MAC: Mines and Communities

Part two: Scars which will never heal

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

Part two: Scars which will never heal

I remembered the words of Kathryn Robinson, who toured PT Inco's imperial domain in 1985. "Strip-mining....induced the clayey soil from the hills to wash into the lake when it rained. Streams that once ran clear had become yellow."(1) Then there was the damning article published six years later by the Jakarta Post, recording how dust from the nickel smelter was choking Soroako town. Yes, Inco had launched a US$60 million dust reduction programme, said the Post. But "that does not mean that the skies will be clean tomorrow" According to PT Inco's then-President, Roy Aitken, that would take "another five years" - by the end of 1996.(2)

I was one of the few independent observers to have ventured into Incoland since. The past two years had been a period of considerable expansion of Inco's mining, milling, smelting, and hydro capacities. Much of this had been underwritten by Inco's long-suffering "stakeholders" (US$240 million as against US$340 raised from international banks) (3). It had reaped few benefits for the people of Indonesia, despite the fact that Soroako's is the second cheapest source of nickel in the world. And cheap at what cost? That of labour? Of the environment? Those amorphous indicators clutched beneath the umbrella of "sustainability"? These were the questions confronting me as I entered Soroako this March. (I knew already that the cheapest nickel in the world is hewn from Russia's Kola Peninsula by the vast outfit, Norilsk. Its smelters, now largely privatised, are still the biggest spewer-out of sulphur dioxide in the world's most polluting state, and historically the largest single cause of acid rain in the forests of Scandinavia. The lives of thousands of Indigenous Peoples in the region have been wrecked by its operations, many of whom were used as slaves under Soviet domination. About half the land mass will probably never sustain agriculture) (4).

They weren't easy questions to answer. More than 10,000 workers had originally been employed to construct Nickel Town (that name still adorns the entrance arch to the town, though Soroako has sprawled so vastly since, it is rather like calling modern Rome "the Papal village"). Most of these had long departed. Hundreds more, attracted from as far afield as Bali and Java, were now being employed on short-term contracts to construct the second phase of the Larona hydro scheme and the fourth smelter line. I met a few of these contract workers, downing coke and cherry-flavoured Fanta, during a lunch break at one of Soroako's numerous "rumah makans" (road-side dining stalls). One told me he was earning the kind of wages which enabled him to join his family back home in Java, once or twice a year. I asked him if he had any complaints.

"Safety standards are terrible", he replied. "Workers often break their legs, lose a limb, or worse. It's their own fault, they just don't observe the rules". But, safety is a two-way street. (In England an ex-miner is currently suing the world's biggest mining company, Rio Tinto, after he contracted oesophagal cancer at the Rossing uranium mill in Namibia. The company claimed that protective masks had been available, but workers neglected to wear them. The plaintiff argues that this was irrelevant: the company owed a duty to its workforce, which it wasn't fulfilling)

These workers will almost all have soon disappeared from Soroako (that's presuming there are no more delays in completing the expansion). In contrast, many of PT Inco's 2,000-plus Indonesian miners, engineers, loaders, mill workers, screeners, hauliers, and professionals, have lived in Soraoko virtually all their working lives, and have no plans to move. They own homes which - at first sight - could have been lifted from an affluent trailer park on an Ontario lakeshore, and dropped wholesale on the banks of the Matano. (In fact they were constructed by Inco then sold to the workforce.) Although it took the company no less than six years to reach a wages and benefits package agreement with the workforce (5) Inco now claims that their living standards are among the highest in Indonesia. Average blue-collar wage is 1.9 million rupiahs (just under C$400 or £160) a month - nearly twice that earned by mine workers at the Rio Tinto-BP managed Kaltim Prima coal mine in Kalimantan (6). Such income is understandably the envy of other Indonesians. Elsewhere in Sulawesi, conservationists report that local people, driven by poverty enforced on them by the Soeharto regime, have resorted to the imprisonable offence of hunting rare species, for sale as "exotic" cuisine. Illegal logging has markedly increased (I was to see some of it going on unchecked within the Soroako concession itself), as income from exported commodities has veered downwards on international markets. Thousands rioted last year against the soaring price of rice in Jakarta (7).

Long-term prospects?

These stark realities seemed a far cry from the leisurely pace of life enjoyed by salaried PT Inco employees. But I could still detect their uneasiness about long-term prospects. The drastic devaluation of the rupiah was encouraging Soroakons to compare their lot with those of workers overseas ("We know we earn far less than others doing the same work in Canada," said one.) In late 1996, furnace number 3 had exploded, killing a worker nearby and putting the entire plant out of operation for several weeks (8) (nor was this the first fatality in the smelter complex) (9). The response to such disasters is muted. Inco introduced new safety rules in 1997, but nobody was fired or held responsible for what had happened the year before. PT Inco's workforce continues to be "represented" by the old government-controlled trade union centre, the FSPSI, which was set up to deter, rather than promote, workers' demands. Although a "reformasi" FSPSI is now establishing itself in Indonesia, it has yet to gain widespread recognition, either within or outside the country.

The faltering of power supplies in 1997 significantly reduced nickel output for 1998, even as world prices spiralled downwards: PT Inco's net profit was reported to have toppled by 74.5% between 1997 and 1998 (10). I told Soroakons about Inco's seesawing negotiations with the Innu nation and the Newfoundland provincial government in Canada, over exploitation of what the company claims is the world's largest nickel deposit, at Voisey's Bay in Labrador. Then there is the threatened development of low-cost nickel sources in Australia. This gave Soroakons pause for thought. Inco had committed one and a half billion Canadian dollars to boosting its Indonesian nickel operations over the next 25 years. But, if Voisey's really was the world's biggest source of nickel ore - along with other valuable mineral "credits"- might the Indonesian expansion get irretrievably stalled? Were the workers of Soroako about to be pawns in a corporate game-play over which they had no control - not even the support of a strong trade union?

If capital costs for Voisey's Bay (or any of Inco's other global plays) markedly increase, it is possible that allocations in Indonesia for HS&E (health, safety and environment) will be cut back further than they have been already. What I saw at Soroako did not give me much confidence for the future. In theory, the company has long been re-seeding mined-out areas. In practice much of this is a sham (hinted at by the corporate smallprint which promises the use of overburden stockpiles for reclamation only "wherever practicable")(11). The galloping exploitation of the past two years is clearly outstripping Inco's ability (or inclination) to rehabilitate land, which had a precarious fertility in the first place, and many of whose nutrients would have been washed away after the removal of forest cover.

The plantation programme may have had some success on gentler slopes, and where care has been taken to conserve the topsoil. But only a smattering of diminutive acacias perches forlornly on the older, steeper piles. In other areas, lateritic dumps have been allowed to harden into typical, gigantic rust-red ant-hills - suitable for motor-bike scrambling, but little else. I predict that the scars on Soroako's surrounds will never completely heal.

Dust to dust

Although the sulphur content of Soraoko's ore is well below that of Sudbury (Inco's nickel mining and smelting complex in Ontario, Canada), dust and particulates pose major problems. Inco admits that emission standards during Soroako's first fifteen years were below par - claiming they were based on those current in Canada at the time. However, the upgrade and monitoring programme approved in 1992 was geared to Indonesian, not Canadian, limits (12). The most important part of the revised environmental management and monitoring plan was the retrofitting of electrostatic precipitators (ESP) to the kiln exhausts, aimed at capturing emissions. The programme is officially "well advanced" - but not advanced enough by any stretch of its public relations talk. An employee who has responsibility for part of the plant made a little shrug when I asked him for the completion date. "None has been fixed", he replied.

The evidence of procrastination is plain to see. Set on the crest of the main Soroako site, the stacks belch out their plumes by day and night, in streams of weirdly shifting colours. Several of the chimneys seem to be staggering on their final legs, fated to topple over in a high wind. At the height of a conventional five-storey building, they spread most of their outfall within a few kilometres of the plant. But this is also the highest point in Soroako, which means that some of it is inevitably cast over a much wider field. A brief walk through the brush and across part of the reclamation area quickly revealed blankets of ash and dust upon what is left of the grasses and trees within the concession area. A local guide took me to a clove plantation 10 kilometres from the smelting complex, where I plainly detected the "crowns" on upper branches, the ragged mis-shaping of leaves, and sickly patches on the bark, familiar to those who observe the impacts of smelters on forests in the northern hemisphere.

I had several meetings with Soroakan residents, where I raised questions about the smelter pollution and its effects. None of them currently worked with Inco, and all had grievances against the company - primarily over lack of compensation for loss of their land twenty years before. Perhaps Inco would say they were biased and misinformed, but I found them sincere and direct. Had they noticed a deterioration in the quality of air, over the past few years? "Yes," one told me. "The roofs of our houses are decaying. Before Inco came we could use them for many years. Now, after five or six years, they go rusty and need replacing. We suffer continual bouts of flu, colds and asthma - particularly our children, But when we go to the (company-run) health centre, we're simply told 'its not a big problem:' and given some pills". It's difficult to prove causality for such claims, especially when an alarming number of Soroakons are addicted to kretek cigarettes (the deadliest of all, according to the World Health Organisation). Whatever the reason, there are clearly quite a few sickly people in Incoland, and an independent health study is an urgent necessity.


(1) Kathryn Robinson, Stepchildren of Progress: the political economy of development in an Indonesian mining town, State University of New York Press, 1986)

(2) Jakarta Post, November 26 1991

(3) South East Asia Mining Letter, London March 1 1996

(4) Milieudefensie, Taking Responsibility: Metal mining, people and the environment, Amsterdam, December 1997

(5) George Aditjondro "Can Soroako and Tembagapura become regional centres for development?" in Prisma, Jakarta, August 1982

(6) Report of the ICEM (International Chemical Energy and Mineworkers Union) mission to Kalimantan, 6-9 December 1998, Brussels

(7) Curtis Runyon "An Unfinished Revolution" in World Watch, January/February 1999, World Watch Institute, Washington DC

(8) South East Asia Mining Letter, London November 29 1996

(9) Six workers were killed and four later died from their injuries, as the result of an explosion at one of the furnaces in mid-1990 (Mining Journal, London September 7 1990). According to Carolyn Marr, in her book Digging Deep: the hidden costs of mining in Indonesia (Down to Earth and Minewatch, London 1993), most of the national press in Indonesia didn't report the tragedy, while the Jakarta Post only mentioned its impact on nickel production - not the fact that workers had been killed. She asks, "Was this self-censorship in a country where multinational companies cannot be seen to do wrong?" (Digging Deep, p.91)

(10) Jakarta Post February 12 1999

(11) PT Inco Twenty Five Years anniversary publication, Indonesia 1993

(12) Ibid

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