Coal in East Kalimantan: taking the toxic tour

Down to Earth No.84, March 2010

In February of this year, at the invitation of JATAM (the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network) and JATAM Kaltim (JATAM East Kalimantan), DTE staff member Andrew Hickman went to see for himself the effects of coal mining in and around Samarinda, East Kalimantan.

He saw a 'coal rush' that is stripping bare the hills and forests around Samarinda and shipping out Kalimantan's mineral riches to foreign countries day after day, with little thought to the consequences.

On the 8th March, JATAM launched its 'Deadly Coal' campaign to highlight the extent of the damage caused by Indonesia's coal industry, centred on Kaliamntan, and to try to stem the tide of coal washing out of the country. As part of the campaign, JATAM is aiming to reveal the realities behind the coal industry to the public - both locally and beyond East Kalimantan. Taking people on a 'Toxic Tour' aims to wake up public opinion to the poisonous effects that this industry is having on local livelihoods and the environment.

As we drove out of Samarinda along the shores of the Mahakam river, the dark procession of barges pulled by huge tugs, ferrying coal downstream to the port of Samarinda made a deep impression. In Samarinda the coal is transferred to ships waiting to carry their cargo to markets in Japan, Korea, China and Europe. The sheer size of each of these barges impresses upon all who see them the scale of this plunder. (For 'plunder' really is the only word to describe what is being allowed to happen to the natural resources of East Kalimantan as they are shipped away to feed the ever-growing international demand.)

Each 'pontoon', or barge, carries an estimated 6-8,000 tonnes. Local people described how these barges process down the river every day from dawn to dusk. We were told that in the space of 30 minutes up to 10 barges could pass by. The vast majority of this coal (over 80%) is exported out of Indonesia.

We drove all day up one side of the Mahakam river and then back down the other side. Our route was lined with mine after mine, where coal was being dug out of the rich fertile ground of East Kalimantan. Currently, there are over a thousand different mining concessions operating in the region and this number is growing day by day. Since 2001 and the introduction of regional autonomy and decentralisation, the mining industry has grown exponentially. Interspersed amongst these new mining projects are the abandoned remains of the timber industry, evidence of the previous 'timber rush' that has succeeded in extracting almost all of the available and valuable timber of the region. Of the 80,000 or so people that this previous industry attracted to the region to work in the saw and plymills, only a relative few still remain employed. Employment for local people in the new coal mines is minimal and on the whole is restricted to security and manual support jobs.The more skilled jobs (and therefore better paid jobs) are generally taken by outsiders.

Instead, local communities must bear the brunt of the negative impacts. JATAM's research has found that poverty, corruption, health problems and - ironically - a lack of electricity supply are closely associated with coal-mining districts. Women are especially badly hit by the mining's disruption of food and water security, as well health problems, and social impacts of mining, including the trafficking of women and prostitution.1

The communities that we saw on our toxic tour were there not as a result of this industry, but despite it.

In amongst the decaying timber mills, we drove under looming conveyor belts that brought the coal down from the mines to the river's edge where the coal was being loaded onto the barges. Men doused the coal with jets of water as it was poured onto the barges. On both sides of the river, these loading stations and barges dominated the shoreline. We stopped to take photographs of these structures and the distant views of the mines attached to them, but we did not stay long in any one place, conscious that the security guards patrolling the mines were under instruction to stop people documenting their operations.

An hour or so up river from Samarinda is the growing city of Tenggarong. From the billboards advertising the local elections, to the new theme park built on an island in the river and the new 15,000 seater football stadium, it was evident that this was a city with aspirations. Apparently, the city's annual budget is the biggest in Indonesia (reportedly 4.6 trillion rupiahs - around USD 500 million a year). Stories of sons and daughters of governors and ex-mayors competing with each other for higher and higher political positions strengthened this impression of a boom town now built on coal (and presumably previously on timber and other natural resources.) Whether any of this rivalry amongst the political oligarchy actually benefits the local community did not seem to be a question anyone expected to ask or be asked.

With such massive natural resource exploitation going on, the question certainly remains: where is all the wealth that is undoubtedly being generated, going? In Samarinda, our taxi driver mused on the issue of politics and government budgets, as we passed the largest mosque (reportedly) in South East Asia, recently built by the Governor at a cost of nearly 1 trillion rupiahs prior to his reelection campaign.

Almost without exception, the mines that we saw were open-cast mines, where the surface layer of land is bulldozed away to enable access to the coal underneath. We drove through landscapes of waste lakes that were left over from previous mining activity. We heard tales of poisoned land and poisoned water supplies as the mining industry's legacy to the region. Our route took us past a community being slowly strangled by this process of ever-expanding mining concessions and ever-diminishing clean water supplies. In amongst this landscape, was a community of Balinese transmigrants that had managed to hold out against companies' expansion plans. Their paddy fields and gardens were a testament to the past history of cultivation and food production in the area and a reminder of the fertility of a land now overrun by mining companies. Unfortunately however, this village was the exception not the norm in the areas that we visited.

As we drove back into Samarinda through the dusk, the mining activity became more intense and concentrated. The companies were carving out huge roads into the hills to enable their trucks access and the scale of operations got larger and larger as we approached Samarinda again. Our friends at JATAM listed off the companies involved in these enterprises: Wilaro, Anugerah Bara Kaltim, Global Energy, Fajar Bumi Sakti, Kayan, Kim Co, Jembayan Muara Bara (JMB), Mahakam Sumber Jaya (MSJ), Kiladin, Lembuswana, Bukit Baiduri Energi... the list went on. Companies and investment from Korea, Japan, Thailand all formed part of the picture.

It is this growing global appetite for coal that JATAM is hoping to stem through its international Deadly Coal campaign. The demand for coal is putting increasing strain on local communities who are on the frontline. The campaign aims to document the situation on the ground, as well as the chain of consumption that leads to violations of rights and livelihoods. The message is that we are all connected in this picture and therefore the solution to end this destructive exploitation must come from all of us.


Deadly Coal Campaign

Main campaign demands include:
  • Mining companies - stop mining coal from Kalimantan
  • Consumer countries - including Japan, China, India, USA, European Union - reduce demand for coal and stop buying Indonesian coal.

For more information see 


Nationally, JATAM are calling for an environmental audit in Kalimantan. Internationally, the campaign sends the message that the destruction of the forests in Kalimantan is not just a climate change issue and is not a problem caused by and limited to Indonesia alone. Instead it is is a problem caused by international demand and it affects real livelihoods and communities in Indonesia. To address the problem, we need to reduce the international demand for coal, and enable Indonesia to better meet the needs of its people in a sustainable way that does not compromise the interests of current and future generations.

BHP Billiton stays in Kalimantan

The giant Australian-British multinational mining company BHP Billiton has cancelled plans to sell seven mining concessions covering 355,000 hectares in Maruwai, Central Kalimantan.i Last year the company said it would not go ahead with the coal project because it didn't fit the company's long term investment strategy.

Indra Diannanjaya of PT Juloi Coal, one of BHP's local subsidiaries at Maruwai, said the company would instead sell a minority 20-25% stake in the project.

He was quoted by Reuters as saying that the project was expected to start commercial production in 2014, with output reaching 6 million tonnes of both thermal and coking coal within five years. Between USD500 million and 1 billion would be needed to produce 6 million tonnes, he said.ii

As one of the world's biggest producers and marketers of export thermal coal, BHP Billiton's contribution to climate change has often been highlighted by environmental campaigners. Coal is the dirtiest fossil in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

The company has attempted to improve its image by getting involved in schemes like the Australian government's Kalimantan Forests and Climate Partnership (KFCP) REDD project - itself a controversial project.iii

Apart from its interest in the Maruwai coal project, the company is exclusive marketing agent for PT Arutmin Indonesia, the country's third largest private coal producer. Arutmin operates six mining locations in South Kalimantan.iv

In 2008, BHP pulled out of a large-scale nickel mining project on Gag Island, off West Papua.v

i Kontan 24/Nov/2009
ii Reuters 27/Jan/2010
iii See DTE 82
v See DTE 79



1 JATAM and WALHI Kalsel press release 8/Mar/2010 - see