Thursday, April 21, 2011

People of Wera Resist Iron Sand Mining Corporations.

[For the past few years, people around Bima, the eastern part of the island of Sumbawa, have been forced to resist companies who seek to mine the metal-rich volcanic sands around the islands coasts. This article, focussing on Wera district, describes some of the impacts of mining being felt by communities and a few of the direct actions the people take when those who claim to be their representatives let them down. The actions mentioned here are only reflect a small fraction of the resistance and repression experienced in this ongoing conflict zone]

The Corporations Arrive to Mine Iron Sands.

In the last 10 years, the raw materials for making steel have been a source of growth in several countries whose economies are now developed, such as China, India, Singapore and Australia. This has led to developing countries with limited technology becoming targets for their expansion. Indonesia is one of the countries affected by this, which has been demonstrated by KepMendag (decision of the trade minister ) number 38 of 2008 which establishes that raw materials such as iron sands will be exempt from export duty. The central government has also granted wider access to mining capital through two pieces of policy, regulation number 4 of 2009 concerning mineral and coal mining and regulation number 25 of 27 concerning capital investment. Through these two policies local governments get the power to issue mining permits, thus enabling investors to plunder the natural riches of an area with ease.

In 2004 the Bima regency government issued permits to four companies: PT Jagad Mahesa Karya, PT Indomining Karya Buana, PT Global Resourse and PT Lianda Intan Mandiri, who were authorised to extract sand from an an area of 3770 hectares, extending from dry land over the beach and into the sea. Local people who live and own land along the Wera coast have never been involved in the process of granting these permits. In 2008 the companies began their operations, building facilities to process the sand. For the people of Bima, who have a strong cultural connection with nature and their land, the presence of these mining companies posed a clear threat to their livelihood.


Iron sand is a mineral that can be found near beaches, swamps and river mouths; deposits normally extend from the surface to a depth of 15 meters. The process of extraction of iron sand involves passing the material through a machine equipped with a magnet that separates the iron sand from non-metallic components such as sand, earth and rocks. Mineworkers call this process magnet separator processing.

The magnet separator produces pure iron sand based on its metal content. The excavated material is divided into 5 parts in the processing and the coral, water, sand and soil are disposed of as liquid and solid waste. The iron sand meanwhile sticks to the magnet and is transported via conveyor belt to a storage place or warehouse. From the warehouse the sand is taken to the loading area at the docks to later be transported to the buyer's location.

From a physical perspective this mineral extraction process seems straightforward, but this does not reveal its true capacity for destruction. The extraction activities have many adverse effects, both in terms of environmental damage and and of social/economic impacts.

The process of dredging sand will destroy protected shoreline environments, usually mangrove and pine forests. In the case of Wera however, the shoreline area is dominated by local people's agricultural land. Of course, iron mines operated by big companies will not be limited to one or two meters, but will extend over thousands of hectares, stretching along the coast for dozens of kilometres.

If someone should visit the area for the first time during or after the mining operation, without having seen how the land was before, they would not be aware of the extreme change that had occurred in this area. The local people living near the mine have a very different way of seeing the effects, as they can readily compare how the area used to be before the mining operations started and afterwards.

Aside from shaving off the outermost part of Wera's territory, the extraction of iron sands will alter and damage the natural sea defences that represents a habitat for crabs and other biota. The extraction will turn the land into vast holes, and leave behind residues containing free radicals of metal elements.

The magnetic process to separate iron sands is very water-thirsty. To separate 50,000m3 of iron sands requires some 20,000m3 of water and to meet this requirement the company plans to build a dam at the river mouth and divert the flow of the river through a big pipe to the processing plant. The damming of this river will inundate farmland, settlements and other focal points for local people's activities.

Aside from this, the other adverse effects of the dam include damage to ecological systems which, while they may not immediately noticeable, will nevertheless be felt by local fishermen. Effectively it could mean the mass extinction of the rich marine biodiversity. Each time the sand is processed, a fraction is separated off and the remainder is disposed of as waste. The amount that is disposed is dependent on the iron content of the sand at the place of extraction. Non-metallic chemical compounds used in the process are released into the water and environment at the point of waste disposal. There are likely to be mass die-offs of the fish that would usually live in the river and nearby coastlines. If any fish do survive, they will not be fit for human consumption.

We can be sure that if large scale mining operations (tens of thousands of tons) should go ahead, not only the environment will be damaged, but a domino effect will take place with widespread effects on the social and economic livelihoods of the people of Wera.

Since the exploitation commenced, there has been disruption to the people's means of supporting themselves. The iron sand mine has destroyed marine life with the result that local fishermen have lost their source of income. Similarly in the farming sector, people who own land in the area can be affected through rising water levels and the infiltration of sea water. An effect of this is that fresh water will become salty, resulting in damage to crops.

The Wera People's struggle and State Repression.

For the people of Bima, who have strong ties to nature and to their land, the presence of a mining company represents a clear threat to their livelihoods. However, an environmental impact assessment has never been carried out, nor any study of the social impacts that might arise. The reason the people protest to oppose iron sand mining is because it is evident that the only negative impacts for local people can come from the three companies' operations.

Every year, PT Indomining should pay royalties of 1.5 billion Rupiah (US$180,000) but it has always been uncertain whether this actually happens, and if it is actually paid, then its allocation is also less than clear. There are some underhand dealings between the regency government, in this case Bima's Bupati (regency leader) H. Fery Zulkarman, ST, and PT Indomining and the other two companies. Members of the regency government and local council do not show a will to resolve the conflict, and even try to stir up horizontal conflict, finding people who agree with the mining to oppose those who are fighting it.

The real problem is not whether or not the various regulations are met, such as the conditions for investment, contract of work, or the environmental impact assessment. The most serious wrongdoing of the mining corporations how they frequently steal land which provides local people their means of support, giving this criminal act an air of respectability by using a term which translates as 'releasing land'. This is supported by the existence of legal regulations which facilitate the companies' exploitation of the people's land. The situation is yet worse with the underhand actions of local government and security forces which are used as a tool to repress the affected people's acts of resistance.

Because of all this the people of Bima fought back as strongly as they could. Although it has frequently been met by repression, the people's struggle does not show signs of decline.

In June 2008, local people took action at the offices of the local people's representative council (DPRD) and of the Bima Regency, but this did not yield results. Disappointed by the local government and council's attitude, the people went on to wreck the company's facilities for processing sand. Hundreds of cops from the mobile brigade (Brimob) and the Bima city police headquarters then came to the people's villages and attacked like crazed pigs, leaving many people wounded from police beatings and tens of people arrested. Afraid of further police brutality, thousands of people ran to seek refuge in the forests and mountains some distance from their villages.

The names of people arrested during this action were: Haji Wahab, Ridwan Yusuf, Abdul Rahman, Arifin, ArisFandi, Masrin, Masrun Karim, Yasin, Hasanuddin, Burhan, Sri Hartati, Sahruddin, Imran and Hasan. Apart from this, a local person by the name of Mohammed Saleh was taken to Wera health clinic in a state of unconsciousness.

The pressure on local people continues until the present day. What's even more manipulative, many thugs have been paid to protect the mine and intimidate anyone who fights against it. Of course it is the mining companies that are behind these thugs.

The people's struggle continues through 2009 but not on a massive scale, maybe due to the trauma from the repression meted out to the people. Another factor which caused weakness in the people's resistance movement was the lack of communication between farmers / villagers in the different villages of Wera affected by the mine, not managing to organise a wider struggle. The fight seemed somewhat sectarian.

June 2010 saw the first export of the iron sand produced in Wera to China. To be precise, 10,000 tons was exported in this first shipment, from Oi Tui village by PT Jagad Mahesa Buana. This sand had been mined manually by local people, and then processed to become pure iron sand. The target for iron sand shipment was set to increase by 50,000 tons a month, aiming to reach 200,000 tons per month after 1 year. You can just imagine the huge negative effect that this increasing quantity of iron sand extraction would have on the people of Wera.

An ironical statement was given by Regional Secretary Muhammad Nur, who said that the conflict seen in certain villages (Radu village, Sangiang village, etc) would not spread to the other villages. Meanwhile the facts show that the people of Oi Tui also displayed a strong resistance to mining activities. Nur also said that security in the area allocated for mining expansion was not only the burden of the army and the police, but the people were also responsible for their own land. Because if the people are able to consolidate and maintain security, investment will flow which will clearly have a positive impact on the people's own financial security.

Acting from its own agenda, the Bima local government has tried to give the impression that mining has the potential to make an important contribution to supporting the local economy as it will be accompanied by investment and foreign exchange, and that it will clearly stimulate growth in other sectors and provide job opportunities for people near the area, especially in the Wera district.

This perspective is of course a lot of rubbish, and moreover misleading. Obviously enterprises such as mining corporations have a need for professional workers who are specialised in that field. Also obvious is from the time it is set up a company will employ skilled people who will take care of the strategies for production and distribution of its products. These skilled workers will not be local Wera people or youth who in general support themselves through farming or fishing. If they should find other employment, the likelihood is that it will be as a state employee, and even then probably not in a high-ranking position.

This raises a few basic questions. If people near the mine are already accustomed to living within a traditional economic culture, why should they be forced to accept mining investment with open arms, when it is exactly that which will destroy the natural environment and endanger their traditional sources of income? Do the people really need it? Like what happened in Papua. Within 14 years of Freeport starting operations in 1973, Papua's Mount Ertsberg had been transformed into a gigantic hole 200 metres deep and with a diameter of 600 metres. Or the people of Buyat bay who were mostly fisherfolk, but lost their livelihoods and their homes when they were forced to evacuate after the mining activities of PT Newmont Minahasa Raya contaminated the area with toxic waste.

In February 2011, with the same spirit, thousands of people from Lambu district in Bima made a demonstration, rejecting the mining plans of PT Sumber Mineral Nusantara and PT Indo Mineral Cipta Persada. Diring this demonstration, an activist named Ahmadin was arrested by police from the Bima headquarters, suspected of having burned down the base camp of PT Valey Sumbawa Mining. Because the police did not respond properly to the people's demands, the people also burned down the local police station and took the local police chief hostage. Now in nearly all the districts of Bima, people await the destruction that will occur if mining operations continue to be permitted and are not met with strong resistance.

Looking at the evidence of the terrible impacts which mining corporations have on local people's lives, resistance becomes inevitable. We should just note that there is something which must be avoided, and that is that the struggles currently taking place in Wera and the other districts of Bima should be reduced to the narrow and superficial issue of violence and human rights, while losing the focus on the real sources of the people's anger. Because of this, there is a need to connect to other places which have experience of similar situations. Solidarity and building up networks of struggle becomes a necessity.

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