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On Indonesia's Seram Island, a massive oil find lies beneath sacred land

Mongabay - July 25, 2023

Christ Belseran, Martha Dianti, Seram Island, Indonesia – Zainudin Kelsaba traversed across the eastern Seram highland and stopped at an ancient outcrop grown over by trees and scrub.

"The mountain is our home," Zainudin told Mongabay Indonesia. "The trees and rocks are part of our life."

Uncertainty and fear have also become part of life for the Bati Indigenous people since prospectors began work in the remote landscape, hoping to unearth one of Indonesia's largest untapped stores of hydrocarbons.

Seram lies 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of the Australian city of Darwin and is the largest island in Indonesia's eastern Maluku province. The island emerged out of the sea with the Manusela Formation, following a clash of multiple tectonic plates during the Miocene period more than 5 million years ago.

The unique complexity of Seram's geology, which extends far back to the Jurassic Period, likely contains a vast haul of oil and gas that has remained almost entirely untouched – until now. Last year, PT Balam Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of Australia's Lion Energy, conducted seismic surveys that have spurred optimism that Seram's hydrocarbons may be viable.

This month, the company announced "highly promising" results from its belowground study.

"Given the extremely large size of the prospects confirmed by the new seismic, we are confident we have a world-class prospect portfolio," Lion executive chairman Tom Soulsby said on July 6 in an announcement to the Australian Stock Exchange.

Not everyone is buoyed by the news. Members of the Bati Indigenous community interviewed by Mongabay Indonesia said the drilling had already disturbed sites they considered sacred.

"The traditional elders are having dreams that the village will be flooded as a warning from our ancestors," said Yunus Ramalean, a Bati Tabalean elder.

Near the rock formation high on the island, Zainudin said there should be no activity on what the Bati community considered to be their ancestral land.

"Mount Bati cannot be disturbed by anyone," Zainudin said. "The soul is sacred."

Black gold

Toward the end of July, Indigenous Bati communities dressed in red head coverings laid coconut leaves near a hole drilled by Balam's survey contractor.

The sasi ritual took place under a solemn tone, accompanied by the sobbing of a Bati elder. The elder kneeled and kissed the ground near the site of the drilled hole. Others followed, the men weeping openly as birdsong trilled through the forest.

"Leave as soon as possible," the elders said, directing their command to the absent surveyors.

The ritual then moved to the Kapitan Duba forest near a workers' dormitory, guarded by officers from the Indonesian police's SWAT-like Mobile Brigade.

"You can't come in here – this is a place of our traditional rituals," said a young man from the Bati community. "We have barred this place several times but still they come."

The Bati people have stewarded this land for centuries, according to Pieter Jacob Pelupessy, a sociologist at Pattimura University in Ambon, the Maluku provincial capital, and author of a 2013 book on Bati culture.

The community was mostly cut off from modernity until the East Seram district government constructed a road connecting villages in 2009, according to the anthropologist's book, Esuriun Orang Bati.

Pieter said the land here remained intrinsic to the community's sense of identity in the world. "In my view, the customary territory in Bati possesses a soul," he said.

Campaigning begins

National development projects – from Indonesia's new capital construction to expansion of nickel mines – often run into local opposition from the communities living on the land allocated for infrastructure and industrial production.

Opposition to lifting oil from the ancient Manusela Formation has reached farther afield than the ancient limestone outcrop and the ritual sites in the highland of the Bati community.

In late 2022, hundreds of people joined a demonstration in Bula, the seat of East Seram district, against drilling in the island's east.

Bahril Kelibai, the coordinator of the Save Bati advocacy group, said the exploratory work on customary territory had been conducted without obtaining approval from the community.

"They drilled at three points in locations considered sacred by the Bati people," Bahril said.

"Bati is the face of the Maluku people's civilization," said Yunus Rumalean, the Bati elder. "The Bati Indigenous people care greatly about the integrity of their birthright."

Civil society activists say the Bati case reflects the lip service paid by Indonesia's government to the recognition of customary rights.

"The government recognizes Indigenous peoples, but in practice government policies actually deny it," said Lenny Patty, chair of the Maluku provincial office of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a national advocacy group for Indigenous communities.

Opposition to development of the Seram find has included petitioning the regional government to step in.

"We can go down to the location together, talk to the community, hear from the community, from there we can make a decision together," Abdul Mukti Keliobas, the district's elected chief executive, said in November.

"If the community does not want any activity then it must be halted – they know better which areas are sacred, which areas of their ancestors must be protected."

Ilham Hoedrawi, head of the East Seram Department of Environment (DLH), said the district's 2013 zoning plan marked the Bati customary territory as a cultural site.

"That area should be protected and guarded, because it is impossible for us to create a new culture," Ilham said.

In response, Devry Setyadi, operations manager of Balam Energy, said the firm had obtained a permit from the central government to manage the Seram block, adding that the company had held meetings with state government officials as well as Bati representatives.

"We have met all traditional leaders, the state government and religious leaders on the mainland," Devry said. "Even before the activity, we started with a traditional ritual by the Bati elders there."

But not everyone is certain where they stand. To Zainudin and hundreds of others in Seram's Bati tribe, the outcrop of rock represents the cradle of the Bati civilization on the island. They worry what will happen to them if the rocks of the ancient Manusela Formation are cracked open to extract valuable oil and gas.

"We live in nature – we don't need modification or modernization," Zainudin said. "We just live with our nature."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/07/on-indonesias-seram-island-a-massive-oil-find-lies-beneath-sacred-land