Aussies to dig at the heart of Borneo as coal projects threaten nature

Australian companies are pushing ahead with plans to construct open-cut coalmines in a conservation area of Borneo described by the World Wildlife Fund as “one of the planet’s richest treasure troves”.

Brisbane-based Cokal announced it has secured funding to pursue its Bumi Barito Mineral joint venture, from which it plans to mine 200 million tonnes of coking coal over a 10-year period.

The BBM project, covering 15,000 hectares of forest, is one of five coalmines Cokal hopes to develop in the remote north of Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, where it has permits covering 62,000 hectares of land, part of which falls within the boundaries of the Heart of Borneo - a 220,000 square kilometre area said to be the largest remaining expanse of trans-boundary tropical forest in Southeast Asia.

A far bigger player in the area is BHP Billiton, which, with its Indonesian joint venture partner Adaro Energy, holds seven Coal Contract of Work concessions over 350,000 hectares in Central and East Kalimantan, mostly inside the Heart of Borneo area.

The Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative is recognised by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. In 2007, they signed an agreement to protect the region from the deforestation and degradation wrought on much of Borneo’s landscape by oil palm plantations, logging and mining.

The zone, roughly the central third of the island of Borneo, includes a mosaic of different forest types, where WWF says three new species on average have been discovered every month since 2005. It is home to vulnerable and endangered species such as pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceros, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, sun bears and orangutans.

British naturalist David Attenborough has written of the Heart of Borneo: “All of us who value life on this planet should support the efforts to conserve it. It is truly a world heritage and the world should respond to its needs.”

But the area is not technically protected, and WWF, which is driving the conservation initiative, works with the governments and industries operating in the region on “sustainable land use” and practices.

BHP Billiton, which has contracted Leighton Holdings subsidiary Thiess Indonesia to build a major road, river port and facilities for 550 workers for the first of its planned Indomet mines, estimates there are 1.3 billion tonnes of coking and thermal coal in its project areas.

According to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI, by its local acronym), in addition to releasing huge volumes of carbon dioxide through deforestation and mining, the new Australian coalmines will disrupt and pollute two major river systems, destroy tens of thousands of hectares of natural forest in an area of high biodiversity and have disastrous impacts on the land and resources of the local people, potentially causing conflict.

A spokesperson for BHP Billiton said the company’s sustainable approach could make a positive contribution to the region and that it would only proceed with developments consistent with the company’s charter, internal standards and external commitments.

Indonesia last year mined 421 million tonnes of coal, most of it from Kalimantan.

In the East and South Kalimantan provinces, from where most of the coal has come so far, mining has polluted the rivers and groundwater, caused major flooding, reduced agricultural land and increased poverty, according to Indonesia’s Mining Advocacy Network, JATAM.

The exploitation of Central Kalimantan’s coal reserves, until now limited by their remote location, was a policy under the Indonesian government’s 2011 master plan for economic development.

The national government has agreed on a public-private partnership to build a coal railway from the interior of the province to the port, which it estimates will boost  coal production in Central Kalimantan six-fold.

In a report last year, Greenpeace labelled Indonesia’s planned increase in coal exports from Kalimantan as one of 14 fossil fuel projects that were “the worst of the worst” around the globe, which together would push the world’s climate beyond the point of no return.

The largest of BHP’s Indomet concessions is within a few kilometres of an area where the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation has released more than 100 displaced orangutans, and for which the organisation has applied for an ecosystem restoration permit to reintroduce more animals.

Orangutan expert David Chivers, who ran a study project in the area over many years, says it is essential the forests in the area are not further disrupted.

“It’s impossible that orangutans would not be impacted by [BHP Billiton’s] mining, especially with all the released animals in the area,” Dr Chivers told Fairfax Media.

”It’s a key area for such releases, which must be maintained.”

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect the fact the Indonesian government has agreed on a public-private partnership to build a coal railway, however no partnership has been signed. 

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