Politics and the Environment in Indonesia

By Marohasy, Jennifer | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Politics and the Environment in Indonesia


Marohasy, Jennifer, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


In North Queensland, environmental activists occasionally hold up a prop such as a dead fish, to illustrate a point and provide television footage of an alleged incidence of pollution. In Indonesia, in the recent campaign to jail Richard Ness, activists used as their icon a dead baby.

Richard Ness, President of an Indonesian subsidiary of Newmont Mining Corporation, was accused in 2004 of knowingly polluting Buyat Bay, its fringing coral reefs, and its local villagers, with mercury and arsenic.

Beyond Buyat Bay in NorrJi Sulawesi is a forest of coconut palms and then steep jungle-clad mountains. For years, small local miners have worked the upper reaches of the Totok River digging narrow but deep vertical shafts reinforced with flimsy pieces of wood in search of gold. Men with torches strapped to their heads are lowered down the shafts and heavy bags of ore are lifted to the surface by way of pulley systems.

These miners use mercury to process the ore. The waste slurry, also known as tailings, along with the mercury bottles are washed into the Totok River which eventually empties into Totok Bay to the north of Buyat Bay.

In 1994, Newmont started building a gold mine in the same mountainous region of Noith Sulawesi. But instead of narrow shafts, Newmont had a permit for an open-cut mine that would use cyanide rather than mercury to process the gold. Furthermore, as part of the approval process, the Newmont mine had a detailed plan for disposing of the mine's tailings, with engineering studies suggesting that the best option, after a three-stage detoxification process, was an outfall pipe a kilometre offshore and 82 metres down on the bottom of Buyat Bay.

The Newmont mine operated successfully for eight years alongside the small miners in the mountains above Buyat Bay. The Newmont mine employed over 700 Indonesians with many new graduates getting their first job with Newmont Minahasa Raya. Over the life of the mine, 60 tonnes of gold was extracted and over US$50 million paid in taxes and royalties to the Indonesian Government. Every day, Newmont monitored the quality and volume of its tailings and reported these statistics to the Indonesian Government along with a detailed monthly environmental report. The mine and its operations appeared to meet all relevant environmental and workplace health and safety standards.

But even before the mine opened, environmental activists were mobilising against Newmont.

Indeed, six months before the first tailings were placed on the floor of Buyat Bay in March 1996, the local Manado Post published an article claiming that Buyat villagers had been poisoned by the mine's tailings.

This was the first of a long list of fabrications by activists in their pursuit of Newmont and its local boss, Richard Ness.

When I visited Indonesia in April this year and asked why the environmental activists targeted Newmont, rather than, for example, the illegal gold miners in the upper reaches of the Totok River, a local medical doctor replied, 'Attacking Newmont the NGOs will be rewarded with dollars, but if they went up against the illegal miners they would be confronted with sabres.'

A local journalist told me that the story was 'sexy' because ordinary Indonesians liked the idea of a poor fishing village taking on a big American mining company-the classic David versus Goliath battle. No-one wanted to believe that the fishermen were being manipulated by NGOs or that the American boss, Richard Ness, was an honest man.

The scheduled closure of the mine in 2004 coincided with elections in Indonesia, a global campaign against the submarine placement of mine tailings and the death of a five-month-old baby girl known as Andini.

Demonstrations were organised in Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi. Baby Andini was a feature at the demonstrations, with activists presenting her to the local Governor at the second big rally. They claimed that she was suffering mercury poisoning. …

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