Indigenous community rejects Lembata mine

Down to Earth No.79, November 2008

In May this year, DTE reported local community opposition to a proposed gold and copper mine on Lembata Island, East Nusa Tenggara province. Here we present additional information, from an investigation by the Catholic church group, Justice Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), which was carried out in 2007, at the request of the Lembata local community.1

The mine project, which is being developed by Indonesian businessman Yusuf Merukh, aims to start production in 2011. It involves uprooting at least 60,000 local people and is strongly opposed by the island's indigenous population (see DTE 76-77).

The JPIC report describes the history of mining on Lembata, as well as the current proposal and how it is being pushed onto the Lembata Islanders without their consent. It also details the community's reasons for rejecting the project.

Before the current project, three companies had carried out exploration activities on the island since a mine was first proposed in 1924. Each of these presented only positive aspects mining to try to get the local people on their side; they made promises of prosperity or environmental safeguards that were never kept, and used local people as labourers with poor health and safety safeguards. In each case, the company left the island without rehabilitating the exploration sites.

Mining elsewhere in East Nusa Tenggara province has resulted in communities losing their customary land, forests, mountains and livelihoods. A manganese mine in Manggarai district employs former indigenous land-owners as labourers who work with no protection from manganese dust. The air pollution is thought to have led to the premature death of some workers. This mine has also led to floods and landslides loaded with tailings, which have destroyed water sources, fields and houses.

This history and the nearby manganese mine gives the community good reason to distrust Merukh's promises of prosperity and to oppose the planned gold and copper mine. The local government, however, has agreed to the project without even consulting the community. An MoU was signed between PT Merukh and the district government in November 2005, yet there was no discussion with the community until February 2007. Like the previous companies, Merukh's outfit has only discussed the potential benefits and not the negative impacts that could result. Instead, the local government has tried to intimidate opponents of the mine by calling them stupid and threatening to stop any development plans for the district unless they agreed to the project. The government is also suspected of bringing in outside support for the mine, to make it seem as if the community is divided on the issue.

The proposal has caused conflict between the indigenous islanders who have rejected the mine in public statements, protests, and adat (customary) ceremonies, and non-indigenous transmigrants living on the island who are in favour of the mine.


Threats and dirty tricks

The Bupati and the local government have issued threats against the local population (including death threats) and have waged a campaign of dirty tricks.

Local community leaders who have been vocal in their rejection of the mine have been terrorised by various means, including having their houses pelted with stones, being followed and receiving death threats.

The local government has tried to convince local church leaders to reassign the local pastor to another region because he vocally opposes the mine and supports the community in their efforts to reject the mine.

The government has also tried to create conflicts within the community by, for example, engineering a handover of traditional land by people who are not the traditional owners.

The community's reasons for rejecting the mine are listed as follows by JPIC:

  • The community's livelihood comes from agriculture, not gold. With the money they make from growing candlenut they can afford to send their children through school and even through university.
  • They have been able to develop a successful and profitable cashew nut industry, despite the pollution caused by the previous companies. The cashew plantations would be destroyed if the new project goes ahead.
  • For the community, the minerals in the land are an inheritance from Mother Earth and are not to be taken or destroyed, just as the land itself cannot be bought and sold.
  • For the community, "prosperity" is their land which has been handed down from their ancestors (Lewoulung), their agricultural fields (Mang, Nura Newa) which sustain their life, and the centres of the customary rituals (Nuba Nara). The new mine will cause damage to this land, as well as the sea and the community's connection with their ancestors.
  • There is concern about the long term and what will be left for their children if the mine goes ahead.
  • They feel that the government is acting as if it is state land, which can be sold without the knowledge of the local people.
  • Members of the community don't see themselves as having "skills": if they are relocated by the mine, the only option they have is to become manual labourers.
  • They believe the mine will turn the community into refugees and that there could be conflict with other local communities, as the community will be relocated to another community's land.
  • They want to resolve their concerns through discussion, but the government is determined to proceed with the mine through force. The local parliament has rejected the community's approaches.
  • The people of Leragere (part of Lembata) also feel abused by the local district head - he received their support throughout the election campaign, but as soon as he came to power, he no longer paid attention to their needs. Instead, he has sold their land.
  • The community has presented the local government with an alternative to the mine: to develop the potential of the sea (they have already established coastal marine businesses including seaweed cultivation and fishing), plus agriculture and tourism, but the government has rejected this.


German backing

According to JPIC, the project is being developed by PT Merukh Lembata Copper, a subsidiary of Merukh Enterprises Inc, owned by Yusuf Merukh.2 Three German companies involved in project financing are named as: KPG Kupferprodukte GmbH, Norddeutsche Affinerie AG and IKB Deutsche Industriebank AG.


1 The source of this report is an English summary of the Indonesian language report, by Norwegian Centre for Human Rights. For more information contact
1 Merukh was placed 76th on a list of Indonesia's richest people by Globe Asia this year, with a net worth of $174 million.