Indonesians protesting against mines run increasing risk of ‘criminalisation’

Indonesians defending their lands against mining operations are frequently met with criminal persecution on dubious charges, say local observers.

Protest against mining bill - Indonesia
Activists and students stage a protest outside the Indonesian parliament against the passage of the mining bill. Image: Clean Up Indonesia. 

“We have fought against them for so long, but the mining activities just carry on and so does the criminalisation,” said Sapoy, a resident of Jomboran village on the Indonesian island of Java.

Sapoy, who goes by one name, was questioned by police in Sleman district, Yogyakarta province, where his village is located, in October, in connection with a criminal complaint filed by a mining company operating in the area. He leads a group, the Kali Progo People’s Collective (PMKP), that has since 2017 protested against the mining of sand and rock in the vicinity of the Progo River, the main source of freshwater for many households in Sleman district.

The group says the mining operations have exacerbated the freshwater crisis in the district and created noise pollution. They also accuse the mining companies of forging their community consent documents, one of the pieces of paperwork required for obtaining an operating license.

In January this year, local police received two criminal complaints centered on the mining activities. One was filed on 7 January with the Sleman police by Pramudya Afgani, the owner of one of the mining outfits, in which he accused the PMKP of destruction of property and obstruction of mining activities following a protest in December 2020. The PMKP filed its own complaint on 11 January with the Yogyakarta police, alleging document forgery by the miners. Since then, however, police have only followed up on Pramudya’s complaint, questioning 18 Jomboran villagers, including Sapoy.

“The locals feel threatened by the mining activities there,” said Himawan Adi, head of advocacy for the Yogyakarta chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO. “When they are expressing their concerns, they end up facing criminalisation.”

Walhi Yogyakarta said that the police probe into the Jomboran village protesters is the first recorded case of a criminal investigation related to environmental protests since the passage of the country’s amended mining law in May 2020. The law has been widely criticised for stripping back environmental protections and favoring miners in disputes with affected communities.

Observers in Indonesia point to a long history of injustice toward communities involved in disputes with extractive companies. Protesters frequently face the threats of violence, arrest and imprisonment on dubious and often frivolous charges, said the activists. In 2020, 69 Indonesians were “criminalised” in this way in eight cases, according to data from the watchdog NGO Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam).

“The state wants to chase after economic growth, but the people want to protect their environment because there is a limit to what you can take from it,” said Julian Dwi Prasetya, head of advocacy for the Yogyakarta chapter of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI).

It is a similar pattern to the persecution faced by communities embroiled in disputes and land conflicts with palm oil companies across Indonesia. An analysis of 150 disputes involving palm firms found that current channels for addressing the conflicts between villagers and companies generally fail to produce meaningful results for the affected communities.

With no other avenue for redress, communities often resort to staging demonstrations. These typically take the form of peaceful protests in front of government buildings, sometimes escalating into more confrontational actions in or near plantations, such as land occupations and blockades, according to the study.

Indonesia has a tainted track of environmental defenders being threatened with violence and even death. In the first quarter of 2021, 70 people in 10 cases were subject to arrest, physical abuse and unfair court trial, according to the think tank Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM).

“This is harrowing data,” said ELSAM researcher Filarian Burhan.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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