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Phantom deeds see Borneo islanders lose their land to quartz miners

Mongabay - March 7, 2024

Aseanty Pahlevi, Gelam Island, Indonesia – Not long ago, Suparyanto discovered that his family home on a small island off the west coast of Borneo was to become a quartz mine.

"I have never signed a land certificate or given power of attorney to anyone to manage my land on Gelam Island," Suparyanto told Mongabay Indonesia.

Suparyanto is not alone among former residents of Gelam. Mongabay Indonesia spoke with several families who said land on the island had been appropriated without their consent.

Haryanto, a 35-year-old fisher, said he found out his land was gone after seeing his name on a list in the village office.

The parcels of land were then transferred to mining operators controlled by Denny Muslimin, a parliamentary candidate for West Kalimantan province, records showed.

Gelam is a 2,800-hectare (6,900-acre) island off the southwest coast of Borneo, at the confluence of the Java and Natuna seas. The island is currently uninhabited. However, Gelam was previously home to a community of traditional fishers like Haryanto and Suparyanto, who moved away to nearby islands to access schools, health care and other public services. Despite the migration, the island's former residents continue to see Gelam as their home.

Some families said they had received a token sum in cash, but were unaware why they had been paid.

"We received 1 million rupiah [$64]," said Sumia, a resident of neighboring Cempedak Island, where many families moved from Gelam in order to access basic public services.

"We have land and farmland in Gelam and our parents are buried there."

Conflicting claims

In the nearly 10 years that Indonesian President Joko Widodo has been in office, there has been vastly improved infrastructure and expanded land development for extractive industries across the archipelagic nation of 275 million people.

However, the administration has simultaneously presided over an apparent increase in the number of conflicts over land, which usually affect the country's poorest people.

The Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), a civil society organization, documented 2,939 individual conflicts between 2015 and 2023, compared with 1,520 instances during the 10-year presidency of Joko's predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In 2023 alone, the civil society group said these disputes directly affected 135,608 households, likely close to a million people.

Ahmad Nurdin, the head of the Kendawangan Kiri village's administrative section, said land deeds were issued only in response to direct requests by residents. Nurdin said the village had issued around 100 such deeds for land on Gelam.

The process required a family to write an application letter for the claimed land for signature by the head of the hamlet, known in Indonesia as a dusun. The application would then be reviewed by the village government in the presence of two witnesses.

Nurdin said applications for land deeds on Gelam Island were initiated around 2021 and published in 2022. The deeds were then transferred in early 2023 to the mining companies, which paid 7 million rupiah ($440) per certificate, he said.

"Of the 7 million rupiah, 5 million rupiah [$320] was handed over to the SKT owner," Nurdin told Mongabay Indonesia, referring to the deed, or surat kepemilikan tanah as it's known in Indonesian. The rest of the money, he added, went toward administrative and notary expenses.

The land deeds were signed on July 11, 2022, by the then-elected head of Kendawangan subdistrict, Eldy Yanto. The current acting head of the subdistrict, Didik Radianto, said he had no knowledge of the matter.

Fisher Haryanto said he never set foot in the office of the village government in Kendawangan Kiri. "If my name is recorded as having applied to the village for an SKT, then I don't accept that," he said.

Haji Asmuni, who also claims land in Gelam, said he and several residents had reported the land deed issuances to the police, but at the time of writing had yet to be notified of any investigation.

"What I emphasized in the report is that I asked for a complete investigation into the creation of the SKT, which I suspect to be fictitious," he said.

Susyanto, a community leader in Kendawangan subdistrict, said he had also filed a report with the West Kalimantan provincial police, but had received no follow-up after he and others had undergone a three-hour interview with police.

Quartz and all

Quartz is a crystalline silica mineral used in new technology, encompassing fast-growing sectors like manufacture of semiconductor chips and solar panels.

A report published in 2023 by the consultancy Transparency Market Research estimated the annual market for high-purity quartz would likely rise from $890 million in 2022 to $1.5 billion by 2031.

Waliz Zuhery at the Indonesian Quartz Miners Association (HIPKI) said quartz had been classified as a critical mineral by Indonesia's Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.

"From what I see, currently the country has the ambition to be part of the energy transition," Waliz said, adding that numerous quartz mines have sprung up in West Kalimantan province in response to growing demand for the mineral.

The demand for quartz in particular has been driven by the opening of a silica factory on the island of Rempang across the Natuna Sea from Gelam, off the east coast of Sumatra. Like Gelam, Rempang is the site of a high-profile land dispute pitting longtime residents against corporate interests.

The two mining companies that took over Gelam Island are PT Sigma Silica Jayaraya (SSJ) and PT Inti Tama Mineral (ITM).

SSJ received a permit to explore for quartz from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in 2022, covering an area of 839 hectares (2,073 acres). ITM received a similar permit that same year for 1,163 hectares (2,874 acres).

Adi Yani, head of West Kalimantan province's environment office, said the companies' early exploration work wasn't accompanied by an environmental study or environmental management plan. He said his office hadn't received these documents from either company, which is required under a 2021 government regulation.

"Sigma Silica Jayaraya submitted an application for the issuance of an environmental impact assessment in early 2023, specifically to build a special terminal on Gelam Island. It was only during the inspection that we discovered the location was in a marine conservation area," Adi said.

Both companies were therefore required to seek a permit from the West Kalimantan Maritime and Fisheries Service (DKP) to operate in the conservation area. As long as the companies still lack these documents, they can't be approved for an environmental impact assessment.

Adi said his office and other relevant provincial government agencies had "agreed to get the companies' exploration permits [revoked by] the [mining] ministry." The matter is now before the West Kalimantan provincial secretariat's economic bureau for a formal recommendation to revoke the permits, Adi said.

Quartz of law

PT Sigma Silica Jayaraya was established on Nov. 19, 2021, with entrepreneur Denny Muslimin listed as the owner of 95% of shares. PT Inti Tama Mineral was established two days later, on Nov. 21, 2021, again with Denny as the majority owner (90%).

Denny was a candidate for the West Kalimantan provincial legislature, running in the February 2024 elections for the NasDem Party, the political vehicle of Indonesian oligarch Surya Paloh. There's no evidence of wrongdoing on Denny's part in the Gelam land dispute. When approached for comment, Denny referred Mongabay Indonesia to Sudirman, an executive at SSJ.

"What does this have to with me? Just go to Denny," Sudirman said in response to reporters' questions. "Besides, there is no activity on the island anymore. It's empty."

Suparyanto claims his family's land on Gelam extended to 50 hectares (124 acres) and, like many former residents of Gelam, the entire area had been certified and transferred without his consent.

"I lived there for more than a dozen years of my childhood," Suparyanto told Mongabay Indonesia. "It's from my ancestors and I never sold the land."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/03/phantom-deeds-see-borneo-islanders-lose-their-land-to-quartz-miners