Coal downturn leaves behind deaths, environmental ruin

For nearly two years Rahmawati has been seeking justice for her 10-year-old son, Muhammad Raihan, who drowned in a water-filled coal mine pit in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province.

“I want those responsible for the negligence to be punished so that there will be no more victims like him,” Rahmawati said. “Losing a child is unbearable.”

Raihan was among the more than 25 people, mostly children, who have drowned since 2011 in the abandoned water-filled pits near their neighbourhoods in Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan.

More than 1,100 mines have wound up operations in the province, leaving behind unreclaimed pits that can look like enticing swimming spots, but are actually full of danger for children.

They also contain environmental hazards in the form of contaminated soil and rivers, activists and officials said.

“It is the responsibility of the mining companies to reclaim the pits, but the provincial government has not taken action against the companies that refuse to do so,” said Edo Rakhman, a campaign manager for the environmental group Walhi.

“Officials even protect the companies and harass activists who raise the issue,” he said.

Indonesia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, with proven reserves at about 32 billion tonnes in 2014, according to the Energy Ministry.

The country’s coal production more than doubled from about 113 million tons in 2004 to 272 million tons in 2013, according to the ministry.

Mining operations in East Kalimantan, Indonesia’s coal heartland, produce approximately two-thirds of the country’s coal output.

Global coal prices have however declined in recent years due to slowing demand from China and India, the main drivers of coal exports.

Dian Patria, the head of the natural resources department at the Corruption Eradication Commission, said 90 per cent of some 10,000 mining licence holders have failed to pay reclamation funds and 70 per cent did not even pay tax.

“Poor management of the mining sector has been going on for decades,” Patria said.

Since Indonesia gave its regions more authority, following president Suharto’s 1998 resignation, local authorities have been churning out mining licences.

Corruption and cronyism meant that officials would turn a blind eye to the violations, Patria said.

“Companies get licences from district chiefs, who are often their friends, or fellow political party members or relatives, so no action is taken against them,” he said.

Local politicians treat mining companies as “ATMs” during local elections, said Ki Bagus Hadi Kusuma, an activist for the Mining Advocacy Network, a non-governmental group.

“In 2010 during the local election season, there was a sharp rise in mining licences issued,” he said.

Kusuma said open-pit mining was also a major cause of soil contamination in rice fields.

“Metals from the mines change soil composition, which results in lower production of rice,” he said.

The central government will send a team to look into reports of violations by mining companies and the death of children, said Carlo Tewu, deputy minister at the Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs.

“We will try to clarify the information,” he said after a meeting with related ministries and agencies to discuss the issue last week.

“Companies are likely to have paid land reclamation guarantee funds in advance and the money should have been used for reclamation,” he said.

But he also said he did not know to whom the money was paid, how much or how it had been used.

He said police were also investigating the deaths in abandoned quarries and shafts, but declined to give further details.

Maria Ulfah Anshor, a member of the National Commission on Child Protection, called for those responsible for the negligence that resulted in the death of the children to be prosecuted.

“Children swim, play and take photos because the places are not restricted, without realizing how deep the pits are,” she said.

Rahmawati said a police investigation into the death of her son has not made progress after almost two years.

“I was summoned twice and asked the same questions, but officials from the company were only questioned as witnesses,” she said.

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