Community struggle against gold mine plans

Down to Earth 70, August 2006

Plans for a new gold mine on the northern tip of North Sulawesi are going ahead in the face of determined opposition from local communities.

Meares Soputan Mining (MSM) began construction in Rinondoran Bay even before public consultations over a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) had taken place. MSM is the 85%-owned local vehicle of Archipelago Resources, a company based in Perth, Australia and registered on the UK's Alternative Investment Market. The plans are opposed by communities from the whole area between Lembeh - Bitung, West and East Likupang districts, and Manado, in North Sulawesi province. Indonesia's environment minister, Rachmat Witoelar, instructed PT Meares Soputan Mining late last year to stop all activities as it did not possess a valid environmental impact assessment as required by Indonesian law. An EIA done seven years ago was invalid due to social and environmental changes in the area, known as Toka Tindung.


Brutal attack by pro-company thugs

Participants in a peaceful protest involving 3,200 people from two regencies in North Sulawesi opposed to the Toka Tindung Gold Mining project were attacked on July 13th by a group known as Alliance Pro Investor (AMPI) which had previously expressed their support for the mining project. In the attack, professional thugs believed to be acting in cooperation with mining company workers ambushed the protestors, who were travelling home along a dark stretch of road. They bombarded the anti-mine protesters with rocks, then moved in and beat them with iron bars and wooden clubs studded with nails. In total 54 people were injured including a pregnant woman who subsequently suffered a miscarriage. Seven others were also seriously injured, suffering head and eye wounds requiring medical treatment.

The attacking group is believed to have a close relationship with gold mining company PT Meares Soputan Mining. Police collected evidence and reports on the identity of the attackers in the AMPI group, and subsequently detained three suspects for questioning, including one man understood to be a worker at the mine project.


The first that most local people knew of the revision of the EIA was an announcement in a local newspaper on 16th June giving the general public 30 days to respond to the study. The 'public consultation' required under the EIA regulations was held by the mining company on July 4th in Airmadidi, but only selected pro-mining community leaders were invited to attend. This biased process prompted protests by almost 100 members of the coastal peoples alliance AMMALTA, who prevented the hand-picked panel from entering the consultation. The efforts by the mining company to manipulate the legally required process were then exposed in the local Manado media.

North Sulawesi's governor strongly opposes the MSM mine and has written to the mining minister in Jakarta demanding that construction is suspended until the company has an approved EIA. Despite this and strong local resistance, MSM has continued construction and is bringing in heavy machinery as well parts of the processing plant.

The position of the head of North Minahasa district, Vonny Panambunan, is less clear. Her office was therefore one of the locations of a peaceful mass demonstration organised by AMMALTA on July 13th, involving more than 3,200 participants from coastal communities. They demanded that politicians stand with their constituency against the mine that endangers their livelihoods, or otherwise step down from office. The protest started at the Bitung Mayor's office, proceeded via the district capital, Airmadidi, to Manado, the provincial capital. The protest was widely reported by the Indonesian media.

One reason for popular opposition to the project is the plan to dispose of tailings (mine waste) into the sea, which brings the risk of effects on human health and environmental contamination due to heavy metals and other chemicals contained in the tailings. The controversial method of submarine waste disposal is only used in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, and is at the centre of the conflict between Buyat Bay villagers and US company Newmont (see next item).

The Toka Tindung mining plan threatens the livelihoods of thousands of fishing families in the province and also the provincial government's income from the fishery sector, which amounts to an estimated IDR 500 to 900 billion per year1. Local businesses are not supporting the plan either. "I understand the necessity for business in the region, but this is a get-rich-quick scheme, and the environmental assessments for this mine are woefully inadequate", chairman of North Sulawesi's Chamber of Commerce, Dino Vega, is reported as saying. "Unfortunately, the mining concession was granted under a former regime. We are hoping that we can alert the wider world to this environmental disaster in the making," he said. The provincial North Sulawesi Water sports Association (NSWA) that represents investors in the tourism sector also strongly opposes the mining project which they fear will have a devastating effect on the flourishing local tourism industry.

International conservation organisation WWF is concerned that, in addition to polluting local waters, tailings from the MSM mine will threaten Lembeh Strait - the world-renowned dive area - and Bunaken National Marine Park. Ocean currents could drag waste toward towards the reefs surrounding nearby small islands, which contain a greater diversity of coral species than Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Managing director of Archipelago, Australian businessman Colin Loosemore, told the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, that the mine would operate to internationally recognised environmental standards. "We are complying fully with local regulatory practices," he said. "Our mine tailings will be in the form of finely ground rock, which will be deposited in a submarine trench on the other side of Sulawesi (from Bunaken) between 1,000 and 2,000 metres deep, where they will sink."

Not only is this statement geographically inaccurate, but evidence from the Newmont Minahasa gold mine - also in North Sulawesi - shows that strong ocean currents, tropical storms and a tectonically unstable sea bed will cause tailings dumped in the sea to pollute surface waters and the marine food chain instead of remaining inert on the deep ocean floor.

The local communities are desperate to save their environment and way of life. So far, they have funded all their lobbying themselves through their organisation, AMMALTA (The Alliance Against Mining Waste), even though its members are mainly ordinary farmers and fisherfolk (see DTE 68 for a report on a lobbying visit to Jakarta). This part of North Sulawesi is closer to the Philippines than to Jakarta, so it is expensive for them to get to decision-makers in the capital. It is also difficult to organise discussions, planning meetings and protests when people live in dozens of small, dispersed communities and have to work long hours to maintain their livelihoods.

Nevertheless, AMMALTA held peaceful protests in Manado, Tomohon and the Toka Tindung area on June 5th (Environment Day) and again on July 4th and July 13th with hundreds of people from villages surrounding the mine gathered in each location to draw attention to their case.

(Source: Daily Telegraph 6/May/06; information from AMMALTA and local NGOs)

Note: 1 North Sulawesi Central Bureau of Statistics.


How you can help:

AMMALTA has established an excellent website at including action alerts.