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More coffee, less gold: Sumatra farmers alarmed over revival of mine project

  • A recent stock exchange filing indicates that a gold mining project in Sumatra’s Gayo Highlands may soon be revived after being stalled due to popular opposition.
  • The Linge Abong concession also overlaps onto the Leuser Ecosystem, the largest remaining swath of intact rainforest in Sumatra, and home to critically endangered tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants.
  • Farming communities here who grow the world-renowned Aceh Gayo coffee, and who would be directly affected by the mine, have called on the authorities to shut down the project for good.
  • “A lot of people live and prosper from Gayo coffee. Don’t let the lives they’ve built off of coffee farming be destroyed just for the sake of gold mining,” said a village head.

LINGE, Indonesia — Indonesian coffee farmers on the island of Sumatra have spoken out against a plan to mine for gold in an area that overlaps with one of the last known habitats of Sumatran tigers and orangutans.

The Linge Abong project in Aceh province was conceived more than a decade ago, and was blocked by the provincial governor in 2019. But it appears to have been revived in late 2021, according to a stock exchange filing from the parent company of project developer PT Linge Mineral Resources (LMR).

“We have held community discussions and we’re strongly against it,” Zai Nudin, the head of Linge village, one of several that would be directly affected by the gold mine, said at an online event on Jan. 10, 2022.

“So many problems will appear from mining,” Zai added.

The Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the only region on Earth where tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants can be found in one place. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

LMR obtained exploration approval for the site in 2009. The 36,420-hectare (90,000-acre) concession in Aceh Tengah district overlaps with the Leuser Ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s the largest remaining swath of intact rainforest in Sumatra, and home to critically endangered Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants.

Some time over the next year, the company’s request for a production permit was rejected by the provincial government, according to the governor at the time. In 2019, LMR announced that it planned to undertake an environmental impact analysis, known locally as an Amdal, which is required for obtaining an environmental permit. The latter is part of a suite of licenses, which includes the production permit, that companies must obtain from a range of different government agencies before they can begin mining.

That announcement prompted another outcry from activists about the threat of environmental harm, and the Aceh government temporarily revoked LMR’s permit in response. The government hasn’t issued any permits to the company since then.

The latest development emerged from a Dec. 30, 2021, filing, in which LMR parent company PT Bumi Resources Minerals (BRMS) announced that it was reclassifying its $123 million stake in LMR from a “business development” fund to an “exploration asset.”

“We look forward to developing the Linge Abong gold project as soon as possible,” BRMS CEO Suseno Kramadibrata said in the filing.

According to the filing, the site holds 345,107 ounces of gold; at current prices, this resource would be worth more than $658 million.

A coffee farmer in the Gayo highlands of Sumatra. Several of the villages here would be directly affected by a planned gold mine. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

Tajuddin Bantacut, a professor of environmental management at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said there were still too many questions over LMR’s environmental impact analysis. Given the problems associated long with gold mining — the potential for chemical spills into waterways and the degradation of the surrounding environment — the risks posed by this particular project should be made public, he said.

Tajuddin added he had tried to look for LMR’s proposed Amdal to review it, but couldn’t find it anywhere.

“So, for me, the Amdal is still pending because it’s inaccessible,” he said. “Amdal tells the people what the company will do, including the positive and negative impacts.”

For the villagers of Linge, their main concern is that they would lose the coffee farms that are their main source of income. Linge sits in Aceh’s Gayo Highlands, home to the world-renowned Aceh Gayo arabica coffee bean that’s exported worldwide.

Zai said LMR has offered the farmers compensation for their homes and farms. But he said the community is wary of such offers, having seen other cases where the amount of compensation paid by miners, if it’s paid at all, is often not worth the loss of ancestral lands that should be passed down to future generations.

“We don’t want that kind of disaster to happen here,” Zai said.

The Gayo highlands are renounced for their arabica coffee beans, which are exported around the world and are the main source of income for local farmers. Image by Junaidi Hanafiah/Mongabay Indonesia.

The villagers say they’re also worried about the destruction of historical sites associated with the ancient Linge kingdom, one of the forerunners of the Aceh sultanate.

Sri Wayhuni, an independent environmental defender from Aceh Tengah district, said mining activities also pose long-term threats to women and children living near mines.

“One of the impacts from mining is the disruption to the female reproductive system, because the water, air and food are polluted with chemical waste,” she said.

The villagers and environmental activists have called on the provincial government in Aceh and the national one in Jakarta to put an end the gold mining project for good. Support for development in the region should instead go to the coffee farming sector, they say, because it’s more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

“We’re not anti-progress or development, but we just want fair development, sustainable nature and prosperous people,” Sri said.

“A lot of people live and prosper from Gayo coffee,” Tajuddin said. “Don’t let the lives they’ve built off coffee farming be destroyed just for the sake of gold mining.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here and here on our Indonesian site on June 22, 2021, and Feb. 1, 2022.

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