Thu, 03 Jul 2003

Australian hypocrisy over mining in RI forests

Igor O'Neill, Mineral Policy Institute, Sydney

Much is at stake in the debate underway in the House of Representatives over plans to permit mining in Indonesia's conservation areas. Twenty-two mining companies have applied for exemptions to Forestry Law 41/1999 which prohibits open-pit mining in protected forest areas. At threat is not only the environment but also the freedom of Indonesia's democratic processes from international intervention.

This weekend, legislators of the Commission III, among others in charge of forestry, and Commission VIII, among others in charge of mining, have recently made lightning visits to 15 of the mine sites at which the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources is recommending they revoke protected forest status. Indonesian environment commentators warn that these visits will not yield a balanced perspective, since the organization and logistics of the trip are being left in the hands of the petitioning mining companies, with no community involvement.

This debate is framed by several facts, highlighted by various reports issued by the Indonesian government, the World Bank and environmental non-government organizations: Indonesia's forests and coral reefs are in crisis, both are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. The water catchments are in crisis, plagued by pollution and catastrophic flooding. Finally, the eastern provinces are seriously lagging behind in terms of infrastructure development and economic opportunities.

The Australian government has been lobbying for over a year, behind the scenes, to undermine existing environmental protections at several sites in Eastern Indonesia. This lobbying only came to light after the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, was called to account by an Australian Greens Senator.

Parliamentary questions revealed extensive lobbying of Indonesian officials by Australian Embassy staff in Jakarta, including the Ambassador, at the behest of Australian mining companies. Downer's answers revealed that mining giants BHP Billiton, Newcrest, Placer Dome, and Rio Tinto specifically requested, and received, lobbying assistance from the Australian Embassy on the matter of mining in protected areas.

Australian embassy officials on nine occasions pressed Indonesian parliamentarians, officials, including the Ministers and Departments for Economic Affairs, Mining, Forestry and Environment to drop the ban on mining in protected areas.

Australians have a high level of concern for the environment and firmly choose to keep Australian protected areas protected instead of mining them. The several environmental projects funded by AUSAID are an appropriate reflection of this widely held Australian public position. The jarring note struck by pro- mining, anti-environment lobbying by Australian Embassy officials in Indonesia therefore constitutes significant conflict in policy aims, and worst of all, a betrayal of Australian public sentiments.

Central to Australian lobbying is the dubious claim that some of the protected areas are "not forested" or are not of high quality or biodiversity value. The Australian claims are unsupported by documented independent investigations but in any case ignore key functions of protected forest areas.

Under the Forestry Law of 1999, a protected forest is defined as an area with the purpose of protecting livelihoods and ecology including through flood mitigation, controlling erosion, inhibiting the intrusion of saltwater, and maintaining soil fertility, are all lifesaving functions. Accordingly, these are amongst the criteria which Indonesian Department of Forestry staff used to complete a reassessment of 22 protected forest areas in which mining is being pushed.

So who are these powerful interests, influential enough to demand the Australian government lobby on their behalf, and powerful enough to override opposition from the Environment Department and scientific reports carried out by the Department of Forestry? What of their policies and track record on environment protection?

Just to the north of Indonesia, Placer mining company's Marcopper mine suffered a massive mine waste spill, filling the Boac River on the island of Marinduque with 3 million to 4 million tons of metal enriched and acid generating mine waste. In December 2001, Placer suddenly pulled out of the Philippines altogether, abandoning its commitments to clean up the Boac River and to compensate villagers affected by the 1996 mine waste spill disaster.

Meanwhile, just across the border into Papua New Guinea, BHP- Billiton and Placer Dome have each built a giant gold/copper mine, OK Tedi and Porgera respectively. These two operations dump over a hundred thousand tons of mine waste into the Fly River system daily.

The result of waste dumping from the Ok Tedi mine is an ecological and human disaster which will last for generations; according to BHP-Billiton's own studies, the Ok Tedi/Fly River fishery is destroyed and indigenous people's forests, food gardens and sago are smothered under a blanket of waste stretching inland for hundreds of kilometers along the river.

Like Placer in the Philippines, BHP cut and run in the wake of the Ok Tedi disaster, entirely abandoning Papua New Guinea. But have these two companies really learnt their lesson? In Eastern Indonesia BHP-Billiton has begun work on a huge nickel mine on Gag Island in Papua province, now a protected forest area, and apparently plans to dump a staggering volume of mine sludge ("tailings") directly into the ocean via the controversial Submarine Tailings Disposal method.

Likewise, Placer Dome plans to dig an open cut gold mine in a protected forest area in South Kalimantan's Meratus Mountains, despite official statements of opposition from local indigenous people's organizations.

The difference between Rio Tinto's operations in Australia and Indonesia clearly demonstrate a double standard. Rio Tinto's Jabiluka uranium mine project is located in the middle of World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park in northern Australia. The proposed mining at Jabiluka is resisted by the indigenous landowners and opposed by the majority of Australians. In an encouraging response to this opposition, Rio Tinto recently announced that they will not develop the mine in the foreseeable future.

But crossing over to Eastern Indonesia, there is no such reticence from Rio Tinto, who holds mining leases over two protected areas, the Palu gold prospect in Poboya Great Forest Park and a sizeable share in Freeport's mining lease over Lorenz National Park. Like Kakadu National Park, Lorenz National Park is a rare World Heritage-listed property. And just like Jabiluka/Kakadu, the Palu/Poboya mine is opposed by local indigenous peoples.

It seems Rio Tinto operates according to one ethical and environmental standard for Australia, and a different, much poorer, standard in Indonesia.

Several thousands of people have sent cards expressing their support for the existing forest protection law. Will the House of Representatives stand firm in the face of powerful threats and enticements brought to bear by mining industry lobbyists, including the Australian Embassy?

The writer also works with the Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi).