Protesters blockade Australian coal mine

Down to Earth No 61  May 2004

Local people, supported by an indigenous organisation, disrupted the coal-mining operations of Australian-owned PT Bahari Cakrawala Sebuku in February, to protest against the impacts of mining on the island of Sebuku, off South Kalimantan.

The February protest, which involved local people supported by the South Kalimantan Indigenous People's Union (PERMADA) and local NGOs, blocked a mining road at the Sebuku coal mine. The mine is operated by PT Bahari Cakrawala Sebuku, a company 80% owned by Australia's Straits Resources Limited*. This was the latest in a series of disruptions, starting December last year. A December 12th blockade by hundreds of local people lasted 6 hours.

The protests prompted a heavy-handed response from the security forces. By mid-February around 200 special forces police (Brimob) and military personnel were on Sebuku island, creating a climate of intimidation in which community leaders eventually agreed to accept compensation.

An NGO coalition supporting the communities criticised this approach, in which police and local government officials negotiated on behalf of the company. Local community leader Abidin Thaher told local newspaper Radar Banjarmasin that, under pressure from police and local government officials, the villagers had accepted Rp 900 million (around US$105,000) in compensation. He said there were many outstanding issues including transparency of community development funds; reclamation of mining areas not yet carried out by BCS; pollution; promised infrastructure development; compensation for land taken by BCS; and the problem of tailings disposal at the mine, which was endangering the community.

Berry Nahidin Furqan of the NGO Coalition for Sebuku said he would take the company to court, and demand an environmental audit of the company's operations.

JATAM stated that BCS is strongly suspected of violating a number of Indonesian laws including the 1999 regional autonomy law, the 2000 law on small islands, the 1990 conservation law and the 1999 forestry law, which prohibits open-pit mining in protected areas.

Straits Resources blamed the disruption on a "non-resident Dayak group who are seeking improper and illegal payments from the company". A statement on the company's website said it had a long history of compliance with its environmental and community obligations and that there were "currently no complaints against the company by the Government or community".

However, a detailed report by mining advocacy network JATAM gives a different view. This describes how the company's mining operations have polluted the land, water courses and coastal environment, leading to a drastic decline in local fisheries. It says that the company has cleared an area of mangroves and altered the course of three rivers. Ninety percent of the island's population of 4,900 depends upon fisheries for their livelihood.

Mining by BCS, plus two iron ore mines on the island, is putting pressure on the island's limited water resources, leaving inadequate amounts for local people, says JATAM. People in Kanibungan and Sekapung villages have started experiencing shortages of water needed for household use.

In 2001 the company changed the course of the Matangkarang River - a fishing ground used by the people of Sarakaman village. In 2002, BCS changed the course of the Kanibungan River. The following year, 63 Kanibungan villagers issued a statement rejecting mining in their areas, including in the river watershed. In October 2003, Abidin Thaher, from Kanibungan village, wrote an open letter to the Banjarmasin Post, entitled "PT BCS is destroying the environment in our village". The company responded by denying the accusations and threatened to sue for libel.


Nature reserve
BCS secured its mining concession of 11,980 hectares - covering more than half of Sebuku Island - in 1994. Coal mining started in 1998 with production reaching a total of 8,296,000 tonnes in the 1998-2002 period, most of which was exported. The concession included community-owned rubber plantations, farm land, gardens and residential sites.

It also included the 6,650 hectare Sebuku Straits nature reserve. A forestry ministry decree issued in 1998 converted this nature reserve into an area of production forest, with the aim of permitting mining to go ahead. The following year this area of mangrove forest was cleared for mining, under a lend lease arrangement with the forestry department. Along with the mangroves, the breeding ground for shrimp and fish was lost - a further blow to local livelihoods.

*Straits Resources is in the process of buying the notorious Indo Muro Kencana gold mine in Central Kalimantan from fellow-Australian company, Aurora Gold. This mine has a long, violent history of conflict with local communities (see DTE 52).

(Source: Kerebok Dec/03 Vol5/40; JATAM: Infosheet PT. BCS & Penghancuran Pulau Sebuku at; Radar Banjarmasin 17/Feb/04, 2/Mar/04; Straits Resources ASX Announcement 19&24/Feb/04 at


Open letter
In February, JATAM and 52 other Indonesian civil society organisations sent an open letter to President Megawati, members of the Indonesian government, parliament and South Kalimantan authorities, in support of the local community and PERMADA.

The letter, which was copied to Australian prime minister John Howard, sets out the problems caused by BCS's mining operations, accuses the company of breaking Indonesian laws, and explains how the community tried non-confrontational approaches before resorting to blockades.

The letter urges the local and provincial police authorities on Sebuku and in the provincial capital, Banjarmasin, to refrain from any violent action which would spur 'open conflict'. It urges BCS immediately to resolve all problems faced by the community and stop its 'sly' efforts to settle things by using intimidation, violence or arrests.

The organisations also press the Australian government not to lobby the Indonesian government, which would make the situation on Sebuku worse, as happened in the case of Nusa Halmahera Minerals/Newcrest in North Maluku. (See DTE 60 for details of the shooting incident at this mine, in January 2004, which left one person dead).