Mining, the big challenge in guarding the environment

Coming home: An indigenous man unloads his belongings from a small boat in Sekatak district, Bulungan regency. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)
Coming home: An indigenous man unloads his belongings from a small boat in Sekatak district, Bulungan regency. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)

This is the second of a two-part report on East Kalimantan, which has recently been split into North and East Kalimantan. The Jakarta Post’s Prodita Sabarini and Nurni Sulaiman report from the richest province outside Java, which also faces severe environmental challenges. 

Young idealists in East Kalimantan dream to make a difference

Sarah Agustiorini studies biology. She loves plants, she says. The 22-year-old spent her early years marveling at the many different shades of green in the forest that surrounds her home in Samarinda, the provincial capital.

She grew up watching how the forest changed. First the trees were chopped down and were replaced with uniform trees for the timber industry. Now, from her home in Sambutan district she sees hills being scarred by the digging for the coal underneath.

Early this month, she led The Jakarta Post and a couple of curious university freshmen to Makroman village, a farming area where coalmines are quickly closing in.

Three years ago, Sarah joined the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), when the organization searched for volunteers through a writing workshop at Mulawarman University in Samarinda. Sarah is now the coordinator for women and mining issues, while she finishes her studies in conservation biology. Makroman is one of the areas where she works with the community.

In East Kalimantan, young people, who will inherit a land spoiled by the exploitation of natural resources, are eager to guard the environment and to learn to not make the same mistakes.

Sarah, for example, decided to advocate for the rights of the local community with JATAM after seeing mines spring up around her house and watching deforestation make many of Samarinda’s once readily available local fruits become increasingly hard to come by. At the East Kalimantan JATAM office, she is the youngest member of the team and the only woman.

In Makroman, she passes rice fields and heads towards a hill. She walks swiftly, tackling the hill, covered in tall wild grass. As she reaches the top of the hill, the vista changes abruptly from green rice paddies to grey, steep-walled pit mines. After the mines started operating in Makroman, farmers say their yields dropped by half as chemical seepage from the mines drastically reduced the quality of water used in their rice fields and fishponds.

“Everywhere I go the complaints are similar. How can they make the mines go [away]? How they have trouble getting water. How dusty the air has become. How it’s hard to sleep at night because of the noise from the mines. And they don’t know where to go, so they always come to JATAM,” Sarah said.

Next month, Sarah will graduate. “I want to be a taxonomist, but I will continue my advocacy work with JATAM,” she said.

A similar kind of idealistic drive to guard East Kalimantan’s environment has touched Muhammad Azrar Munir. A 17-year-old freshman at Mulawarman, Azrar chose to major in agriculture despite the mining boom in the region. He came along to Makroman as he was visiting JATAM’s office with a friend. “I want to learn more about how local farmers live,” he said.

Azrar comes from Penajam regency in East Kalimantan. The mining industry there has yet to flourish as it has in Samarinda, where 70 percent of the land has been given out in mining concessions; or Kutai Kartanegara regency, with the largest number of mining concessions, covering 1.2 million hectares; or East Kutai — home to Bumi Resources’ Kaltim Prima Coal. However, Sarah’s observation was that they were heading in that direction.

Azrar said he hoped that his regency would take lessons from other regencies and do a better job of planning. “Mining is fine, but mines should not be close to residential or farm areas,” he said.

“I chose agriculture because mining is booming. I want to develop the agriculture sector more,” he said.

“I have a dream to develop the agriculture sector even though the mining industry is booming because in the past few years, we have been facing a food crisis in Indonesia,” he said. He pointed out that Indonesia has been importing rice, while the country should be a rice exporter.

Sarah said that for all the progress that the mining industry had brought, she had yet to see any company significantly impact real human development. “Development here amounts to nothing much, except that consumerism is increasing rapidly. But progress for the people? I don’t see much,” she said.

She said that people’s way of life was changing as they moved from farming to working in mining. They experienced rapid increases in income, but were forced in to a consumerist lifestyle. “And still, some of the people don’t have electricity, like in Sempaja, Sambutan and North Samarinda,” she said, referring to districts in Samarinda.

For Sarah, Samarinda and East Kalimantan’s progress has merely focused on exploiting natural resources and has neglected investments in infrastructure and in human capital.

Sarah and Azrar are among the few young idealists that dream to create change in the region. But more young educated people like them are needed to effect change in the future.

The government of East Kalimantan seems to have realized its dependency on extractive industries and is starting to invest in its young people. The provincial government and the Education and Culture Ministry are planning to establish a new Institute of Technology in Kalimantan. Some 300 hectares of land had been prepared in Balikpapan for the new school, East Kalimantan governor Awang Farouk Ishak said. Construction is planned for 2013 and some 100 people were sent to study at Institute of Technology in Surabaya.

Hopes are high that the institute will churn out skilled workers that will fuel progress in the region. Whether the institute will, in the long run, instill a similar sense of idealism as Sarah and Azrar hold, remains to be seen.

The Jakarta Post | Special Report | Fri, January 18 2013

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