Australian hypocrisy over mining in Indonesian forests

Jakarta Post - Opinion and Editorial - July 03, 2003

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

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

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?