Action on mud imports

Down to Earth No 44, February 2000

After months of official inaction over the import of waste mud from Singapore, environment minister Sonny Keraf has finally taken action which may halt the shipments.

In a January announcement marking his first 100 days in office, environment minister Sonny Keraf said he had withdrawn a government recommendation from three companies importing waste mud from Singapore. The companies, PT Bangka Dwiwukir Lestari, PT Madya Kartarahardja and PT Asinusa Putra Sekawan, were using this recommendation to go ahead with the imports, although they lacked the legally required licences. The minister has also asked all provincial governors throughout the country not to issue permits which provide sites to dump imported waste.

The mud, excavated during work on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transport underground railway project, has been in and out of the spotlight for almost two years since proposals to ship it to Indonesia first surfaced. Target locations included a mangrove rehabilitation project in Riau and tin mining reclamation work on Bangka island in South Sumatra. On Bangka, PT Dwiwukir planned to import some 1.2 million cubic metres of mud. The Singapore government was planning to pay US $1 compensation for each cubic metre of mud imported.

The January 2000 announcement is a positive step for local communities, NGOs and academics who have lobbied hard to get the imports stopped. Their campaign was stepped up last October when two barge-loads of waste mud entered Indonesian waters from Singapore. The mud was not unloaded due to public pressure and divided opinion among local officials. Since then the ships' crews have been allowed to travel back to Singapore while the vessels remain in Bangka harbour, under control of the Indonesian Navy.

Bangka communities and NGOs led by the South Sumatra offices of the Legal Aid Foundation and environmental group WALHI suspect that previous undetected shipments of toxic mud have been smuggled into Bangka and islands in neighbouring Riau province via the same route.

The groups argue that such shipments violate the Basel Convention to control movements and disposal of hazardous waste. They point to studies which show that the mud from Singapore contains levels of toxic wastes far above legal limits. The mud is also reported to contain plastic and construction debris. Officials supporting the imports, like South Sumatra Governor Rosihan Arsyad, have quoted other studies, including one carried out by Riau University which found no contamination in samples.


Clear as mud

The NGOs also point out that there was no legally required permit for the mud imports to Bangka - only a 'recommendation' from the environment minister serving under the discredited Habibie government, Panangian Siregar. No permit was issued by the provincial government and - regardless of whether the mud was toxic or not - the companies involved should not have proceeded without this.

The groups have also lobbied the South Sumatra provincial assembly. At a meeting with DPRD members in November WALHI and LBH Palembang staff were assured that the local and provincial authorities had decided to reject the imports and to order the return of the shipments in Bangka to Singapore. While legal issues were being investigated, they were requesting the police to start legal proceedings against those involved.

But NGOs have remained sceptical that any concrete action will be taken against the companies or against any officials they accuse of manipulating documents. The environment minister's January announcement offers hope that the imports will stop, but factionalism in the Jakarta government and the hidden commercial and political interests involved mean that it is far too early to celebrate a victory.


The 100-day decisions

In addition to withdrawing the waste import recommendations, environment minister Sonny Keraf's working group on the environment has come up with recommendations on a number of other controversial issues. These include:

  • The pulp and rayon producer PT Indorayon - should move from North Sumatra or be shut down (see article on Indorayon in this issue);
  • Gold mines in North Sulawesi and Sumbawa operated by US-based Newmont - company requested to conduct new thorough investigations into the impact of tailings on the marine ecosystem (see also mining section);
  • Central Kalimantan 'PLG' mega-project - continue work in some areas, reforest others;
  • Freeport/Rio Tinto gold mine, West Papua - more time needed to investigate the environmental impact.

                                                                               (Tempo Interaktif 17/Jan/2000)

Regional dump?

The battle to stop the Singapore mud has implications for Indonesian communities and their environment which reach far beyond Riau and South Sumatra. The ongoing economic crisis makes the country easy prey for unscrupulous companies or governments wishing to offload unwanted waste of all kinds. According to Prof Haryoto Kusno Putranto of the government's environment agency, Bapedal, the mud imports from Singapore may be a test run to see whether Indonesia will accept more. "Perhaps they want to try us out," he said at a seminar in November. Ominously, he also alluded to information from the Indonesian intelligence agency (Bakin) which warned against efforts to import low level radioactive waste from Taiwan.

By returning the mud-laden ships to Singapore, Jakarta will be sending an important message to the world: that it does not want be turned into a regional rubbish dump - however much it needs the money.

(Sources: Tempo Interaktif, 17/Jan/2000; Notes from meeting between DPRD South Sumatra, LBH Palembang and Walhi Sumsel, 11/Nov/99; Gatra 1/Jan/2000; Republika 19/Nov/99; Jakarta Post 15/Dec/99)