The Deadly Mines of Indonesia
How abandoned mining pits are killing children in East Kalimantan
Image: Newmont mining pit located in Nusa Tenggara Barat by Publish What You Pay Indonesia
It was a hot and humid July day in Sambutan, Indonesia. Junaidi, his brother Ramadhani and their neighbour Miftahul were running and shouting as they raced each other down dirt paths of the spiralling mining pit. Each child was trying to be the first to reach the enticing turquoise pool of water at the bottom of the mine. They arrived at the water’s edge and jumped in to cool off, splashing each other and swimming out into the middle of the expansive body of water.
Hours passed by as the children played in the abandoned pit. As evening fell, their mother waited for their return in time for dinner. With no sign of them, she anxiously alerted her neighbours and the authorities. Early next morning the children’s bodies were found, floating in the blue depths of the abandoned pool.
Stories like these are all too common in the region of East Kalimantan. Since 2011, 26 children’s deaths have been reported around Samarinda where most of the mining pits are concentrated. Their ages range from 3 to 17 years old.
For a city with a population of 727,500 and a vast rural population spread, these deaths have shocked the region. What’s more, other child fatalities could have gone unregistered.
Abandoned mining pits in Indonesia are a huge threat for local communities. There are rarely protective barriers to stop children playing near the toxic polluted water so there is a high risk that many of them will end up drowning if they try and swim.
Parents who have lost children to these ‘death traps’ usually only receive a token compensatory sum of money for their grievances. While some families have started petitions to try and close these disused pits, their outcries usually reach deaf ears.
When 10 year old Muhammad Raihan Saputra drowned in a mining pit 200 metres from his home on 22 December 2014, his mother started a petition on change.org which gathered over 10,000 signatures. She gave the petition to the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry and has spoken to ministers and national institutions but so far the government hasn’t taken action. The petition has since been restarted in light of more recent fatalities.
Civil Society and solutions
The greatest struggle for these local communities is the lack of knowledge about how to use their rights to stand against mining activities appearing in their neighbourhoods. Once the mining companies have done their work and left a gaping hole in the landscape, communities don’t know how to reach out to the government and appeal for these pits to be officially closed and restored.
Kalimantan’s regional Network for Mining Advocacy Network, known as JATAM Kaltim, is one of the main civil society actors fighting for reforms to Indonesia’s mining sector. Their focus on communities destroyed by mining, oil and gas activities has been incremental in raising awareness about mining pit deaths.
Initiatives like the ‘Black Valentine’ protest and films interviewing mothers who have lost their children are just some of the ways Indonesia’s civil society members are taking action to raise awareness.
Civil society organisations play a vital role in helping communities appeal against these deadly incidents in East Kalimantan. Many have appealed directly to President Joko Widodo, elected in 2014, who promised to rectify Indonesia’s poor environmental record.
The President, known as Jokowi, was in East Kalimantan on 23 March 2016 when the bodies of two teenagers were found. He then ordered the Mineral Resource and Environmental Ministries to control and check all mining operations - especially small sites which don’t prioritise safety.
Data from Coordination and Supervision in Mineral and Coal sector conducted by Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the Ministry of Mineral and Energy Resources, shows that 75% of 10,000 mining permit holders didn’t pay the guarantee fee and didn’t do any reclamation involving post-mining.
Companies should discuss with the local government about planning how ex-mines should be used. In accordance with Ministry Regulation no. 7/2014, ex-mining pits should be stabilised, monitored, and maintained.
Missing data involving mining permits and extractive activities is a recurring theme mentioned by local authorities and officials in Indonesia. During the mining boom, basic data surrounding thousands of mining licenses was either inaccurate or lost.
“Children are dying in mining pits because mining companies aren’t fulfilling their obligation in reclaiming post-mining activities,” says Asri Nuraeni, Communications Officer for PWYP Indonesia.
The environmental impact
A quick scroll around the East Kalimantan area on Google Earth will reveal the extent of the pock-marked landscape and the proximity of mining pits to villages.
But it’s Samarinda, the regional capital of East Kalimantan, which has been scarred the most by mining activities. An estimated 232 mining pits out of East Kalimantan’s 500 mining pits are found in Samarinda alone, according to JATAM Kaltim.
The consistent trend of digging then disappearing has left more than marks on a map; it has left a heavy impact on villagers whose children drown in the enticing turquoise pools left behind. Though the light-blue pools look clean, when JATAM Kaltim tested it they found it had a pH of 4.3 – the same pH as acid rain.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, a schoolteacher from the Lok Bahu district said a danger sign had been placed by a mining pit – but it only appeared after a child had fallen in and drowned. The proximity of ex-mining pits to housing developments makes drowning a constant danger; some are within 200 metres of their front doors.
“Most companies haven’t fenced off their mining pits, they say because the mining pits are so large it would be impossible to put a fence around the whole thing,” explains Asri Nuraeni. “Some have recently started protecting their pits but most companies usually install a warning board at the edge.”
“The size of the ex-mining pit depends on the commodity. If the commodity is coal, the pit isn’t so large. But if the commodity is gold or copper, the mining pit tends to be larger.”
How did so many mining pits appear?
Laws like the 2009 Minerals and Coal Mining Law gave district and municipal administrations the authority to issue mining permits. This resulted in an explosion of randomly allocated licenses which has led to over half of East Kalimantan being covered in coal mining permits.
The lack of understanding about how and when to issue permits has been devastating for the environment and communities in the region. As budgets were mismatched with the scale of each mining operation, a huge boom of activity quickly died out - leaving businesses broke and pits abandoned.
The Indonesian government’s Reclamation and Post-Mining regulations “guarantee the stability and safety of closing rock piles, tailing pools, former mine areas, and other man-made structures”. Yet despite being contractually obliged to restore the land they have been working on once activities are complete, very few companies do.
If a company does return to restore their land, they usually prefer to turn it into housing developments or agricultural plots rather than replant forests. According to Indonesia’s Corruption eradication Commission KPK, out of 10,827 mining permits only half met adequate ‘clean and clear’ standards.
Looking to the future
“There has been an improvement in the number of children’s death in mining pit cases since a particular commission, namely ‘the Reclamation and Post-Mining Watch Commission’ was formed on 16 May 2016,” says Asri.
A statement by JATAM Kaltim reads: “For the first time this commission gives hope to communities because its members are academics and professionals. Even though the commission hasn’t make a breakthrough, it’s still important.”
With push-back from civil society organisations and President Joko Widodo making slow but progressive changes for Indonesia’s mining sector, there is a solid opportunity to stop any further fatalities. If he keeps his word about an audit of mining sector results, real improvements to the devastated landscape and its affected communities could be made.
With 26 children having died for this cause, there is an urgent need for reforms to Indonesia’s extractive sector. Yet hope is on the horizon that positive change is coming soon to communities in East Kalimantan.
Words: Olivia Broome
In collaboration with PWYP Indonesia