All along the Begawan Solo River that passes through the East Java district of Bojonegoro, a multitude of barges can be seen dotting the river, especially in the dry season. The barges are engaged in sand mining — an extractive activity that has taken a heavy toll on the region.
At several locations along the Bengawan Solo, from the sub-district of Pandangan to Baureno in Bojonegoro District, the riverbanks are no longer sloping gently but are now steep walls due to erosion.
Agricultural fields, village roads and the backyards of houses are just meters away from these steep banks. Some areas have also crumbled into the river.
Wahyu Eka Setiawan, the Campaign Manager of the East Java Forum for the Environment (WALHI), said sand mining in the river will have a significant impact on the environment. Sand extraction activities, coupled with the scouring of the undercurrent eddies, weaken the surrounding embankments and trigger landslides from the cliffs around the trenches.
Mining activities that are not environmentally friendly will also cause other impacts including the destruction of riverbanks and of riverbeds, added Wahyu. In the long term, unregulated sand extraction would destroy the Bengawan Solo ecosystem, he said.
Sumantri, a resident of Kadungrejo village in Baureno subdistrict, said that residents were only facing the impacts of the sand mining operations, not its benefits, as the sand is usually directly taken to Palang subdistrict, located across the river.
“Sand mining activities have taken place for dozens of years. But more recently, the activities are starting sometimes at two in the morning. Residents are still asleep and are very disturbed by the sound of the diesel engines,” said Sumantri from his home near the river one morning in March.
Similarly, in the Rengel subdistrict, in Tuban, some 40 kilometers away from Kadungrejo, residents complained about the deafening sounds of engines moving a 30-meter-long roller belt that carries the sand from barges to the back of waiting trucks on the banks of Bengawan Solo.
Sometimes, the miners not only mine the sand in the middle of the river but also near the banks of the river in Bojonegoro District, he said. The impact: The Bengawan Solo River is widening, and riverbanks are getting closer to residential areas and village roads.
Ahmad Rudiansyah, a resident of Balen, about 50-minute drive from Kadungrejo, echoed Sumantri’s complaint. He added that the impact of the sand mining operations began to be felt noticeably around 2014, when suction machines were first used to mine the sand of Begawan Solo.
Sand extraction using these machines involves laying a pipe to the bottom of the river and sucking it to the surface using a diesel-powered engine. The use of these suction machines has accelerated the riverbank’s erosion. Although the use of such machines is now banned after District Regulation No. 1 Year 2014 was issued by the Bojonegoro District Head, some miners continue to use them on the sly.
“There have been three residents who have had to move houses because their kitchens were affected by landslides. [In 2015] they moved far away from the Bengawan Solo River, to a former paddy field that had been filled in, on top of which they built their house, Rudiansyah said.
Nasir, the head of a neighborhood in Banjarejo, north of Bojonegoro, said he is resigned to the fact that sand mining activities would continue without benefiting his community or surrounding environment. According to him, sand mining has been active in his neighborhood for about ten years but only became uncontrollable in the past five years.
“At that time, up to 30 sand mining barges operated there,” recalled Nasir.
He voiced regrets that as head of the neighborhood he once gave permission for sand mining on the condition that companies involved paid for the building of a local security post. The agreement had been that once the security post was built, the sand mining operation would cease.
Unfortunately, neither the agreement nor the security post materialized. Mining continues without bringing any benefit to the local community. It has left environmental destruction in the form of riverbank erosion.
In 2018, three other residents whose homes were destroyed by landslides were offered the opportunity to relocate outside the Banjarejo ward, on land that is part of the territory of the Bengawan Solo River Basin Mangement Agency (BBWS).
“But they rejected the offer and I do not know where they are staying now,” Nasir stated in May.
The Kalitketek Bridge in Banjarejo, which links Bojonegoro to Tuban, was also threatened by sand mining. The resulting erosion had begun to destabilize the base of the bridge, said Nasir.
Sand for construction
There are two types of sand mined in Bengawan Solo. The first one, known as pasir pasang is used in the making of concrete or to lay bricks while the other, known as pasir puk, is used for filling house yards or as a base for road paving.
Akmal Puguh, a civil engineer in Bojonegoro who is also director of a local construction company CV AI, explained that for infrastructure development, if the river sand is of good quality, it will be used for casting. However, if the quality is bad, it will be used for backfill, while the casting uses sand from the mountain.
“The difference is the level of mud. Mountain sand is best for casting as it contains the least mud but tends to be a bit black. The sand from the Berantas River is also good, and the last alternative is sand from Bengawan Solo,” he said.
There is no data on the demand or supply of sand in Bojonegoro District, although construction, for which sand is an important requirement, continues at a brisk pace.
Data compiled from the Bojonegoro Investment and One Stop Service (DPMPTSP) Office, reveals that in 2018 here were 201 building permits (IMB) awarded, in 2019 258 permits, in 2020 there were 410 permits awarded, and in 2021 from January 1 to June 30, 242 permits were granted.
In the 2021 period, out of the 242 permits issued, 108 were for office buildings, while the rest are for residential and commercial buildings.
The chart below is the BuIlding Permit (IMB) data in Bojonegoro District in 2020 and January-June 2021:
River sand mining in Bojonegoro
A sand miner who declined to be identified for this story, claims that mining begins every day around seven in the morning and lasts until around four in the afternoon throughout the year. But when the river water rises after heavy rain during the rainy season, activities have to stop because the sambon, a 12-meter-long pole used to propel the barge, often can no longer reach the river bottom. Mining activities only resume once the water subsides.
“There are two [traditional] ways to mine the sand at the Begawan Solo. The first one uses an iron scoop linked to a pulley. The second method, usually for the dry season only, is by directly diving to the bottom to take the sand and then manually hauling it onto the barge,” he said.
The man, who was born and bred in Bojonegoro, reports that he has been working as a sand miner for a long time because he has no permanent job. Sometimes, he said he would also take some menial jobs at construction sites. He is paid a lump sum between Rp 80,000 to Rp 100,000 for one barge of sand. Every day, some 12 barges operate in his area.
One pickup truck of sand, containing around seven to eight cubic meters of sand (or the contents of one full barge), sells for Rp600,000 to Rp750,000 when purchased straight from the barge. When it is already in a truck, sand fetches between Rp1.2 million to Rp1.3 million – prices are typically negotiated by drivers depending on the delivery distance.
The miner, who wishes to remain anonymous, admits that he has no permit to mine the sand. According to him, if the mining is conducted in line with the regulations — meaning manually and not using sand suction machines —he can mine freely and won’t be subjected to police raids.
“There is no restriction on the area where you can take the sand from, what is important is that no suction machine is used,” he said.
Regulations, permits and law enforcement
Regulation Number 1 of 2005 of the East Java Provincial Administration, regarding control over the mining of C-class Materials in East Java rivers, stipulates that sand mining by individuals or groups can only be done manually or traditionally, using simple equipment such as the sungkruh, bamboo baskets, traditional barges, scoops and others.
The regulations also state that the authority to issue permits for sand river mining is held by the East Java Provincial Administration, while the authority over rivers is held by the state water company, Perum Jasa Tirta I. Therefore, sand mining businesses must obtain a permit from the government that is issued based on a recommendation from Perum Jasa Tirta I.
Wiega Bagus, a staff member of the Bojonegoro District’s Economy and Natural Resources Department clarified that the district administration only has authority to manage non-metal minerals and stones such as inland sand, soil for filler, onyx, andesite, and limestone, while sand along the Bengawan Solo falls under the authority of the Bengawan Solo BBWS.
“Regarding sand mining in the Bengawan Solo, the permit must come from the East Java Provincial Administration, but because it is also part of the BBWS territory, the technical recommendation must come from BBWS. The Bojonegoro District Administration has no authority over that area,” Wiega said.
The East Java Forum for the Environment (WALHI) Campaign Manager, Wahyu Eka Setiawan, said that the challenge in regulating mining activities in Bengawan Solo is not concerning regulation, but compliance.
Wahyu pointed out that spatial planning has to be based on a Strategic Environmental Assessment (KLHS) regarding feasibility, to determine whether certain areas can be mined or not. As Bengawan Solo has too many governing bodies, this oversight is often out of sync.
According to the head of the urban ward, Dwi Endang, many residents have brought their concerns about the impact of sand mining in the river to him. “We have received reports from people that they were worried that if allowed to continue, the impact [of sand mining] would be much greater. We have already been in communication with the concerned sides. If residents see mining activity [with machinery] taking place, they can immediately report it. Because when we report, miners get wind of this and escape, then enforcement cannot be carried out,” said Dwi.
The ability of the miners to escape raids was also mentioned by the head of the Bojonegoro District Auxiliary Police (Satpol PP), Arief Nanang Sugianto. Arief said that his office often received direct reports of sand mining taking place, but when they raided an area where the activity is reportedly taking place, miners were nowhere to be seen.
“This situation is difficult to describe, they are usually no longer there. They will return a few days later. We are calling on people to report whenever they have direct knowledge of sand mining activities taking place,” Arief said in June.
In 2020, Arief reported that together with the local police, the Satpol PP carried out a raid in the west of Bojonegoro where miners were reported to have used suction machines, but when the miners noticed their arrival, they immediately sunk their equipment and escaped, preventing the authorities from gaining hold of evidence.
“We can only perform our duty in maintaining law and order, safety and the protection of people,” Arief said, adding that his agency acknowledges residents’ complaints about environmental degradation, damage to infrastructure and noise pollution, but can only urge miners to comply and provide them with guidance.
Hidayat, a staff member of the Bengawan Solo BBWS commitment desk, claims that in 2018, his office, together with the Bojonegoro district head, police chief, military, and Satpol PP conducted a direct inspection along the Bengawan Solo River.
“From our observation, there were no more mining activities that used machines. But looking at the equipment used, the pulley and iron scoop, I personally see this as semi-machinery because it scoops the sand much quicker than when done manually in the dry seasons when people dive and scoop it straight from the bottom of the river,” Hidayat said.
Hidayat said that the use of the pulley and scooper still caused damage, and the only difference is that with the suction machine the damage is wrought in a much shorter time.
“The sand mining operators should seek a technical permit from the BBWS so that the agency can recommend which areas are allowed for mining, as well as the volume of sand they can mine. Environmental damage could thus be minimized. As far as I know, nobody has submitted a request for such a permit,” Hidayat said.
Iman Muqroni, the Secretary of the Environmental Study and Advocacy Institute (eL-SAL INDONESIA) which studies the social, economic, and cultural dimensions of society and the environment, said that the authorities could not curb sand mining outright without providing an alternative source of livelihood.
“Sand is necessary for construction. It also is a source of livelihood for the mine workers. For us, who focus on the environment, there should be regulations that deal with the mechanism of sand mining. This mechanism must involve multiple stakeholders to issue regulations related to sand mining,” Imam said in a phone interview in May.
Iman adds, there should be a concerted effort to encourage concerned stakeholders, including the Bengawan Solo BBWS, Water Management Agency, District Development Planning Gency and local administration, to regulate sand mining in the Bengawan Solo.
There should also be a mechanism that takes the environment into consideration when mining activities are conducted. For example, Iman explains, there could be a zoning of the area that could be mined. Conditions surrounding the areas should also be considered, he suggested; in areas near bridges for example, mining activities should not be allowed to take place.
It is important for policymakers to clarify “where mining can be conducted, what equipment is allowed and not allowed,” said Iman. Besides that, mining activity should be monitored, so that actions can be taken against any violation,” he said.
For now, the auxiliary police who are tasked to uphold the district’s regulations can only provide advice and guidance to sand miners. Till date, no legal actions have been taken against the sand miners found to be violating the existing regulations.
WALHI’s Campaign Manager Wahyu was more stringent in his suggestions. “The most important thing, whether or not it is illegal or legal, if the said activity endangers the river ecosystem, it must be put to an end,” he said.
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Bahasa Indonesia on 30 October 2021 in Blok Bojonegoro and in English on 8 November 2021 in Ekuatorial. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Wooden boats carrying sand docked on the banks of the Rengel district side, Tuban, where a wooden conveyor is used to transport sand to trucks / Credit: Parto Sasmito.