The Water-Giver

Water source in Sumba (Photo: Siti Maemunah)

DTE 91-92, May 2012

By Siti Maimunah and Umbu Wulang

Siti Maimunah is Coordinator of Indonesia’s Civil Society Forum on Climate Justice. Umbu Wulang is an activist from JATAM, the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network, in Sumba. This article was drafted in June 2011, following Siti Maimunah’s visit to Sumba, for JATAM. During the visit, consultations were held in two districts, attended by more than 500 people in which local communities rejected plans to mine gold by Fathi Resources, an Indonesian company 80% owned by Australia’s Hillgrove Resources.

Wanggameti is the highest part of Sumba and the greenest region in the eastern part of this island, and has long been the source of local people’s livelihood. The forests there provide tubers, vegetables, fuelwood, timber and drinking water. With these rich resources available, local people know they won’t die of starvation. They even say Wanggameti offers protection against death. In the local language, Wangga means ‘one that drives away’ and meti means ‘death’.

Covering just one million hectares, Sumba is a thirteenth the size of Java. It has a large area of savanna grasslands. The two highest parts, Laiwangi Wanggameti and Tana Daru, are not only the sources of rivers and water for the island, but they also house its rich biodiversity.

At least 114 rivers rise in Wanggameti and fulfil the water needs of East Sumba’s population of around 200,000. The Kambaniru, Luku, Lunga, Luku Kanabu Wai and Melolo catchment areas are all in Wanggameti. These supply irrigation and drinking water to the town of Waingapu, the capital of East Sumba district. They also supply the drier areas to the north and to the south, Sumba’s livestock farming centres. Thousands of cows, buffalo and horses drink from the streams that criss-cross the savanna grasslands. This is why Wanggameti is called Paberi Wai la Ndeha Kahangga Wai Lapau, or ‘the Water-Giver’.

At least 182 species of birds, 22 species of mammals, 115 butterflies, 7 species of amphibians and 29 reptiles are found in Wanggameti. Some of the birds are only found on Sumba, including the citron-crested cockatoo, the Sumba hornbill, the white edible nest swiftlet and the ned-naped fruit dove. At least 70 species of plant are only found on the island.[1]

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of folk tales connected to Wanggameti. In one, the ancient story of Kullo Kanuhu, a bird saves the forest from being plundered. In the current millennium, the threats to Wanggameti’s forests are not just stories. This has been especially the case since Frans Lebu Raya began his term as governor of East Nusa Tenggara province and began issuing licences to mine gold.

Wai, Tana and Watu

The people of Sumba are culturally bound to three things: Wai, tana and watu, or water, land and stone. They believe that the land, or the earth, is the mother, and the sky is the father. The earth-mother provides food, while the father sends the rain.  Earth and rain bring life to humans. No wonder then, that the local place names are mostly linked to these three things.

Going from east to west across the island, the names of four district capitals contain ‘wai’.  Waingapu, meaning ‘water beating down’, is the capital of East Sumba. This district is known as Matawai Amahu, Pada Ndjara Hamu, or ‘Golden Springs, Fields with Horses Grazing’.  Meanwhile Waibakul, the capital of Central Sumba, means ‘great spring’, and Waitabula, the capital of West Sumba Daya, means ‘water bubbling over’, ‘overflowing’. And similarly, Waikabubak, the capital of West Sumba district, means ‘overflowing water’.

The names of villages and sacred places follow similar patterns. Tanarara is a village on the slopes of Wanggameti whose soil is bright red and whose name means ‘red earth’.

Watu bakul, or Big Stone is an special region of boulders which are used for tombs and gravestones. Watu Karamba, is a gathering place, a place to work together and exchange information. The name means ‘elaborately carved stone’. 

The connection between people and nature in Wanggameti is also evident in the ancient tombstones which are lying around. These are carved with horse, buffalo, turtle, crocodile motifs and the figures of women and men. The stones are a symbol of a family’s social status and are sacred. Families regularly make pilgrimages to these tombs, where they carry out customary rituals.

The community’s close relationship with the forest is reflected in the belief that the forest is where the ancestors reside. The community has special land for growing crops and for customary rituals. The headwaters of the Kapunduk River, a large river that flows through five villages are sacred: they are not allowed to be touched, let alone damaged. In the local language this is expressed as Kapunduk Pandajuagaru-Kalaulak Kandangngu.

Mining and Bribes

The two highest peaks in Sumba’s mountain ranges are in the Laiwangi Wanggameti and Manupeu Tana Daru National Parks. Now these two regions are threatened by gold mining. A mining permit was issued to Australia’s Broken Hill Property (BHP)[2] in 1997. This prompted objections from local people the following year and BHP’s contract was eventually withdrawn by the government in 2008. But on the quiet, a year before the BHP permit was cancelled, Frans Lebu Raya issued a mining permit (KP) to PT Fathi Resources, covering 346,000 hectares. Mining was planned in three locations: Tana Daru, Lamboya and Masu. However, the Indonesia’s mining law of 2009 demanded that the KP mining permits be amended to become new ‘IUP’ mining permits which have a maximum area of 100,000 hectares. Now the map for the Fathi Resources permit covers two locations Masu and Tana Daru, totalling 99,970 hectares and overlapping with the two national parks in three districts (East, Central and West Sumba). Eighty percent of the shares are now owned by Hillgrove Resources, of Australia.

The West Sumba district head, Jubilate Pandango, is against the gold mining plans even though, he admits, he will get IDR5.8 billion (around USD 169,000) from the mining company. The provincial parliament is recommending that the permit is withdrawn. Opposing this are the district heads of Central and East Sumba, who are keen supporters of mining.

Exploration resumed in 2010, and the company has completed drilling around Wanggameti village. Their camp has been guarded by mobile brigade (Brimob) police.[3] Now exploration has moved to Karipi village. “We oppose it, but the village head went ahead and permitted the company to go ahead anyway,” said Markus Djangga Dewa, former head teacher at the primary school. Since 2010, local people and activities have mounted a variety of actions to stop this mining operation, including demonstrations, dialogue with the government and local parliament, as well as roadblocks in the mining concession.

In Karipi, there are 15 drill locations, going all the way up the hillside. The company has built a road around 1.2 metres wide. The more drilling, the more roads are opened and the more land is exposed. This means there is a higher risk of landslides, as happened during drilling in Wanggameti village, an area of land prone to slips.

Drilling was planned for June 2011, but was delayed. “It seems drilling has been delayed because the drill machinery was set on fire by local people in Central Sumba. They did this it because they asked for work, but were turned down by the company. So it’s been shifted to August,” claimed Umbu Tamuama, a PT Fathi Resources worker.  The machinery was set on fire in April 2011 in Praikaroku Jangga village. The company accused several local people of being involved. Now four of them must report regularly to the police, even though they attest that the machinery had been burned before they went to the site. There are indeed strong grounds for community action. The company didn’t secure permission from the local land owners and has no environmental impact assessment document, an important requirement of the 2009 mining law. Moreover, a month before, local people had written to the Central Sumba district head to say they didn’t want their land to be disturbed. Their position is supported by the Synod of Christian Churches in Sumba (GKS).

Hillgrove Resources

According to its website, Hillgrove has secured a total 1,991.3 square kilometres of land, comprising two major projects - the Bird's Head Project in West Papua, and the Sumba gold prospect. Noting that the Sumba project is a “quick leg up” into a zone previously identified as containing gold, and that it is close to Newmont’s Batu Hijau copper and gold mine on Sumbawa, the company says that “Indonesia is shaping up to be an exciting exploration initiative with the first sampling program producing highly encouraging results from our Sumba Prospect.”

Hillgrove’s website also states: “We are mindful that we are operating in and around local landowners and communities and it is our greatest wish to see all benefit from our presence.”

(Source, accessed 1/May/2012)

For more on exploration in West Papua – see DTE No.82, September 2009.

Additional information compiled by DTE.

Choose water, not gold

The people of Sumba are inseparable from earth, water and stone. “The majority of us are farmers and we need land and water in order to farm”, said Markus Toru, Head of GKS Laloka, after the Ascension Day service in Central Sumba. Their area is near the Manupeuh Tana Daru National Park. People are aware that Wanggameti,  the Water-Giver, and Tana Daru – as land which is vulnerable to desertification[4]  – must be saved from gold mining. If it isn’t, their future is under threat.

Slightly abridged translation from the original Indonesian article by DTE

[2] This company, now UK-Australia-owned BHP Billiton is involved in Kalimantan’s coal rush – see and also DTE's section on BHP Billiton in Dirty Energy, an Alternative Annual Report for Shareholders, published 2011.

[3] Brimob is notoriously quick to use violence when dealing with community opponents to resource extraction projects and has been involved in numerous cases of human rights abuses.

[4] According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), East Nusa Tenggara is already vulnerable to desertification. Its forests are in steep decline, with only 10% remaining, and each year the province experiences water shortages.