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Illegal mining fuels social conflict in Indonesian tin hub of Bangka-Belitung

  • Tin mining in one of the world’s main producers of the metal has sparked the latest in a series of conflicts between illegal miners and traditional fishers in Indonesia.
  • The incident stemmed from a fisher-activist’s social media posts criticizing the environmental damage wrought by mining in the Bangka-Belitung Islands’ Kelabat Bay, where mining is banned.
  • Tin mining is the backbone of the Bangka Belitung economy, but has also proven deadly for workers and damaging to coral reefs, mangrove forests and local fisheries.

BANGKA BELITUNG, Indonesia — A conflict that flared up at the start of the year between traditional fishers and illegal miners in Indonesia’s Bangka-Belitung Islands has once again highlighted the social tensions that have long gripped one of the richest tin-mining regions in the world.

The incident was sparked by social media posts uploaded by Yudi Amsori, a fisherman and activist against illegal mining with the community group East Belitung Watershed Forum. In the posts, he criticized the environmental damage wrought by the miners in Kelabat Bay, where fishing is a mainstay of local livelihoods.

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On Jan. 6, dozens of people who claimed to be artisanal tin miners staged a protest outside Yudi’s house, demanding he take down his posts and leave the island of Belitung. The East Belitung Watershed Forum responded by filing a complaint with police for violations of Yudi’s freedom of expression, and emphasized that mining is banned in Kelabat Bay under the 2020 provincial zoning regulations. Local officials have also spoken out against the illegal mining in the bay, which has been zoned exclusively for traditional fisheries, mangrove conservation, and tourism.

“What those illegal miners did to Yudi by forcing him to leave his village gave the impression that the locals there are in support of illegal mining,” Jessix Amundian, director of the Bangka-Belitung chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said on Jan. 7.

“The psychological abuse toward Yudi isn’t only [directed at him] as an environmental activist, but also as a community member,” Jessix added.

Bangka-Belitung province is circled in the map above. In the lower map, Belitung is the island on the right.

The conflict appeared to have been resolved by Jan. 7, after the protesters appeared at a press conference with police and local government officials and apologized to Yudi. But it adds to the long list of clashes between small-scale miners and other community groups across the Bangka-Belitung Islands, Indonesia’s tin-mining heartland.

The people of the Bangka-Belitung Islands have historically had a complicated relationship with tin mining, which began during the Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. Demand for the metal has grown in recent decades, especially for use in consumer electronic devices, and today tin accounts for more than three-quarters of the islands’ export revenue.

While some observers have credited tin mining with driving the islands’ economic growth, and even described it as a form of protest against former New Order dictatorship, many Indigenous communities insist that tin mining was never part of their traditions. Tin mining has also proven deadly for workers and damaging to coral reefs, mangrove forests and local fisheries.

A small-scale miner pans for tin in the Bangka-Belitung Islands. Image by Nopri Ismi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Mongabay Indonesia spent four months in mid-2020 surveying seven Malay tribes who live in Kelabat Bay. All denied that small-scale tin mining was a part of their culture, and attributed the practice instead to migrants from Sumatra and Java.

“Tin was never part of our life history,” Sep Amir Ibrahim, 80, who is a community leader in Permis village in South Bangka district, told Mongabay Indonesia. “Pepper and fish have put our kids through school, funded our hajj pilgrimage, and built our houses.”

Indigenous communities in Bangka-Belitung have traditionally lived off of growing herbs and catching fish, as they believe these activities cause minimal harm to the environment, said Rendy Hamzah, a culture researcher at Bangka-Belitung University. He said that while they historically resisted tin mining by fiercely guarding the few areas of the islands without deposits of the metal, today they make a stand by holding protests.

Tin mining off the coast of the Bangka-Belitung Islands. Image by Nopri Ismi/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here, here and here on our Indonesian site on Sep. 3 and Jun. 19. 2021, and Jan. 9, 2022.

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