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FOIA lawsuit suggests Indonesian nickel miners lack environmental licenses

  • A freedom-of-information ruling in Indonesia has indicated that two nickel miners suspected of polluting a river on the island of Sulawesi may not have all the required permits.
  • The ruling, in a case filed by environmental journalists, ordered authorities in East Luwu district to publish the licensing documents for the two companies, but the authorities said some of the papers were still being processed.
  • A lawyer for the environmental journalists points out that the companies should have already secured the licenses prior to operating, and that this revelation strongly points to them not having the licenses.
  • The Indonesian government is pushing a massive expansion of the nickel mining and processing industries to feed the demand for electric vehicle batteries, but nickel mining in the country has long been associated with pollution and community conflicts.

EAST LUWU, Indonesia — Environmental journalists investigating the impact of nickel mining on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi have won a freedom-of-information ruling against local authorities, whose inability to release licensing information may point to an absence of licenses.

The case centers on two nickel miners, PT Citra Lampia Mandiri (CLM) and PT Panca Digital Solution (PDS), operating in the vicinity of the Larona Malili River in East Luwu district, in the province of South Sulawesi.

In December last year, the provincial information commission ordered the East Luwu environmental agency to publish the licensing documents of the two companies, which are accused of polluting the river with sediment.

In a response, filed Jan. 10, the environmental agency said it was unable to comply because some of the licenses were still being processed at the environment ministry in Jakarta, while others would have to be requested directly from the ministry instead of the agency.

The fact that the district environmental agency doesn’t have these papers — namely an environmental impact analysis, a waste dumping license, and a so-called borrow-to-use forest permit (IPPKH) — suggests the companies are operating without them, said Ady Anugerah Pratama, one of the lawyers who filed the freedom-of-information request.

“Based on the environmental agency’s response, we can be sure to say that the companies don’t actually have the licenses, such as for hazardous and toxic waste management,” Ady said, noting that these papers are required under Indonesian law.

The mining site of nickel company PT Citra Lampia Mandiri, which has been accused of polluting a river in East Luwu district, South Sulawesi province, Indonesia. Image courtesy of PT Citra Lampia Mandiri.

The freedom-of-information lawsuit was filed by the Journalist Association for Environmental Advocacy in Celebes (JURnal Celebes), a nonprofit based in Makassar, the South Sulawesi provincial capital. The group accuses the miners of polluting the Larona Malili River with excess sediment on two separate occasions, in January and April 2021.

The companies have denied any role in the river pollution, but an investigation by JURnal Celebes and another nonprofit, the South Sulawesi Mining Advocacy Coalition (KATA), shows evidence of environmental degradation after mining operations began near the river. As part of its probe, JURnal Celebes sought to examine the companies’ environmental permits, but couldn’t find them in any public registry, and thus lodged the request to the provincial information commission to compel the environmental agency to publish them.

“Information transparency is at the core of a democratic natural resource management. However, this part seems to be in the dark shadow of powerful authorities and manipulative corporations through licensing products,” said Mustam Arif, the executive director of JURnal Celebes. “So it is no wonder that the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission noted that corruption in the licensing sector placed second among corruption cases in Indonesia now.”

The island of Sulawesi is rich in nickel, a metal that’s growing increasingly important as a key element in the batteries that powering electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies. Indonesia is the world’s top nickel producer, with the government pushing for increased mining and refining in-country. However, nickel mining here has long been associated with poor waste management, leading to cases of water pollution and land conflicts that have affected several communities around the country.

A hearing in the freedom-of-information lawsuit filed by JURnal Celebes against the East Luwu environmental agency demanding the publication of environmental permits for two nickel miners. Image courtesy of JURnal Celebes.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published on our Indonesian site on Jan. 22, 2023.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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