In Indonesia, Sumatra’s coal brings more harm than good

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this November Indonesia pledged to completely phase out its coal use by 2056. Coal is a primary resource in Indonesia’s energy sector, generating for 65% of electricity in 2029. Amid recession driven by the coronavirus pandemic, by October this year Indonesia had reaped almost 50 trillion rupiah from the mining sector, 80% of which was contributed by coal. This amount was the biggest in a decade. The essential benefits, however, are not directly shared by Indonesia’s regional residents, particularly in Sumatra, due to their daily lives being adversely impacted by coal businesses.

As Indonesia’s second coal-richest region after Kalimantan, Sumatra is both blessed and cursed by the black gold. On the one hand, coal generates a huge amount of money for some of its provinces. But on the other hand, residents suffer from the impact of rampant coal business operating throughout the island. In Jambi, where coal mines are scattered across the province, thousands of overloaded coal trucks using by the main road each day have infuriated locals. The trucks cause traffic congestions for kilometres, and those living along the main road have no option but to breathe dust and thick diesel fumes every single day. The plight caused by coal trucks does not end there. Coal trucks always swarm petrol stations, not only causing traffic jams, but also impeding residents’ access. This also leads to dark business, with some merchants hoarding diesel fuel just to be resold to coal truck drivers. Thus, it is common to see almost all of Jambi’s petrol stations run out of diesel fuel just a matter of hours after a refill.

What makes residents more furious is that coal truck drivers, some of whom are reckless, inexperienced and unlicensed, regularly cause traffic accidents which claim dozens of lives. In the three years prior to 2020 there were over 30 residents killed, and in 2021 alone the number reached 34. In addition, some truck drivers often secretly use community roads, pushing locals to take unilateral, punitive measures, from blockading roads to setting coal trucks on fire.

The catastrophes partly result from an ambiguous regulation concerning coal truck road access. Based on the revised Minerba Law No. 3 of 2020, coal mining companies are required to use special roads for transporting their commodity, yet the law also states that the companies are not restricted from public roads. This loophole is advantageous for mining companies, granting them freedom from the obligation to construct their own roads. When the companies do show their willingness to build new roads, the potential consequences are severe. A road construction granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to Marga Bara Jaya Corporation in an area bordering Jambi and South Sumatra, for instance, allows the company to build a 88-kilometer road, 60 meters wide, through the protected Harapan forest. Not only that, the concession gives the company control of 424 hectares of the pristine forest.

This road scheme will likely worsen the already intense conflicts between humans and wild animals, especially tigers, in both provinces. In 2019, there were 7 tiger attacks reported in south Sumatra, killing 5 residents and injuring 2 others. In Jambi, this year alone, tigers have killed several villagers, eaten livestock, and terrorized villages.

With easier access illegal settlers, who have flocked to the Harapan forest area for years, will also follow further worsening deforestation. As a consequence Jambi’s forest people (the Suku Anak Dalam) will be pushed further out of the forest  for settlement and livelihoods. With the forest gone, the Suku Anak Dalam are no longer able to hunt wild boars or gather forest products to sell. Consequently they ransack village crops, which creates tensions and deadly conflicts with locals.

Road-related problems caused by coal trucks also persist in other parts of Sumatra. Yet the biggest hurdles faced by residents of Aceh, West Sumatra, Bengkulu, and South Sumatra, to name a few, originate from coal power plants which result in multidimensional pollution as well as economic hardship. Respiratory and other diseases are also affecting residents as a direct impact of breathing coal ashes for a long time. For all these reasons, many residents have to flee their homes for good. Yet for others staying is the only option because moving away is just too costly.

Environmental degradation in Indonesia: lessons from Jambi

Native oligarchs and unscrupulous security apparatuses from the police to the military continue to exploit natural resources with ease and impunity.

The coal curse affecting Sumatra’s residents is a matter of unhealthy politics. The coal sector is strongly linked to national and regional oligarchs, and coal businesses often play a role as financiers for political candidates. This clientelism has helped boost concession permits in the coal business, from just 750 in 2001 to 10.900 at present. The Ministry for Energy and Mineral Resources declared over 1000 of these  President Joko Widodo revoked 2,078 mineral and coal mining business permits. The clientelist nature is also weakening local governments’ bargaining power vis-à-vis coal mine bosses. Far from punishing companies for their misconduct, invitations to discuss pay rises for their underpaid truck drivers and road construction workers are repeatedly ignored. The same story applies to environmental crime perpetrated by coal mining companies, which occur with ease under a clientelist relationship between local leaders and coal oligarchs.

The revised Minerba Law No. 3 of 2020 combined with the controversial, conditionally unconstitutional Omnibus Law will make matters worse for Sumatra’s residents and business more profitable with less accountability for coal mining oligarchs. The revised Minerba Law guarantees a contract extension to mining companies, even if they are proven not to exercise their responsibility to safeguard the environment. The law also recentralises mining industries, paving the way for national oligarchs to flex their muscles in the mining business as they did in the Suharto years. Locals opposing or even “bothering” mining activities in their regions they can be convicted or fined under the law. As for the Omnibus Law, it guarantees a 0% of production levy to companies that can increase the added value of coal.

Despite the phase out and phase down debate over the use of coal at the COP26, the conference has at least set a fixed year for Indonesia to end its coal dependency. Yet, until 2056 coal will likely remain a curse rather than a blessing for many in Sumatra.

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