MAC: Mines and Communities

Indonesia update

Published by MAC on 2007-07-20

Indonesia update

20th July 2007

Mining giant to raze apes’ forest home

Clare Rewcastle and Jon Ungoed-Thomas, Sunday Times (UK)

15th July 2007

THE world’s biggest mining company, a supporter of the BBC’s Saving Planet Earth campaign to protect orang-utans, is planning to raze some of the great apes’ rainforest habitat.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Times reveal that the Anglo-Australian group BHP Billiton plans to exploit mining rights across swathes of Borneo’s tropical forests in southeast Asia. It has lobbied for the protected status of some of these areas to be lifted so it can clear the trees and dig for coal.

Details of the proposed open cast mines in the region, known as the Heart of Borneo, have outraged environmentalists and wildlife experts. The company promotes its green credentials and supported work to help save Borneo’s orang-utans, shown on Saving Planet Earth, presented by Sir Richard Attenborough.

Less than two miles from where the orang-utans were released BHP Billiton has plans for a vast open-cast coal mine that conservation experts warn will cause huge damage to the island’s wildlife and ecological systems. It is one of seven “forest mines” the company has secured rights to exploit.

David Chivers, of the Wildlife Research Group at Cambridge University, said: “This is going to be a belt of mines right across rainforest. It will drive out wildlife and will be a disaster for the island.”

BHP Billiton is part of a “coal rush” to develop mines in the rainforest areas of Borneo that previously had protected status. Environmental activists estimate there are mining rights at up to 200 locations.

The company insists it will only mine in permitted zones and use sustainable practices but the British government is concerned by the lobbying campaign to revoke protected status of parts of the rainforest.

Barry Gardiner, the Labour MP appointed the prime minister’s special representative on forestry, is seeking a parliamentary debate on the issue this week.

The Heart of Borneo is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, where elephants, rhinos and leopards roam through pristine rainforest. Last January, the three governments that have territory on the island (Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) signed a treaty to conserve the area.

BHP Billiton has been keen not to publicise its extensive interests in the region but internal company documents show it has concessions that give it mining rights in hundreds of thousands of acres of the rainforest.

Initial work has started at one site, Maruwai, and managers have ambitious plans for the forest mines. Speaking at a coal industry conference in Bali last month, Nurul Fazrie, the company’s community relations and development superintendent, said: “We have the demand for coal and we will be the largest producer of coking coal in Indonesia.”

Environmental campaigners oppose extensive open-cast coal mining in rainforests because it means the loss of wildlife habitat. Deforestation is also thought to contribute to the increase in flooding that has caused havoc on the island in recent years.

BHP Billiton, which has 38,000 employees in 25 countries, first acquired its Indonesian coal concession in the 1990s from the Suharto government. During the dictator’s regime the rainforests were systematically exploited.

When Suharto was finally deposed in 1998 the new government gave the rainforests protected status and outlawed open cast mining. But BHP Billiton and other mining companies successfully fought back, overturning the blanket ban on their mining practices.

The companies have also campaigned to revoke the protected status of some of the rainforest. The impact of this lobbying can be seen in official government maps of BHP Billiton’s operation in Maruwai. The 120,000 acres covered by the company’s concession were once almost entirely protected forest but under the latest plans only a small proportion will be protected and the company hopes to extract more than 5m tons of coal a year.

Farah Sofa, deputy director of Walhi, an Indonesian environmental group, said: “BHP Billiton is a climate dinosaur. A deluge of base camps, roads, and open-cast pits would eat the heart of this island from the inside out.” Sources close to government officials said the plans to repeal the protected status had already been approved at a local level and were now being considered by more senior officials.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been instrumental in protecting the Heart of Borneo, but has been reluctant to criticise BHP Billiton. It says it is concerned that if the company pulled out of the island it would be replaced by other mining operations that would cause even more damage.

BHP Billiton would not comment on its lobbying to remove the protected status of some of Borneo’s rainforest but said it would develop any mining operations in close consultation with the Indonesian government and conservation groups.

A statement issued by the firm said: “BHP Billiton is mindful of its environmental responsibilities and any development will be in compliance with Indonesian law.”

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