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Indonesian bishop in hot water over geothermal plant row

Villagers opposed to an energy plant are at boiling point over Ruteng prelate's 'betrayal' after he backed the project

Indonesian bishop in hot water over geothermal plant row

Wae Sano villagers in East Nusa Tenggara province read Bishop Siprianus Hormat's letter during a meeting in their village on June 6. The letter recommended a follow-up to the geothermal project in their village despite their continued opposition. (Photo supplied)

Residents of Wae Sano, a village in Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province, say they have been stabbed in the back following the loss of a key ally in their fight against a geothermal power plant.

Their despair was triggered by a recent letter from Bishop Siprianus Hormat of Ruteng to President Joko Widodo supporting the project near their homes in the western part of Catholic-majority Flores island.

It prompted them to strike back by issuing an open letter condemning what they felt was an act of betrayal by the bishop.

In the letter released on June 16, they said the bishop had “failed to consider all aspects of the project's social and ecological risks."

“This geothermal plant … is like mortgaging our safety. Claims by the government, diocese and companies concerned that this project will overcome all potential disasters are completely unreasonable and deceitful,” the villagers said.

The project, located near the Sano Nggoang volcanic lake, is a realization of a government policy initiated to make Flores a geothermal island.

The bishop should have explained that there are many people still opposed to the project

The World Bank-funded project has an estimated power reserve of 45 megawatts, according to the government, which claims geothermal power is a reliable source of renewable energy.

Residents have opposed the plan since it was proposed in 2015 because they say the move to harness energy from heat under the earth’s surface is located too close to their homes in an area listed as earthquake-prone by the district government.

To help them in their struggle, they have sought to enlist the support of environmental activists and church institutions, including Ruteng Diocese.

The villagers initially felt their hopes were answered when in June last year, three months after being ordained, Bishop Hormat wrote to the president calling for the project to be scrapped. Community-based agriculture and tourism should be developed instead, he wrote.

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However, unbeknown to the villagers, the bishop signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in October, purporting to seek a comprehensive solution to the row.

The MoU then became the basis for the formation of a joint team involving the diocese, the government and the company in charge of promoting the project among the community, which in turn led to the bishop writing to Widodo backing the project.

In his letter dated May 29, Bishop Hormat claimed the team had held detailed consultations with the community which had enabled the diocese to fully understand the benefits of the project.

He added that the diocese also appreciated government guarantees of safety and its commitment to improving community welfare.

The letter was sent a week after he and several priests met government official and the directors of PT Sarana Multi Infrastruktur and PT Geo Dipa Energi, the two companies working on the project at a hotel in the nearby town of Labuan Bajo.

Bishop Hormat completely ignored their objections in his letter, according to the villagers.

“The bishop should have explained that there are many people still opposed to the project,” said villager Yoseph Erwin Rahmat.

He also claimed they had been kept in the dark over the signing of the MoU and events that had taken place since.

"We are the landowners and are directly affected by the project. We have a right to know. Ruteng Diocese's backing for the scheme represents whose interests?" Rahmat asked.

We have published the results of an investigation that explains the reasons for our stance, which is for the geothermal scheme to be scrapped

Criticism of the bishop over his move has emerged within the Church itself, with the Franciscans having declared their support for the villagers in social media posts in recent days.

Father Yohanes Sevi Dohut, coordinator of the Franciscans' Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Commission in Flores, said the residents needed all the help they can get.

"We have published the results of an investigation that explains the reasons for our stance, which is for the geothermal scheme to be scrapped because it does threaten their future." he said, referring to a report the commission published in 2017.

Father Marthen Jenarut, chairman of the diocese’s JPIC Commission, also backed the villagers, saying his organization “had the same main concerns" of other church institutions and would continue advocating for the concerns of villagers opposed to the plant.

"Our choice of advocacy efforts is through dialogue with other parties. In this dialogue, our task is to advocate for all matters of villagers' concern related to comfortable living spaces and the potential loss of their cultural identity as indigenous peoples with evacuation or relocation plans," he said.

Rofinus Rabun, a villager who delivered the open letter to the diocesan office, said the protesters were not trying to create enmity with the diocese or the bishop.

“We realize he is a bishop, a church leader. However, we cannot understand why he gave a recommendation giving the green light to the plant when so many are still solidly opposed to it," he said, adding that the fight is “far from over.”

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