Samarinda floods blamed on mining

Panorama: A view of the East Kalimantan town of Samarinda and the Mahakam river, taken from Lipan Hill. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)
Panorama: A view of the East Kalimantan town of Samarinda and the Mahakam river, taken from Lipan Hill. (JP/Prodita Sabarini)

As it goes in Jakarta, so it goes in Samarinda: heavy rains bring big floods.

A lack of water catchment areas has made flooding a certainty in Samarinda, according to local residents. And many residents of the East Kalimantan provincial capital blame the ubiquitous coal mines around the city.

East Kalimantan is known for its wealth of natural resources. The last decade has seen a boom in the region, especially in Samarinda, which has given out 76 mining concessions comprising more than 70 percent of its area. East Kalimantan has more than 1,000 mining concessions in total, in addition to numerous oil and gas blocks.

The transmogrification of green hills into open mine pits has left the once-forested city bare. The East Kalimantan Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM) has reported that Samarinda has reserved only 690 hectares of forest for water catchments, about 1 percent of its total area. Further, JATAM coordinator Kahar Al Bahri said that most of the city’s swamps had been converted into residential or industrial areas.

“When it rains in Samarinda it always floods now,” Kahar said.

Environmental experts have estimated that the city needs to designate at least 27 percent of its land as urban forests for water catchment. The city is 19,000 hectares short of that target.

Conditions are different in Balikpapan, the business capital of East Kalimantan.

Bakro, a Samarinda resident who hails from Malang, Central Java, said that Samarinda and Balikpapan, two of the most important cities in the province, were run quite differently.

“Balikpapan is better managed. They don’t provide licenses to mine willy-nilly,” he said.

Samarinda, on the other hand, seemed to be managed rather haphazardly, he said. “But because of that it’s easier to survive in Samarinda. You can go and be a street vendor anywhere in that city,” according to Bakro. “You can’t do that in Balikpapan.”

Despite the ease in finding informal work in Samarinda, environmental degradation in the city has taken its toll on its residents. Early last year, the dam that held water discharged by the mine of Samarinda Prima Coal burst and inundated hundreds of houses in muddy water, JATAM reported.

Local residents and a coalition of NGOs then launched a class-action suit against the Samarinda administration, claiming that officials had mismanaged the city and harmed residents by granting too many
mining concessions.

Samarinda Deputy Mayor Nusyirwan Ismail said that he was aware of the environmental destruction that could be wreaked by mining companies. He told The Jakarta Post that the city administration had a “creative way” to intensify its monitoring of coal mining.

The local mining agency and environmental agency monitor miners based on their adherence to environmental standards.

Companies with a low level of compliance are shut down for a month and told to repair any environmental damage.

“If after one month there is no significant improvement — or in other words no progress up to 70 percent — then their permits will be rescinded,” Nusyirwan said.

According to the deputy mayor, the permits of four companies have been rescinded for poor adherence to environmental regulations.

Nusyirwan said that there have been many conflicts between local residents and mining companies on environmental issues. “Samarinda is growing and has more than 926,000 residents. There can be frictions.”

“That’s why as a political contract, we will not issue new permits.”

– JP/Prodita Sabarini and Nurni Sulaiman/Samarinda

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

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