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Mining in Indonesia leaves deadly legacy

Pit lakes formed in abandoned mines in East Kalimantan are proving irresistible death traps for children, activists say

Mining in Indonesia leaves deadly legacy

In this 2016 file photo, Indonesian miners walk in a pit mine in Sulewesi. Activists say pit lakes formed in abandoned pit mines are proving to be death traps for children. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

April 21 ended in tragedy for Rizki Nur Aulia’s family when the knock on the door came and the visitor told her parents that she had died in a tragic accident.

The 13-year-old girl had left her home in East Kalimantan province’s Kutai Kertangera district earlier that day to see friends but ended up losing her life in a pit lake located just 500 meters from her village.

The lake was formed after a mining company abandoned and left what was an open cast mine a few years before.

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Aulia's tragic death added to a growing list of people who have died in pit lakes, activists say.

According to the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), 33 people have drowned in pit lakes since 2011 in East Kalimantan alone.

Of that number 28 of them were children, the most high-risk group when it comes to incidents of drowning according to the World Health Organization.

Children — many of whom cannot swim or who are not strong swimmers — are naturally drawn to these lakes, which are nothing more than death traps, Jatam said.

Some are polluted, while some others have various hidden dangers such as just below the surface.  

East Kalimantan is one of the most heavily mined regions in Indonesia and involves mostly coal mining. In Kutai Kertanegara district alone, 625 mining permits covering 867,684 hectares have been issued.

Many mining companies do not comply with regulations or feel bound by any obligations to clean up after themselves, according to Jatam.

"After they are done, they abandon areas without making any effort to rehabilitate the landscape or make it less hazardous," Melky Nahar, the group’s campaign manager said.

As a result, there are 3,033 pit lakes across the country, Jatam says. The majority are in East Kalimantan, followed by South Kalimantan and South Sumatra.

Generally, they are located near residential areas, or just a stone’s throw in some cases.

Alif Alfaroci, 15, drowned on Oct. 21 last year in an abandoned pit lake, which was just 50 meters from his home.

The lake was between 7-8 meters deep and was not fenced off or had warning signs.

An abandoned pit lake in Bentuas, East Kalimantan province. (Photo supplied)


Lack of commitment

Regulations require mining firms to carry out post-mining reclamation and rehabilitation, which should be done within 30 days of mining operations ending. However, firms often ignore this, activists say.

Activists blame the government for such failings. Some have even accused officials of colluding with companies, resulting in the issuing of permits without determining the ability and commitment of firms to support the environment.

Nahar of Jatam pointed to former Kutai Kertanegara district head, Rita Widyasari, as one example. The Corruption Eradication Commission arrested her in October 2017 for accepting bribes related to a number of mining permits.

Of the pit lake fatalities, only the deaths of two 11-year-olds ended up in court. However, the cases only resulted in security officials getting light sentences, while the firm that mined the area, PT Panca Prima Mining, was left untouched.

East Kalimantan Governor Isran Noor, meanwhile, has defended mining companies, saying those who died should have known better than to go near the lakes, which drew outrage from activists.

During campaigning for the presidential election in February, President Joko Widodo admitted that many former mines had not been restored and promised to evaluate mining permits.

Bleak future

However, activists are not holding their breath, as Widodo — who will almost certainly serve a second term — is surrounded by players in the mining business, they say.

A documentary called “Sexy Killers” released ahead of the April election by the Indonesian production house, Watch Documentary, shows the complexity of the coal mining industry. 

It seeks to show how businessmen and politicians interact behind the scenes and has attracted more than 20 million viewers on YouTube.

Among those mentioned is a Widodo ally, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, who is the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and a former general. The filmmakers say he has interests in a 14,019-hectare concession through a company he is supposed to partly own — the Toba Sejahtera Group.

Luhut’s companies were allegedly among those accused of neglecting their obligation to rehabilitate old mines. He has claimed he has done nothing wrong as his stake in the company amounts to only 10 percent.

Franciscan Father Alsis Goa Wonga, director of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, said the government must show a political will to overcome this problem.

"Hopefully Widodo can take decisive steps in his second term," the priest said.

Rusdi, a villager who lives near an old mining site in Lempake, East Kalimantan, said the government needs to feel the pain of parents who have lost their children to irresponsible mining firms.

"It needs to take action now if it wants to save the future of our children,” he said.

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