Australian mine destroys environment in Kalimantan

Wednesday, February 21, 1996

By WALHI Indigenous communities in Central Kalimantan maintain an Australian-owned joint gold mining venture is polluting their rivers. PT Indo Muro Kencana (IMK) is a joint-venture mining company comprising Muro Offshore Pty Ltd (Ashton Mining, Australia), which holds 90% of the shares, and PT Gunung Perkasa, an Indonesian company with 10% of shares. The company's gold mine is operating in the subdistricts of Permata Intan, Murung and Tanah Siang, which are located in the district of Barito Utara. The area contracted by PT IMK covers 47,962 ha adjacent to the land of the Dayak Siang people, specifically those who live in the villages of Konut, Muro, Hanangan, Dirung Lingkin, Koto, Mangkahoi, Oreng, Luit and Bantian. Rivers used by the Dayak Siang also flow through and around the mining area. These rivers include 11 which flow through the village of Muro, four which flow through the village of Hanangan, two in Dirung Lingkun, three in Datah Kotou, and eight rivers in the village of Oreng. At least 12 other rivers from other subdistricts are also adjacent to the mining area. PT IMK has built infrastructure to support its mining activities, such as mine roads, a processing plant and a waste processing pond. This waste processing pond is located in a valley in the centre of the mining area upstream from the Puteh river, about 700 metres north of the gold ore processing plant. A 33 metre high dyke has been built across the river. Downstream another dam has been built to create a polishing pond. The waste processing pond covers an area of 57 ha, and the polishing pond 12 ha, built to contain up to 9 million tons of waste.


In its environmental monitoring and management plan, PT IMK recognises that the decrease in the quality of the Puteh, Muro and Manawing rivers is due to cyanide and heavy metal pollution which could have been caused by seepage through the dams and the flow of polluted water from the polishing ponds. In order to overcome this problem, PT IMK planned to contain the flow of water from the waste pond into a concrete container which would pump water back to the waste pond. In case of overflow, water would be released into the Puteh river only after it has been detoxified. On November 19, 1994, the people of the villages of Olong Muro, Olung Hanangan, Dirung Lingkin and Datah Kotou, represented by the village heads, LKMD, LMD, PKK and traditional leaders, held a meeting to discuss the pollution of their rivers, which are their main source of water. The meeting produced an agreement where 25 community leaders from the four villages wrote a letter to the regent of Barito Utara, Central Kalimantan. This letter was copied to relevant government offices in the district and province. A copy was also sent to WALHI (the Indonesian Environmental Forum) in Jakarta. The letter described how the Dayak Siang people are suffering from river pollution caused by PT Indo Muro Kencana: (1) On November 16 and 17, 1994, fish and other aquatic creatures, such as shrimp, snail and crab died en masse. Community members witnessed the carcasses floating down the Sei Puto, Sei Muro, Sei Manawing and Sei Barito rivers. (2) On November 30 and December 1, 1994, a similar incident occurred. This time the source of the problem became even clearer as the naked eye could see that the bottom of the river had turned a yellow colour. This was highly unusual, as the river water is normally clear and used for daily water by the indigenous communities from the four villages. (3) The third incident took place on December 21 and 22, 1994 at 9am. It was witnessed by four community members from the village of Olo Muro, namely Punir, Kedor, Ubeng and Togar, and a security guard from PT Indo Muro Kencana who happened to be at the location. (4) The fourth incident took place on December 26 at 1pm. A community member attempted to communicate this problem to the company through the radio. Responding to the letter written by the people of the four villages, Zulkarnaen, the program director of WALHI, wrote a letter of support for the Dayak Siang people's demands to the minister of mining and energy on 15 January 1995. WALHI urged a prompt response from the ministry to stop further pollution by the mine. On February 15, 1995, the community leaders from the four villages held another meeting because there had been no response from the mining company and the communities continued to suffer from the pollution. Forced to use the river which is the main source of their water, some community members suffered skin rashes and stomach cramps. The water tasted sour and bitter. Fish, which are a principal source of livelihood for the four villages, have also become scarce.


This time the meeting produced another letter, addressed to the governor of Central Kalimantan, with the following demands: (1) to cancel the operating licence of PT Indo Muro Kencana if the company does not abide by waste processing regulations; (2) to request assistance from an independent team of experts to investigate the level of pollution; (3) to demand prompt compensation for losses — Rp24,498,000 for land appropriated for campsites and Rp35,311,590 for land appropriated for the dam; and (4) an ultimatum that if there is no response, the villagers will take matters into their own hands. This letter also met with little response. A team sent by the governor visited the Haju and Manawing rivers but did not meet directly with the villagers. On March 8, 1995, a letter from the vice-governor indicated that "the source of pollution does not necessarily originate from PT IMK, as at the time of the reported incidents the company had not yet been in production". This is nonsense, because it was clear from the sound of machines that the company was working day and night. The environmental impact suffered by the indigenous communities around the mining area also includes the effects of dynamiting in Muro Sawang, Muro Nanet, Kalang Kenah, Puteh and Serujan I and II. Also, household waste from the mining area has polluted the rivers of So Lampong and Mengkahui, which flows through the village of Oreng. As early as 1990, the people of Oreng could no longer use the river as their source of water and fishing because of the pollution. Because the company broke its promises to provide clean water to the village of Oreng, the community now fully supports the demands made by the neighbouring village of Olong Muro. Mengkahui river is also affected by water channelled into the river from the open pit mines. The effects of PT IMK's activities can be summarised as follows: pollution of rivers; destruction of land belonging to the Dayak Siang people, including rubber trees, traditional communal lands, sacred lands, hunting grounds, protected forests and productive forests — resulting in the loss of livelihood for the indigenous people; closing of traditional roads by the company; the undermining of the traditional rights and law of the Dayak Siang people; poor relations between the local government and communities affected by the pollution. The people affected by PT IMK's activities have taken a number of initiatives to address the problem: reported the case to the subdistrict head on November 16-17, 1994; unsuccessfully tried to initiate dialogue with the company; asked Yayasan Bina Sumber Daya (YBSD), a local NGO, to assist them with the case; convened meetings of village heads on January 2, 1995; reported the case to the district head of Barito Utara; reported the case to the governor of Central Kalimantan on February 17, 1995 — a team from the governor's office came to the area but did not meet the villagers or visit the polluted sites. WALHI and PT IMK investigated the pollution level of the river and listened to complaints of the villagers, and on March 20, 1995, PT IMK promised to respond to these complaints; on March 26, a district team visited to identify alternative sources of fresh water, fish and other health/sanitation facilities. To date, none of the promises made by PT IMK or the local government have been kept. PT IMK has attempted to move communities away from the river without compensation, claiming that there is a threat of contaminated water. On the other hand, PT IMK still does not officially recognise that its mining activity is polluting the rivers. Floating dead fish continue to be sighted, on May 14 and 26 and again on June 9 and 10. Water buffaloes drinking and bathing in the rivers have also died in March, April and May.
[WALHI is the Indonesian Environmental Forum, a Jakarta-based NGO. This article first appeared in Inside Indonesia.]