Deadly Coal comes to Europe

Visit to Diksmuide (Photo: Triple11)

Down to Earth 87, December 2010

For many years, DTE has been working with JATAM, the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network on a variety of mining campaigns in Indonesia.

Following the launch of JATAM's 'Deadly Coal' campaign earlier this year,  DTE and JATAM decided to bring the campaign directly to the UK and Europe. There is, we felt, no substitute for hearing directly from those working on these issues 'at the coal face'.

The expression 'at the coal face' has significance today in the debate over the legitimacy and the effects of mining and consuming coal. The dangers of working in underground mines have been all too evident in the past months, with mining disasters in Chile and New Zealand bringing to public attention the risks that miners run. Such disasters are much more common than is widely known; occurring regularly in mines in China, for example.1    

Increasingly, coal is being extracted from open-cast mines, which come with a whole set of problems of their own. These include the much greater environmental and social impacts caused by stripping huge amounts of soil and rock from the land to get down to the coal. These large-scale mining enterprises exclude local communities (there are few jobs as most of the mining is done with heavy machinery) while having negative effects on their welfare, as has been well-documented in recent JATAM reports.2 Given Indonesia's position as the world's largest exporter of thermal coal, and the high global demand for it, the impacts of open-cast coal-mining are particularly concentrated there, and in Kalimantan especially, as centre of the current ‘coal-rush’.


Face to face with the effects of the coal industry

How can European consumers get a clear picture of today's coal industry?  Who do we need to listen and talk to to understand what is happening 'at the coal face'?  Certainly, it is not to the industrial oligarchs, such as Aburizal Bakrie. This Indonesian business magnate and politician appears more interested in expanding his personal empire and fortune and seeking political office than in careful and responsible management of his coal-mining interests in Indonesia.  Nor should we look to the international investors and bankers, who are backing this rush to exploit Indonesia's coal reserves. One of these is Nathaniel Rothschild, the Geneva-based investment banker who is preparing a billion dollar deal to go into partnership with Bakrie through his London-listed mining company, Vallar (see box).  Neither should we look to government officials, who, while claiming to be responding to climate change, protecting forests and safe-guarding human rights are capable of blatantly stating that the activities of these mining companies are "not on the radar"(see below).

Communities in regions such as East Kalimantan, weakened by forced evictions, environmental pollution and degradation, flooding, land-loss, agricultural decline and consequent food sovereignty problems, loss of employment, and health problems, are struggling to make their voices heard.

Recently, a BBC radio journalist explained why an interview with Maimunah from JATAM was not aired, saying that they were hoping to speak directly to a 'miner'.  This begs the question, who are the real people most affected by coal mining today?  Is the mainstream media out of date and out of touch? Is the media's (and therefore the general public's) picture of the mining industry today more influenced by the 'human interest' stories of the rescued Chilean miners, rather than focused on the fact that vast tracts of forest and mountains are being levelled by bulldozers, multi-billion pound financial empire-building deals are fuelling that exploitation, and it is local communities who must bear the impacts?

Rothschild and Bakrie: a London deal?

In October of this year, the Geneva-based investment banker, Nathaniel Rothschild and Aburizal Bakrie announced their intention of going into partnership to put the Indonesian coal business on the world stage by listing a new company on the London Stock Exchange.

The deal, which will effectively see two of the largest Indonesian coal companies, Bumi Resources and Berau coal (both part of Bakrie's business empire) merge with the newly created mining investment company 'Vallar' under the name of Bumi plc.  This deal (to the tune of about US$ 3 billion) will not only give credibility and legitimacy to Bakrie's ever-expanding coal business, but will give it greater access to the investment market in mining, centred in London. 

DTE and others have documented the drive for power and wealth at the expense of communities and the wider Indonesian public that has characterized Bakrie's business operations,  notably in the case of the Sidoarjo mud disaster. 

However, it is Bakrie's growing power in the coal minng sector, through mines such as the massive Kaltim Prima Coal mine in East Kalimantan, that is spurred on by investors such as Nathaniel Rothschild.  All this is being done, apparently without due diligence and oblivious to the many concerns of those affected by coal mining and its deadly consequences.

For more on Bakrie’s business deals, see

Source: Mining Journal 26/11/10,


Advocating for a moratorium on Indonesian coal and reducing coal consumption

Two activists from JATAM - Siti Maimunah and Kahar - arrived in the UK at the end of September this year.  The tour included Belgium, the Netherlands, England and Scotland.  As well as bringing the messages of JATAM's Deadly Coal campaign to Europe, the aim was also to prepare the way for future joint campaigning work by strengthening understanding of coal realities across all of these countries. The campaign's primary message - the overriding importance of reducing European coal consumption - was highlighted. We felt that discussions about transparency, sustainability, corporate social responsibility and accountability needed to be set in this overall framework. After all, the primary driver of the destructive effects of coal mining is the world's ever-growing hunger for energy and high-consumption lifestyles. Legislation, monitoring and enforcement alone will not be enough to halt the damage being done today to communities in Kalimantan and elsewhere by multinational companies, financed by international banks and markets and propped-up by governments in Europe and elsewhere.


Asia-Europe People's Forum

For several years now, a parallel event to the ASEM (the inter-governmental Asia Europe Meeting3), has been being organised by civil society groups as an alternative forum.  Both DTE and the JATAM visitors participated in this Asia-Europe People's Forum, where they contributed to a workshop on mining and Indigenous Peoples' rights. 

The event brought together many different groups, mainly from Asian countries, who drafted a submission to the governmental meeting on a wide agenda for change, with reference to exploitation of natural resources, including mining. The meeting’s 'Call to Action' included recommendations on the economic and financial crises, a just trading and investment system, human rights, including the rights to food, water and health, decent work and climate justice.4 

Given the increasing influence of companies from China and India, it is becoming more important to pay attention to the global connections in the coal industry.  Many Indian companies are now invested in coal in Kalimantan, including the big Indian steel conglomerate, Tata.5 It is vital to build solidarity for affected communities across regions, Europe and Indonesia, Indonesia and India, China and Indonesia.


More coal-fired power

Despite the rhetoric on fighting climate change, throughout Europe governments are re-investing in coal-fired energy.  In the Netherlands, there are plans to build up to 5 new coal-fired power stations. In December, 16 Dutch professors sent an open-letter to the energy companies and their shareholders opposing the building of these power stations and denouncing coal as the ‘most polluting fuel' and 'a thing of the past'.  There is also a legal challenge to the pollution permits that have been granted for these projects.6 In the second week of October, Maimunah and Kahar met various Dutch non-governmental organisations, academics and journalists to discuss how best to face this -  a direct challenge to the call from Indonesia to reduce consumption. 

At a meeting on coal in April 2010, hosted by Both Ends (an NGO based in Amsterdam) the question was raised where the coal to be burned in these power stations will come from and what are the consequences of sourcing the coal from exporting countries, including Indonesia. A significant public debate was generated, supported by a TV documentary that resulted from contact with delegates from Colombia, South Africa and Maimunah from Indonesia - speakers at the Both Ends meeting. 

During the October coal tour in Europe, we met an academic interviewed on this programme. Professor van Genugten is also the Chair of the Netherlands Human Rights Commission. We also met another journalist from a major Dutch newspaper, who is following this debate and subsequently wrote about Indonesian links to the Dutch power supply.7  The Dutch government has also promised a parliamentary enquiry into the sourcing of coal for Dutch energy companies. What the resolution to this debate will be, remains to be seen.  The fact is that, for now, the Dutch government is going ahead with its plans to build new coal-fired power stations and that these power-stations will be sourcing their coal from countries such as Indonesia.

In Belgium with the help of colleagues in NGO Triple 11, we travelled to Antwerp to see at close-hand the plans to develop a new coal-fired power station in the port there.  It was disturbing to see the European end of the 'toxic tour' that Kahar and friends at JATAM East Kalimantan had organised on the shores of the Mahakam river.8 Coal from the endless procession of enormous barges being hauled down the Mahakam river to be loaded on ships for export to Asia and Europe could be seen here, being disgorged onto the Antwerp docks. 

Given the increased sensitivity about climate change and energy security, huge warehouses are now being built to keep these mountains of coal away from public view. As in Kalimantan, access to see these operations is becoming increasingly difficult, with the introduction of more and more security check-points.  Our guide, who had years of experience as a dock-worker and industry engineering manager, remarked ominously how openness and working conditions had deteriorated significantly over the 40 years he had been working there, while security and an atmosphere of suspicion continue to grow. 

In the growing gloom of a wet October evening, we peered at the site of the proposed new coal-fired power station.  Across the other side of the river in the distance was a nuclear power plant and lining our route for miles and miles along the docks were the industrial forest of lights, metal and smoke of Belgium's vast oil refinery business.  Here in Antwerp, between the nuclear power plant, the coal and the oil processing facilities, was the dark, hidden heart of Belgium's energy business.


The European chain of consumption and profit

In the UK, the London Mining Network (LMN), together with DTE and SEAD in Scotland organised meetings with mining activists, parliamentarians, investors, journalists, mining company representatives and members of the public and affected communities (see box). 

Perhaps most significantly for the situation in Indonesia, Maimunah and Kahar, along with DTE and LMN attended the BHP Billiton AGM.  BHP Billiton, through various subsidiary companies, is developing a major new coal project in Central and East Kalimantan.  If this project goes ahead, together with the building of a major railway to transport  coal and other raw materials to the coast for shipping abroad, it will mean the opening up for exploitation of a whole new region of Indonesia, with resulting forest and livelihood destruction likely to be on a massive scale.9 This top-down 'development' will no doubt prove lucrative to a small elite both in Indonesia and abroad. 

Maimunah spoke out strongly against this project, mentioning the accusations by Indonesian government representatives of illegal activities by three of these companies.  DTE questioned BHP about the company's ambitions for unrestrained growth and coal mining in Kalimantan's forests, in the context of climate change. In response, the leadership of BHP Billiton, a company that made billions of pounds profit last year, said it was up to governments to legislate on this - washing,  their hands of their own responsibility for the industry’s impact on the climate, land and people. As if to highlight the size of the gap in understanding, shareholders laughed openly at the suggestion that we would be better off if the coal was left in the ground.10

This abdication of responsibility was a common thread running through many of the official meetings that Maimunah and Kahar attended. The UK Foreign Office offered expansive rhetoric about a proposed 50 million pound bilateral aid project for forest and climate change initiatives in Indonesia, but when it came to challenging UK sponsored mining activities, a direct cause of deforestation and climate change, they had nothing to suggest. At a meeting with the OECD UK contact point, the government representative openly admitted his powerlessness to effect any real change.  Similarly, the ethical investment advisor of the Church of England listened to concerns but made no commitment to look at the issue of investments in Indonesian coal mining.


Five Days in Scotland with Indonesian activists

As part of the coal tour the two Indonesian activists - Siti Maimunah and Kahar - visited Scotland, to meet people involved in climate change work and anti-coal mine campaigning.

They spent five days in the country on a visit organised with the help of SEAD (Scottish education and action for development) -  an organisation working on climate change issues throughout Scotland. A meeting in central Edinburgh was a chance for the Indonesian speakers to recount their experiences fighting coal extraction in Indonesia.

Maimunah spoke passionately about the devastation that companies like Kaltim Prima Coal are inflicting and highlighted the enormous scale of their mining operations. She talked about how the people have to endure regular power cuts whilst so much fossil fuel is extracted on their door step and sent abroad. She spoke too about the hypocrisy and corruption of the government:  - in one area the government has recently allocated more mining concessions than there is actual land.

Kahar  spoke broadly about the work of JATAM and the work that was being done to defend communities in East Kalimantan. He also mentioned that he had been threatened personally with violence for his work.

We also visited Happendon Wood action camp, a direct action site in the Douglas valley, Lanarkshire. Scottish Coal have five open-cast mines in the valley and are planning a further three new mines. The Happendon Wood Action Camp (THWAC) has squatted a beautiful wood which is next in line to be mined. The site acts as a base from which to organise resistance amongst the surrounding communities and to take action, as well as dig in for the longer-term opposition against the future mining operation.


Scottish Parliamentarians’ pension fund invests in destructive mining

On the final day in Scotland, the activists met a member of the Scottish parliament (MSP), Patrick Harvie. Harvie is an MSP for the Scottish Green Party. He is preparing a resolution on coal-mining as a result of the Indonesians’ visit. At the meeting, Richard Solly from London Mining Network made a strong speech on the need to disinvest from mining corporations, and the links between these corporations and the financial services industry in the UK and in Scotland.

Maimunah and Kahar gave their presentations - which provoked a lively and varied discussion, ranging from false solutions to climate change like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), to the fact that Scottish MPs' own pension fund is implicated in financing destructive mining operations.

Edinburgh-based Baillie Gifford, which  manages the SMPs’ pension fund, holds shares in Vale,11 the Brazlilian multinational. This company owns PT Inco Indonesia, which has nickel mining and smelting operations in Sulawesi - the scene of social disruption and environmental damage for many years.12



The task ahead: making clear the true cost of coal

During their month long tour of Europe, Maimunah and Kahar spoke at many different meetings: in the UK and Scottish parliaments, with journalists, independent campaigners and researchers, academics, direct-action coal and climate change activists and NGOs. They described Indonesian coal exploitation and the impacts of this business for communities in Kalimantan and elsewhere.  At all of these meetings, the strongest message again, was that, for this situation to improve, coal consumption in Europe needs to be reduced substantially and the real cost to local communities of mining coal in Indonesia made apparent.  

  1. See, for example
  2. See JATAM’s report and DTE's coal special issue newsletter, August 2010,
  3. See
  5. As outlined in Dark Materials, a report by Nostromo Research summarised in DTE 85-86. See
  6. &
  7. See %20subsidies%20vok%2020101016.pdf
  8. See article in DTE 84, March 2010 at
  9. See DTE 85-86 at
  12. See, for example, DTE 67.