Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – At least 168 people, mainly children, have died after falling into abandoned mining pits across Indonesia over the past seven years, according to a new report.
The report by the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), an industry watchdog, identifies 3,092 abandoned mining pits scattered throughout 13 provinces. Most of them, 1,735 pits, are in East Kalimantan province, the coal heartland of one of the world's biggest producers and exporters of the fossil fuel.
By law, mining companies are required to rehabilitate and restore the site of their operations once they have finished mining. But many fail to do so, leaving the pits to eventually fill up with rainwater and become a drowning hazard for nearby residents.
Between 2014 and 2020, 168 people died after falling into these pits, according to Jatam; 24 of the deaths were recorded in 2020 alone.
Jatam legal researcher Muhammad Jamil singled out Samarinda, the provincial capital of East Kalimantan, as one of the deadliest regions in Indonesia for people living around coal mines.
"There are 39 people who died in mining pits [in Samarinda], the majority of them being children," he said in a recent online discussion for the release of the report. "And there were some who died because of drowning in the pits, there were also those who died because they were burned as these kids fell into the pits which still have coal in them."
But while East Kalimantan had the highest number of abandoned mining pits, the island province of Bangka-Belitung, off the eastern coast of Sumatra, registered the most deaths. According to Jatam, 57 people died in the abandoned tin pits there. The province accounts for 90% of Indonesia's tin, which is in high demand for use as solder in consumer electronic gadgets.
It's not clear to what extent that figure overlaps with the 40 people who died from tin-mining activities between 2017 and 2020 in the province, according to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
Ronny, a resident of Matras Beach in West Bangka district, said tin mining had devastated his area.
"Right now there are hundreds, maybe thousands of abandoned mining pits that have caused grief among the people, with deaths [in the pits]," he said. "So there are many things happening here that the world doesn't know."
Jatam's Jamil attributed the high number of deaths there to miners flouting yet another rule: a prohibition on mining activities within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of residential and farming areas.
"There's almost no distance between mining pits and farms and houses," he said. "The mining law says the distance has to be at least 500 meters ... But this is being ignored and never adhered to."
As a result, residents, especially children and teenagers, often see these water-logged pits as recreational areas where they can swim, without being aware of the danger of drowning.
Last September, two teenagers in East Kalimantan drowned while swimming in an abandoned coal-mining pit that had become a popular swimming hole for locals.
Lack of enforcement
Cases like these abound, Jamil said, because of the failure by companies, often willful, to rehabilitate their concessions after their operations end; and the failure by authorities to enforce the rules.
"When there are accidents, like drowning, it's not solely the fault of the children who play in the mining pits," Jamil said. "It can be said that it's the fault of the [mining] companies because they don't rehabilitate [their concessions] even though it's their responsibility."
Mulyanto, a member of parliament who serves on the commission overseeing mining, agreed that the government should strengthen law enforcement against companies that fail to rehabilitate their concessions. The prescribed punishment in the newly amended mining law includes fines of up to 100 billion rupiah ($7.2 million) and prison terms of up to five years for company executives.
"With the revision of the mining law in 2020, which is still very young in age, we are pushing for better environmental management in mines, whether reclamation and/or post-mining," Mulyanto said.
But the existing framework of rules is riddled with loopholes and blind spots that allow miners to get away without punishment for failing to rehabilitate their sites, according to a report issued last year by the environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara. That means that when incidents occur at abandoned pits, it's difficult to know who to hold accountable, the report said.
As a result, families of the victims in most cases have been denied justice, according to Jamil.
"There's even a case where the police refused to investigate the death of a child in a mining pit in Samarinda because the victim was disabled," he said. "If someone is disabled, does it mean they don't deserve to get justice? Does it mean their family doesn't deserve to get justice? I think there should be no difference between disabled people and those who are not."
Jamil was referring to the case of Ardi, who drowned at the age of 13 in a mining pit in the concession of mining company PT Cahaya Energi Mandiri in May 2015. Ardi was hearing impaired and relied on his mother to take care of him.
The Samarinda police initially stopped the investigation into Ardi's death, citing his disability as the reason. They later reopened the case, but no one has been charged to date. In February 2020, the same pit claimed another life: that of 21-year old Bayu Setiawan, drowned while fishing at the pit with friends.
PT Cahaya Energi Mandiri denied any responsibility for the pit, saying it had formed naturally and was not the result of the company's mining activity.
Besides deaths caused by abandoned pits, mining activity has also triggered conflicts between companies and communities affected by the environmental degradation and water and air pollution caused by mining and associated industries. Jatam lists 116 mining-related conflicts from 2014 to 2020. The largest number, 45 cases, broke out in 2020, compared to 11 conflicts in 2019.
"In just one year, there was a four-fold increase," said Jatam researcher Ki Bagus Hadikusuma. "Most of them are related to land grabbing and criminalization [of critics]. These conflicts involve 1.6 million hectares [4 million acres] of land, or three times the size of Bali. This is a very bad record."
Matras Beach in Bangka-Belitung, the tin hotspot that's witnessed a high number of mining-related deaths, is among these conflict areas. In the space of less than a month, authorities there pursued criminal charges, widely criticized as baseless, against 31 people who had expressed their opposition to tin-mining activities in the area, according to Jatam.
'Economy over environment'
These problems – deaths, conflicts and environmental destruction – are expected to get worse under a series of deregulation measures recently rolled out by the government, activists say. These include the hugely controversial omnibus law on job creation, and the amended mining law. Parliament passed both laws in 2020, despite intense criticism and protests over the lack of transparency and public participation in the legislative process.
Both are aimed at attracting foreign investment into Indonesia to boost the economy, but activists say they do so by slashing environmental protections and social safeguards.
Grita Anindarini, a program director at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said President Joko Widodo hinted at this rollback during an interview with the BBC in February 2020, before the omnibus bill and the amended mining bill had been passed.
In that interview, conducted in Indonesian, the president said his priority was to boost economic growth, and that "maybe after that, then the environment" would be a priority, followed at the very end by "human rights." "Why not?" Widodo added.
"[The government] clearly said that the omnibus law is an answer to the national economic recovery," Grita said. "But we know that the law actually weakens an instrument that's very crucial for the protection of the environment, which is the instrument to prevent the degradation and pollution of the environment."
The amended mining law, meant to replace a 2009 version, also offers a number of incentives to mining companies in the form of bigger concessions, longer contracts with automatic renewals, and fewer environmental obligations.
Government refutes findings
In response to Jatam's data about the proliferation of illegally abandoned mining pits, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources called the numbers inaccurate.
It cited in particular the figure for the number of abandoned mining pits in South Kalimantan province, which Jatam put at 814, second only to East Kalimantan. Coal mining in South Kalimantan has come into the national spotlight recently following deadly flooding that activists say was exacerbated by the environmental damage caused by mining.
Lana Saria, the mining ministry's environmental director, said there are only 212 mining permits in force throughout South Kalimantan as of January 2021, occupying 14% of the province's area. She suggested this meant the number of pits reported by Jatam is an overestimate.
But Jamil of Jatam said miners typically leave behind at least two pits after exhausting a given site. As such, the number of pits will always be greater than the number of active permits, he said. He added that the pits counted by Jatam included those left by companies whose permits were no longer valid.
At one point, Jamil said, there were more than 10,000 active mining licenses in circulation nationwide. As these operations draw to a close one by one, and with the omnibus law and the new mining law now in force, the prospect for an end to pit-related deaths looks grim, Jamil said.
"When local governments had the authority, mining pits were never rehabilitated," he said. With the new laws giving that authority to the central government in Jakarta, "of course the monitoring will not be effective. The central government won't be able to do it."