The deputy governor of North Maluku Province, Natser Thaib, took time in 2015 to meet with representatives from three villages in the North Wasile subdistrict of East Halmahera to explain the government’s plan to allow private investments in nickel mining and wood processing to boost the local economy.
Thaib wanted people in the area to support those potential investments, which he said would draw up to 80 percent of their workforce from the local population and provide funds for the development of customary institutions and villages within the concession area. Investments in these industries, he said, would also support educational assistance or scholarship funds for students from primary school up to university.
But much of the local population was concerned that an increase in the number of mining companies in East Halmahera would have a negative impact on the surrounding forests – and on their quality of living, since many of them depend on the forest’s resources and its rich biodiversity. It is also their source of water.
A mining boom
Between 2005 and 2010 the government in North Maluku issued at least 34 mining licenses covering an area of more than 180,000 hectares. In 2015, the year Thaib held his community meetings, the government awarded PT Mahakarya Agra Pesona a permit to utilize timber in a 36,800-hectare area of forest in Waile subdistrict that included a customary forest meant to be managed by indigenous people. It also issued a mining license to PT Wana Kencana Mineral to mine nickel in a 24,000-hectare area in Wasile.
The dozens of nickel mining operations in North Maluku at the time accounted for two million of the province’s 3.3 million-hectare land area. In East Halmahera, 167,400 hectares of forest were converted to mining areas from the district’s 654,000-hectare land surface.
Forests that began to be felled for nickel mining and the construction of a smelter were located in four subdistricts: Maba, Maba Tengah, Buli and Wasile.
Andre, a local youth who attended the briefing by Thaib said the residents’ worries grew stronger after a number of river biota such as eels, shrimps and fish were found dead. Some people in Hilaitetor village even began to complain of skin irritation after bathing in rivers not far from the mines.
In February 2018, the people of Wasile held protests at the headquarters of the North Maluku provincial government against mining activities in Wasile and East Halmahera.
All concessions and permits in the mining and wood processing sectors in East Halmahera were issued without consulting local people, Andre said.
But the protests went unheeded.
Problems with permits
Thaib maintained that all mining permits issued during his term were in line with the prevailing laws and regulations and were issued after comprehensive study.
The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, however, found that hundreds of mining permits issued for North Maluku were problematic, including for mines on small islands in East Halmahera.
On average, the problem with those licenses was that they overlapped with other mining permits, the ministry said. In 2014, it categorized 108 mining permits in North Maluku as problematic, saying they had led to state losses of up to Rp98 billion (US$6.9 million) due to unpaid royalties.
A number of young activists in East Halmahera say the government should evaluate all permits that threaten to damage the environment. Many of them say they’ve also begun to study permitting processes, mining laws and advocacy and litigation activities in order to fight mining companies destroying the environment.
"Halmahera forest destruction will only upset the social balance. Therefore it is fitting for the government to evaluate all permits that threaten to damage the environment in East Halmahera, “said Yulia Pinang, an indigenous female activist when met at the North Maluku Indigenous Peoples Alliance Office.
Muhdin H. Ma’bub, head of East Halmahera district, said all permits for nickel mining activities in the district had gone through an environmental impact assessment and so far there were no legal reports concerning environmental damage due to un-procedural mining activities.
North Maluku Governor Abdul Gani Kasuba said that mine investments in the province were investments that could accelerate development and therefore the government would, in principle, guarantee a safe investment.
All permits had, in general, gone through a comprehensive study phase and were in line with the prevailing regulations, he added.
What’s often missing, however, is recognition of the rights of customary societies, said Munadi Kilkoda, head of the North Maluku chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), an indigenous rights advocacy organization.
Although the constitution firmly guarantees recognition of customary societies and their rights, these societies are almost never consulted in the process of issuing mining and wood processing permits, Kilkoda said.
Abdul Gani said the provincial government has never received a report of an investment that threatens the existence of customary communities.
But Kilkoda said that in the past four years his organization has noted that at least eight customary communities on Halmahera have begun organizing a resistance against nickel mining investment, as they feel their welfare and the environment are being threatened.
“The Indonesian constitution has given a clear guarantee of recognition of the existence of indigenous peoples and their rights,” Kilkoda said. “As a result, more than a few practices of criminalization of communities or traditional leaders occur when they stand up against mining companies.”
Banner image: The location of a nickel smelter being developed by PT Aneka Tambang in Tanjung Buli, East Halmahera / Credit: Budi Nurgianto
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from EJN's Asia-Pacific program. It was first published in Koran Tempo on 7 October 2019 and on barta1.com on 8 October 2019. You can read a full version in Indonesian on Ekuatorial.