Villagers and PT PLN in Riam Kanan dam dispute

Down to Earth No 56  February 2003

Local people in South Kalimantan whose land was taken for a dam project over thirty years ago, threatened to cut electricity supplies if the state electricity company continued to deny them proper compensation.

Shortly after December's Idul Fitri Islamic festival, tension built up at the site of the Riam Kanan dam, South Kalimantan, when local people threatened to close down the hydroelectric power plant on 1st January. This threat is part of villagers' protest against PT PLN (Indonesia's state-owned electricity company) which failed to honour an agreement it signed with the Banjar district administration and representatives of local people on January 23, 2002. If the action had gone ahead, it could have brought power cuts to the provincial capital, Banjarmasin, and surrounding areas, affecting fish farms and irrigation-dependent sectors. According to a source, the action didn't go ahead, after a local religious leader asked the people not to carry out the threat.

In an open letter, local leaders claimed that the action would be taken in accordance with their agreement with PT PLN. Media reports quoting local people say that this agreement gives the people the right to take over and switch off the Riam Kanan power plant for a period of one month in January 2003 should PT PLN fail to pay compensation for the land taken for the project.

The 2002 agreement was a milestone in the long-running dispute between PT PLN and the people living in nine villages affected by the dam project - Tiwingan Lama, Tiwingan Baru, Banua Riam, Artain, Kalaan, Apuai, Bunglai, Rantau Bujur and, Rantau Balai. During the 30 years since the project started, the villagers have been demanding just compensation for their land taken for the reservoir.

Between 1963 and 1973 some 9,000 hectares of land was cleared to build the Riam Kanan dam, resulting in the mass relocation of the villagers. The hydropower plant provides at least 15% of South and Central Kalimantan's regional electricity supply. Ironically, there is still a significant number of households in the surrounding area without electricity. The dam has caused chronic environmental problems, too. Local people, mostly farmers, were resettled to poorer quality land, lacking the fertile soils of the river basin where they used to farm. According to Indonesian researcher and former regional forestry official, Dr Indrabudi, in order to sustain their livelihood, farmers were forced to plunder forested and environmentally valuable areas, which resulted in severe surface and gully erosion.

Despite signing the agreement, PT PLN has so far refused to pay Rp162 billion (US$18 million) demanded by the villagers in compensation for around 10.81 hectares of land used for the dam. The company argued that the land belonged to the state, not local peoples, even though it had paid compensation of more than Rp173 million (US$19,000 at current rates) when the project was being constructed. PT PLN dismissed the figures demanded by the villagers as unreasonable. The company further claimed it had distributed the money among 1,377 families and the value was considerably high at the time. This has been refuted by the villagers, who say that the money was only to compensate their crops, not their land.

After pursuing fruitless out-of-court negotiations, PT PLN may take the case to court to put an end to the dispute The Banjar administration has admitted it can do nothing to help the local people.

Meanwhile, the local people are seeking mediation through Indonesia's national human rights commission, Komnas HAM. Time will tell how much longer is needed to reach a satisfactory solution for all. One problem is that among the local representatives there is a split between those who are determined to pursue the case and others who favour avoiding an open confrontation between the community and security guards at the hydropower plant site.

(Source: Radar Banjarmasin, 28/Dec/02, Banjarmasin Post 26,28/Dec/02 & 14/Jan/03; Jakarta Post, 8/Jan/03; MinergyNews.Com, 31/Dec/02; Bouter, H. 'Dam troubles in Kalimantan', Wageningen International Studies Papers, Issue 31, 2002)