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With their lawsuit against a coal firm in limbo, Bornean villagers take the fight online

In Indonesian Borneo’s Central Hulu Sungai district, indigenous people, farmers and fishers have been joined by the local government in their opposition to a planned coal mine.

As the forests of South Kalimantan province were whittled away by extractive industries, just one district in this corner of Indonesian Borneo remained free of both mining and oil palm plantations: Central Hulu Sungai district.

Today, that status is uncertain. The district’s people, who have long fought to keep corporate interests off their land, are left in limbo as they await a verdict from the country’s highest court that could determine whether a coal miner can start digging up untouched rainforest on land claimed by indigenous groups.

Residents of Central Hulu Sungai allege that the central government illegally issued an operating permit to Indian-owned firm PT Mantimin Coal Mining (MCM) despite unified, decade-long opposition to the company.

A case filed by activists, led by the Indonesian environmental NGO Walhi, has twice been rejected by lower courts on technicalities since it was first introduced in February 2018. Now, activists are left waiting for an official declaration as to whether the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case.

If the court declines, the activists will have exhausted all options for legal action. In the meantime, they are working to take the issue to the court of public opinion, launching a campaign to protect the forests and cultural lands under the banner of “Save Meratus,” a reference to the forest-clad Meratus mountain range.

The Meratus Mountains were once a candidate for a national park, but now the misty, pristine forests stand above a province that has been transformed into a coal and palm oil haven. Indigenous groups live day-long hikes from the nearest roads in the cool-air peaks spread out across more than 500 square kilometers (200 square miles). Residents follow a few of the country’s recognised religions, as well as Kaharingan, which views the forest as sacred but is unrecognised by the government.

As they wait to hear from the Supreme Court, they’ve focused on building mass support through public campaigns and letters directed at President Joko Widodo, who was inaugurated last month to a second term in office. The movement has stretched from Indonesian Borneo to Jakarta, where indigenous groups have brought banners and protested in front of the country’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, whose head is a defendant in the case.

“The lawsuit is only one of the ways we’re fighting for our Meratus Mountains,” says Kisworo Dwi Cahyono, Walhi’s chapter head in South Kalimantan.

Bypassing local opposition

Under Indonesian law, much of the power to give and revoke permits remains at the district level. But both local officials and residents say they were taken by surprise when the central government approved PT MCM’s permit in December 2017.

In November 2017, just one month before the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources issued the company’s operating permit, a new ministry regulation went into effect. This new rule allowed companies to receive operating permits for multiple concession areas, even if not all of the company’s concessions met the full legal requirements. It only applied to companies like PT MCM, which had permits that predated a 2009 overhaul of the permitting process. According to the ministry’s director-general of coal, Bambang Gatot Ariyono, the regulation was designed to simplify the permitting process.

Officials in the Central Hulu Sungai district government had refused since 2008 to grant PT MCM the approval it needed to obtain an operating permit. The district head, district parliament and local fishermen’s and farmers’ associations have all fixed in writing their opposition to mining in their district. The head of the provincial government’s minerals office, Gunawan Harjito, has also voiced his opposition.

But the new regulation allowed PT MCM to effectively sidestep this local opposition.

Among districts facing land conflicts in Indonesia, Central Hulu Sungai is unique because local officials stand alongside indigenous residents in their steadfast opposition to mining projects on their land, Kisworo says.

According to locals, company representatives have offered compensation to the 8,000 villagers if they give up their land to the company. Rumli, of GEMBUK, a community environmental group in the district capital, says almost two years after PT MCM received a permit, most villagers have refused to give up their land, saying the money is not as important as land.

Many believe the almost 2,000-hectare (5,000-acre) concession area will threaten not only wildlife and water sources, but may also mean the Meratus Mountains as a whole are no longer off-limits to the extractive industry.

A winding legal process

In its lawsuit, Walhi alleges that the ministry advanced PT MCM from exploration to operating permit without the necessary environmental impact assessment and community consultation.

PT MCM and its parent company, Mumbai-based Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited (IL&FS), have not responded to repeated requests for comment from Mongabay, both while reporting on this issue in 2018 and while preparing this article.

The lawsuit targeted not only the PT MCM concession in Hulu Sungai Tengah, but also the company’s concession in another district, because the permit for that concession was also obtained through the same ministry action.

Walhi says it hopes its lawsuit will also lead to the revocation of operating permits given to another coal company, PT Antang Gunung Meratus, which has yet to mine its concession area that stretches into Central Hulu Sungai.

In July 2018, some five months after the case was first filed, a panel of judges from the Jakarta state administrative court visited the planned mining site in the Batutangga area.

“When they arrived in Batutangga, they were surprised. ‘Oh it turns out there are also people living here,’” Kisworo recalls.

But the verdict came back in October 2018 as a refusal to consider the case, deeming it a matter for a different court. Kisworo and Walhi brought the case to a higher court in Jakarta, which in March again refused to accept the case due to technical mistakes in Walhi’s documentation.

Dwi Sawung, a Walhi campaigner aiding the Save Meratus plaintiffs, accused the judges of ignoring evidence in the case, including threats to the fragile karst landscape and a nationally funded irrigation project in the concession area. Sawung also argues that PT MCM has been virtually inactive since 1993, and therefore isn’t eligible under the regulation that allowed it to bypass the ordinary permitting process.

“The process of substantiating evidence is useless when judges decide not to hear the case in the end, which in this case is contrary to the principle of fast, easy, and inexpensive justice,” Sawung said.

The court of public opinion

“The coal company was just a trigger. Now we can use it to draw attention to the entire Meratus Mountains,” Kisworo says.

Twenty years ago, shortly after graduating from college, Kisworo helped establish the name “Save Meratus” for a movement that successfully expelled a logging company from the mountains. In December 2018, Walhi revived the name, creating the website SaveMeratus.com, complete with frequent blog posts, mapping data of concessions, and testimonies from popular figures in the area.

Shortly before the second court rejection in March 2019, activists held a public letter-writing event for South Kalimantan residents of all ages to voice their opinions to the government. In August, they hand-delivered some of the letters to the presidential palace in Jakarta. There were more than a thousand of them, including one written in Braille by a blind woman and another from a student studying abroad.

“The campaign is a manifestation of the social movement in South Kalimantan to attract the attention and broad public support for the Meratus mountain ecosystems that are threatened by extractive industries and in need of protection fairly and sustainably,” said Ach Rozani, a Walhi campaigner in Jakarta.

Residents of Central Hulu Sungai say they fear their district may be the last bastion before the Meratus Mountains are opened up to mining and plantations. Because the concession area lies in the region’s water catchment area, the district’s 270,000 people say they’re worried about increased flooding in addition to the loss of the province’s most intact forests.

Rumli, of GEMBUK, says his biggest fear is the heated atmosphere in his home around the Meratus Mountains.

“Besides the social, economic, cultural, and environmental fallout that will occur, the thing I most fear is that there will be violence and there could be deaths,” Rumli said over the phone from Central Hulu Sungai.

“And with the coming election years, we don’t know who will be playing games with permits and money,” he added.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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