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Indonesians uprooted by mining industry call for a fairer future amid presidential vote

About a decade after the Sidoarjo mud flow disaster began, these statues were placed to commemorate the lives lost and the lives interrupted. Today, the mud continues to flow. Image by Adam Cohn/Flickr.

  • Ahead of Indonesia’s presidential election on Feb. 14, people from across the country affected by extractive industries gathered at the site of a notorious mudflow disaster in East Java province.
  • The Lapindo mudflow continues to impact thousands of residents with diverse social repercussions, including displacement, environmental pollution, and obstructed access to education and health care.
  • The gathering attracted participants from various regions across Indonesia to raise awareness of the impact of mining and extractive industries on affected communities.

SIDOARJO, Indonesia — On the eve of Indonesia’s presidential election on Feb. 14, a group of people from across the country gathered at an impromptu art exhibition by the side of a main road in Sidoarjo district, East Java province.

One canvas, propped up on a roadside verge, featured caricatures of the three candidates vying to replace President Joko Widodo after a decade in government; it’s title, in Indonesian, was “Elections in the Grip of the Oligarchy.”

A collection of 10 caricatures and cartoons by artist Toni Malakian illustrated a satirical chronology of the Lapindo mudflow spanning almost two decades, right here in Sidoarjo, beginning with the onset of the disaster in 2006 to the ongoing fallout experienced by its victims in the present day.

For some of the tens of thousands who were made homeless by the disaster, Indonesia’s February election was a time to remind and to raise awareness of their experience.

“Since 2006, rules were passed [to address the disaster],” said Harwati from Sidoarjo’s Siring village, referring to the year her family was made homeless by the Lapindo disaster. “But for us they haven’t been realized.”

Coal mining in East Kalimantan.
Coal mining in East Kalimantan. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Mud slinging

On May 29, 2006, a trickle of mud began to emerge from the middle of a rice field near Herwati’s home, set back from a gas exploration site a short drive south of Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya. The trickle turned into a gush, and then a torrent, submerging 12 villages and displacing around 50,000 people. At its peak, the Lapindo mud flow, named after the gas company whose drilling activities are widely blamed for triggering the leak, was ejecting an estimated 180,000 cubic meters (48 million gallons) of mud every day.

“There was a tsunami of mud,” a local resident says in the trailer for “Grit,” a 2018 documentary about the disaster. “We ran for our lives.”

Almost 20 years later, the mud continues to flow, and thousands of homes lie caked under 40 meters (130 feet) of the stuff.

PT Lapindo Brantas, the gas company, was at the time controlled by the politically prominent Bakrie family. While the company has always maintained the catalyst for the mudflow was an earthquake, it was nevertheless ordered to pay 3.8 trillion rupiah ($403 million at the exchange rate in 2007) in compensation.

At the time, family patriarch Aburizal Bakrie held the senior cabinet position of chief minister for public welfare in the administration of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

A caricature painting of the journey of the Lapindo mudflow tragedy is exhibited in the mud embankment area.
A caricature painting of the journey of the Lapindo mudflow tragedy is exhibited in the mud embankment area. Image by Petrus Riski/Mongabay Indonesia.

Canvassing for votes

One canvas by Malakian featured the heading “methane” above an image of the mudflow emerging out of the ground like an octopus, reflecting the diversity of social impacts and enormous volume of the planet-warming gas released by the mudflow.

The word “stunting” was painted on one tentacle, alluding to the deterioration in maternal and child nutrition that followed the displacement of families. A report published by a government agency described how the disaster led to a complex array of harms affecting a generation of local children.

“The Lapindo Brantas industrial disaster in Indonesia in 2006 caused alienation and bullying of children,” stated a report published in 2015 by Indonesia’s disaster management agency, the BNPB.

“There was exclusion of children with conspicuous disabilities arising from the disaster, e.g. severe burns, facial disfigurements, loss of limbs, hair loss, psychological trauma,” the BNPB report noted. “This also meant spoiled marriage opportunities for girls (and perhaps boys) who were seen as contaminated and thought likely to be infertile or to produce babies with birth impairments.”

Unclear zoning and boundaries caused by the mudflow disaster also introduced obstacles for families accessing state schools, local people told Mongabay Indonesia.

Harwati said many families remained stuck in the limbo of temporary accommodation. As a result, they face challenges obtaining even basic services, including the government-issued cards required to access Indonesia’s national health insurance scheme.

Residents came together in solidarity among mining victims.
Residents came together in solidarity among mining victims. Image by Petrus Riski/Mongabay Indonesia.

No friend of mine

The gathering on the eve of the election was attended by people from places that have become synonymous with environmental flashpoints: attendees traveled from places like Tumpang Pitu, where a massive gold mine is accused by locals of widespread deforestation and pollution; Wadas, where security forces have cracked down violently on villagers protesting the ecological damage from quarrying; Dairi, where farmers are opposing an iron ore mine they say theatens their livelihoods; and many other flashpoints across Indonesia.

Sukinah set out from her village of Kendeng in Central Java to raise awareness of her community’s legal case against a cement factory, a well-known case in the province that threatened to undermine the presidential candidacy of the former provincial governor, Ganjar Pranowo.

“We have met with local officials up to the president, but to no avail,” Sukinah told Mongabay Indonesia. “Even though we won a ruling from the Supreme Court, the fact remains that the cement factory is still operating.”

Read more: The women of Kendeng set their feet in cement to stop a mine in their lands. This is their story.

Paini arrived in Sidoarjo from Banyuwangi, also in East Java province. She had previously ridden her bicycle the length of Java Island, heading to Jakarta on the west coast to raise awareness of her community’s dispute over the Tumpang Pitu gold mine.

The area in question had been designated as a protected forest, but the government reclassified it as a production forest, paving the way for open-pit mining operations. Local farmers say the extraction has contaminated their water sources.

“Even though until now there has been no response, we won’t give up,” Paini said. “We will continue to fight whatever the risk.”

Melky Nahar, the national lead of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), a civil society group, said that the current increase in mining activity throughout Indonesia will continue to impact communities living in the shadows of these valuable deposits. Indonesia holds the world’s largest reserves of nickel, mining of which is ramping up in the eastern regions of Sulawesi and Maluku to supply the global electric vehicle boom.

A Jatam report published ahead of the election showed that all three presidential campaigns eachhad extensive mining interests. Prabowo Subianto, the ex-military commander who prevailed in the Feb. 14 vote, owns several coal mining firms, for example.

“We assess that after the 2024 elections, the expansion trend of destruction for mining commodities and energy in Indonesia will be massive,” Melky said. “We appeal to all voters, especially residents in areas around the mining area, to prepare for this situation.”

Harwati said she still recalls the day her family life was uprooted by the Lapindo mudflow. She said she’s disappointed that political leaders promised much but delivered little.

“Don’t let our lives be handed over to those who are irresponsible,” Harwati said.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on Feb. 25, 2024

Banner: About a decade after the Sidoarjo mud flow disaster began, these statues were placed to commemorate the lives lost and the lives interrupted. Today, the mud continues to flow. Image by Adam Cohn/Flickr.

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