Rio Tinto closes Kelian mine - history of human rights abuses

Down to Earth No 65  May 2005

UK-based mining company Rio Tinto closed the Kelian gold mine in East Kalimantan in February this year after 13 years of operation.

The mine was developed on land owned by indigenous Dayak communities who were given no choice but to move. Its history has been punctuated by protests over evictions, violence and intimidation by security personnel against people who protested, and violence against women as well as environmental pollution.

According to a Jakarta Post report, Rio Tinto's mine closure programme includes converting its 6,670-hectare area into a protected forest plus community development programmes through its Anum Lio Foundation (YAL). US$11 million has been set aside for the forest and $2.4 million for the YAL programmes.

The community programmes includes training programmes for employees, including farming, fisheries and technical skills. The company will also continue community development programmes conducted through YAL, including a food security programme to boost rice production and a tuberculosis eradication programme in West Kutai district.

Deputy director for external relations, Anang Rizkani Noor, said the company would fill the mine's two 133-hectare pits and 455-ha tailings dam with water, turning them into lakes. The processing plant site will be converted into a wetland to filter the lakes' water and discharge through a natural bioremediation process. He said the company would continue to monitor the water's pollution levels until 2013.

These plans have been criticised by community representatives and by NGOs as inadequate for the long term health and security of local people. A question prepared by DTE for Rio Tinto's annual general meeting in London two years ago remains relevant. It offered the criticism that the artificial lakes and swamp will contain untreated sludges containing cyanides, heavy metals and other toxic substances.

"These could contaminate water supplies and enter the food chain. The euphemistically named 'wet cover' and 'wetlands' methods are still experimental. Their long-term safety has not been proven scientifically. Ground and surface water from these areas eventually drains into local rivers used by thousands of local people. Dams can fail or flood, again releasing polluted water into local rivers. The existing acid rock drainage problem will not be solved solely by covering other waste heaps with soil."

The local community organisation LKMTL has repeatedly asked Rio Tinto and KEM to take responsibility for the long-term environmental security and protection of the community's health and livelihoods. Their demands include guarantees, independent environmental monitoring and free hospital facilities. LKMTL withdrew from KEM's Mine Closure Committee and Working Groups in 2003, because it felt the committee was only a token gesture and did not take community concerns and solutions seriously. Its representatives were forced to return by PT KEM's management who threatened to withhold payments promised to the community organisation.

Rio Tinto says it has resolved problems relating to environmental destruction and human rights abuses, and has paid compensation of up to Rp49 billion ($5.4 million) as of 2004 for all claims. PT KEM had previously agreed to pay Rp60 billion during protracted negotiations with the community.

The closure of the Kelian mine does not mean that Rio Tinto will leave Kalimantan. Anang said the company was registering permits for copper and gold surveys in Central and West Kalimantan and for nickel in Central and Southeast Sulawesi.

Rio Tinto also earns 40% of the profits from expanded production at the huge Grasberg gold and copper mine in West Papua - a project which also has a deplorable environmental and human rights record.

(Jakarta Post 31/Jan/05. See also DTE 57 for more background on Rio Tinto and Kelian).