that Islam may have begun its spread throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
The Lom people, who live in Tuing hamlet, believe they are descended from Akek Antak, giving them added motivation to protect the environment here.
“We don’t dare damage the rocks here,” Sukardi, 51, a Tuing community leader, told Mongabay during a recent visit to the beach.
Today, though, Sukardi says his community faces a threat: a plan to allow Indonesia’s largest tin mining company to expand its operations into Tuing’s pristine coast.
For generations, the Lom, said to be the oldest tribe in Bangka, have preserved their land and sea to build their livelihoods outside of mining. Unlike the rest of their Indigenous community residing in neighboring hamlets who gave in to tin mining, they still hold on to their ancestors’ oldest wisdom: living in harmony with nature.
Mine-free for centuries, dating back to colonial times, Tuing faces the South China Sea on the northeastern coast of Bangka. The hamlet covers an area of about 2,500 hectares (6,200 acres), with a population of about 185 families. “Our lives have been peaceful and happy,” Sukardi said. “We have enough food, we can send our children to school just by selling fish and harvest. So why destroy nature by mining for tin?”
Bangka is the source of about 90% of all the tin mined in Indonesia, the world’s second-largest producer of the metal, mainly used as solder in electronic devices. It has long become the leading industry here and boosted the domestic economy.
But decades of mining have left their mark. Environmental degradation and water and air pollution have been devouring Bangka since the tin mining rush started in the early 2000s, when mobile phones became widespread and demand for solder multiplied.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), an NGO, found that tin mining in Bangka has degraded 5,270 hectares (13,022 acres) of coral reef and 400 hectares (988 acres) of mangrove forest.
Between 2017 and 2020, Walhi recorded 40 deaths linked to tin mines, with more than half of them in 2019 alone. According to the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), an industry watchdog, Bangka registered the most deaths in Indonesia of people falling into abandoned mining pits, with 57 reported dead between 2014 and 2020 in this way.
These threats are the Lom people’s greatest concern regarding the coastal zoning plan that underlies state-owned miner PT Timah’s permit. Under the zoning plan approved by the government of Bangka-Belitung province, 11.2% of the area’s waters are allocated for mining.
“The Indigenous Lom community strongly oppose to this tin mining plan and has held several meetings to protest,” said Edo Martono, an official in Mapur village, of which Tuing hamlet is a part.
This isn’t the first battle by Bangka residents against the zoning plan rolled out just last year. Although the local government says the interests of the fishing communities have been taken into account and the zoning plan was approved by consensus, the impact on Bangka’s fishers has proven to be devastating, locals say. “Fishermen of Matras and Teluk Kelabat are some of the many examples of people losing their source of income because of coastal mining in Bangka,” Edo said.
Tuing’s waters are known as the squid center of Bangka, where around 170 fishermen from around the area fish daily. “We have only been using rods and nets to fish, not even 5 miles from the shore,” Sukardi said. “We are prohibited to damage or alter anything in the sea. Many fishermen from other areas also fish here. We welcome them as long as they use fishing rods and nets.” Besides fishing, Sukardi is also a farmer. The coral reefs along the Tuing coast are also well preserved. “We fish on those coral reefs. We understand that if they are damaged, fish will disappear,” he added.
Last year, a France 24 documentary reported the visible ecological impacts of coastal mining in Batu Belubong, a hamlet 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) down the coast from Tuing. Water polluted by mud, pumped from great depths, could be seen for kilometers. Beaches in some places were covered with blocks of clay. A decrease in fish populations was also reported, especially near the mines, affecting local livelihoods.
According to Sukardi, they have been earning enough from fishing to support their families. The average income of a fisherman here is around 10 million rupiah ($700) a month — double what a young man can make, for example, working as a deckhand on a foreign tuna fishing boat. It might be less than in neighboring hamlets, where residents can afford to own a car, a motorbike or build a big house after mining tin, but Tuing residents put greater value in their tradition of living in harmony with nature.
This rooted culture has already been disrupted as parts of their forest have been cleared for oil palm plantations. Although free from tin mining, Tuing, as well as several areas in Mapur village where the Lom community lives, haven’t been able to stave off the large-scale monoculture plantations of PT Mount Pelawan Lestari. “Many forests or pepper farms have become oil palm plantations. What is left are the protected forests where we still look for traditional medicinal ingredients,” Sukardi said. The remaining forestland is designated as protected by the government. Out of the 7,364 hectares (18,197 acres) of Mapur village, around 4,034 hectares (9,968 acres) are protected forests.
Their waters have been especially untouched because of a geosite, related to the legend of Akek Atak, located on Tuing Beach about 25 km (15 mi) from the hamlet. The site is home to a stretch of 290-million-year-old metamorphic rocks, where the Lom community believe Akek Antak once lived. “If Tuing waters are also damaged like our forest, it might mean the end of our traditional roots, and without it the Lom people as the oldest Indigenous community of Bangka Island might as well be extinct,” Sukardi said as he once again urged the government, especially miner Timah, to reconsider carrying out its mining plans in Tuing’s waters.
Banner image of fishermen in Tuing by Nopri Ismi for Mongabay.