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Indonesian Miners and Activists Dig for Answers in New Law

Published by MAC on 2010-03-18
Source: Jakarta Globe

Miners and Activists Dig for Answers in New Law (Indonesia)

Fidelis E Satriastanti

Jakarta Globe

10 March 2010

Underground mining officially became legal in the country’s protected forests on Feb. 1. Now environmentalists and miners are working to determine the viability of such operations and their effect on the rapidly disappearing natural landscape.

The new regulation came against the backdrop of the country’s noisy pledge to protect its vast forest areas as part of its ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020.

“Any kind of mining activities, whether open-pit or underground, will eventually change the landscape,” said Iskandar Zulkarnain, director of geology research at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). “That’s a fixed price. But the impact on the environment caused by mining activities is still unclear.”

In underground mining, Iskandar said, the exploration method does not immediately alter the above-ground landscape as operators usually only build underground tunnels. But the long-term effects are still in question.

Controversy over mining in protected forests has raged since the 1999 Forestry Law, which stipulates that they are off-limits for open-pit mining. The law doesn’t mention underground mining.

Under the 1999 law, forest functions are divided into conservation, protection and forestry-production purposes, with a percentage of the latter allowed for other, non-forest activities, such as plantations.

The controversy centered on the fact that 13 mining companies operating open-pit mines in protected forest areas — including PT Freeport Indonesia, PT Aneka Tambang, PT Karimun Granit and PT International Nickel Indonesia — were given a legal basis for their operations in 2004 when President Megawati Sukarnoputri issued a regulation in lieu of law (perppu).

The regulation issued in February states that protected forest areas can be exploited, but only through underground mining.

“Under the new regulation, it is clear that underground mining can only be done under strict conditions,” Iskandar said “It must not alter the groundwater, change the function of the forests above it or cause surface subsidence.”

He added that underground mining came with higher risks to workers and cost more than open-pit mining. “This method is very expensive. That is why 90 percent of mining sites in this country practice open-pit mining,” Iskandar said.

“Most miners would consider underground mining a last option,” he said, adding that underground mining was most common for gold and coal.

Irwandy Arif, chairman of the Indonesian Mining Professionals Association (Perhapi), said underground mining would only affect a small amount of the land’s surface.

“Underground mining means that [companies] are allowed to extract minerals from under the soil, utilizing surface land for building infrastructure but not chopping down trees as with open-pit mining,” he said.

The new regulation, he added, will encourage future investment because there is now a clear legal prescription on how to mine in protected forest areas, despite the high cost.

Siti Maimunah, national coordinator of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), however, said the regulation was inappropriate given that Indonesia has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world.

“They’re protected forests; even their name says it’s wrong [to exploit them]. How can you change protected forest into mining area?” Siti said.

She called for the new regulation and the 2004 perppu to be reversed, and for a review of the licences given to the 13 mining companies operating open-pit mines in protected forests.

Despite its promising yields, underground mining is a dangerous pursuit, with frequent reports of deadly accidents. Last year at least 32 people were killed when a methane explosion collapsed a mine in Sawahlunto, West Sumatra.

The Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry reported that a total of 284 people were killed in mining-related accidents across the country in 2009.

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