• Residents of the Indonesian island of Wawonii believed they had won a long-running battle against mining companies with concessions on their land after authorities promised to revoke the permits in March.
  • However, only nine of the 15 permits were scrapped, while at least one of the remaining companies continues offering to buy out residents and clearing land.
  • Organizers of the earlier protests are now bracing for an even more intensive campaign, in the hope of drawing enough attention to their cause that the government steps in and cancels the remaining permits.
  • One of the companies involved says the land belongs to the state and the villagers have no claim to it.

ROKO-ROKO, Indonesia — Residents of this village on the island of Wawonii look like they’re preparing for a battle. Men with chainsaws guard four jerry-rigged huts they’ve built to protect their land against a mining company owned by one of Indonesia’s wealthiest families.

Just four months earlier, locals were celebrating the government’s promise to expel firms like this one.

In March, Lukman Abunawas, the deputy governor of Southeast Sulawesi province, faced an angry crowd outside his office in Kendari, the provincial capital, and announced that the government would revoke 15 land concessions for industrial-scale mining in Wawonii.

It was the culmination of a series of increasingly brutal protests against the mining plans that saw thousands of farmers and fishermen pour into the coastal city, riding boats across the narrow channel separating Wawonii from the Sulawesi mainland to join the demonstrations. In the streets they were hit with tear gas and water cannons, and some were beaten by police. But their numbers kept building, driven by fears that mining would wreck the fragile ecosystem of an island smaller than New York City.

“There were people crying, we were so happy and tired,” recalls Mando Maskuri, a 23-year-old Roko-Roko native and campus activist who helped organize the rallies in Kendari.

Thinking they had won, most of the protesters went home after the deputy governor made his announcement.

Their glee didn’t last long. In April, the provincial administration walked back its promise, with Governor Ali Mazi telling journalists he would revoke only nine of the permits — which had already expired anyway — while freezing the other six, all for mining nickel.

Then in July, a video spread online of a woman in Roko-Roko screaming at an excavator plowing over her land. The machine belonged to one of the companies whose permits had supposedly been frozen by the state. The company, PT Gema Kreasi Perdana (GKP), is an arm of the Harita Group, a conglomerate owned by Indonesia’s super-rich Lim family, a major player in the country’s fast-growing nickel sector.

After that, Mando, who had just graduated from university in Kendari, decided to put his plans for further study on hold. He returned to Wawonii in hopes of organizing another wave of action against the mining firms.

He and other residents of the island who oppose the mining plans hope to draw enough attention to their cause that the government will have no choice but to cancel the permits outright.

In July, Mongabay accompanied Mando to Roko-Roko, his home village, and traveled with him to other communities on the island, home to 34,000 people who mainly subsist on farming and fishing. It’s a five-hour boat ride from Kendari to Wawonii, and another hour by motorbike to the huts in Roko-Roko and the men with chainsaws.

Taking shade under the cashew trees, they gaze at an excavator at work in a nearby ravine.

“My father was buried here and since then we haven’t used the land, but it has been ours for a long time,” Marwah, the woman from the video, told Mongabay.

Marwah stands on the spot where she confronted the excavator. Since then, residents have placed felled trees to mark the borders of her land. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

‘A war among brothers’

As in much of Indonesia, villagers in Wawonii tend to lack documents to back their land claims, making it easy for the state to bring in corporate investors without their consent.

In a landmark 2013 decision, the Constitutional Court annulled the state’s claim to indigenous peoples’ traditional forests. But the government has dragged its feet on implementing the ruling, even as AMAN, the national advocacy group for indigenous rights, pushes for the passage of a law governing how indigenous land claims can be formally recognized.

Amid the uncertainty, Roko-Roko is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of villages across the country that has fallen into conflict with a natural resource firm.

Despite Wawonii residents’ weak legal position, GKP is offering to compensate them with cash payments based on the crops they have planted. Cashew trees go for 900,000 rupiah ($64), clove trees for 750,000 rupiah ($54), locals say.

Marwah doesn’t want to sell. “Money runs out, but land doesn’t,” the 43-year-old said. Since the incursion, she has slept every night in one of the huts with three other people.

Some people are more receptive to the company’s entreaties. Mando’s cousin, Marzuki, applied for a job with GKP, selling his 1,200 clove and cashew trees for a total of 987 million rupiah ($70,550). Fully grown, the trees could probably produce around 100 million rupiah ($7,150) worth of produce per year, local farmers say. Marzuki says the only reason he would protest is if the company hired foreign laborers.

“It’s better than waiting for the money to come later,” the 32-year-old says outside a family shop in Roko-Roko. “They promised to repair the land and return it when they’re done.”

Whether villagers want to deal with the company may be a moot point. Bambang Murtiyoso, GKP’s operational director, says the land in its concession belongs to the state, even if locals have been farming it.

“That’s national forest in Wawonii, so residents there don’t have the right to trade land, they [can] only sell the plants on it,” Murtiyoso said over the phone. He acknowledged that his workers had erred in breaching Marwah’s land, while insisting that GKP was operating legally.

The presence of the company, locals say, has driven a wedge among community members. GKP has hired some villagers to work in public relations, which entails persuading their neighbors to accept cash payments in return for their land. Others, like the men who showed up on Marwah’s land, have taken field jobs with the firm.

These days, if Marwah sees supporters of the mining firms around Roko-Roko, she’s too angry to greet them.

“It’s like a war among brothers,” says a man named Dani, an anti-mining activist who lives in the village of Masolo, not far from Roko-Roko. Some of his neighbors have also given up their land to GKP. “It’s splitting apart the village.”

Mando Maskuri in Roko-Roko. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

On his first night back in Roko-Roko, Mando sat together with 20 men, including his father, who had vowed to oppose the mining.

“Last time, the situation created us, and we weren’t ready,” Mando said of the protests in March, as male heads of families sat and smoked. “The next time, we have to be the ones to create the situation, and we can control it.”

Mando is reserved, soft-spoken and young, but there is no shortage of respect for the role he has played in organizing the grassroots.

Early this year in Kendari, he helped secure the necessary permits to protest from the police. During the demonstrations, he often read their demands through a megaphone, even facing down the deputy governor flanked by anti-riot police.

That’s not to say the movement has a clear hierarchy. It rose organically, locals say, without the help of big NGOs.

“At first there was no one instructing, and no one being instructed,” Abaruddin, Marwah’s husband, said of the initial protests.

Abaruddin, second from left, sits with other locals in Roko-Roko who oppose mining. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

That night at the meeting, the villagers decided they would need to take a more systematic approach. They decided to form an organization, ambitiously calling themselves the National Farmers Union. It was less a practical coalition than a symbolic agreement to dig in their heels against the mining firms.

Over the next few days, Mando visited two more villages whose inhabitants had sailed to Kendari for the protests in March. In each place, they agreed to prioritize data collection: How many people supported the mine? How many had already sold land? How much land is left?

When Mando arrived in one village, a gaggle of students was parading around with megaphones, reminding residents they didn’t have to sell their land. It was the fifth group of activists Mando had encountered.

“We keep making separate fronts, but we get confused, so we need to unify somehow,” Mando said at meeting in Lampeapi village, two hours north of Roko-Roko.

Poor infrastructure has raised the difficulty level. Wawonii’s bumpy roads become impassable when it rains. Weak cellphone reception limits contact between villages. In July, plans for a demonstration in Roko-Roko fell through because it couldn’t be organized in time.

After Governor Ali promised to revoke the permits in March, GKP brought 4G internet service to Roko-Roko, the first village to receive internet in southern Wawonii. Mando let out a chuckle knowing he’s using the network to organize against its patron.

A legal solution?

Opposition to the mining is mainly driven by environmental fears.

Farther east, on the island of Obi in North Maluku province, for example, fishers and farmers have accused another nickel-mining Harita Group subsidiary of polluting coastal waters. The provincial attorney’s office has investigated.

Harita Group corporate communications manager Roliya Helana did not respond to requests for comment.

Wawonii residents fear a similar fate. If mining pollutes the sea, tuna fishers may need to venture into deeper waters. Edible sea snails, now plentiful, may disappear. The island’s lush rainforests, which provide the residents with clean water, could also be threatened.

“The impact on the environment will be substantial,” Mando says. “We live on the fresh water from the mountains. If the rivers are contaminated, where will we get our water?”

Jakarta, though, wants to drastically increase nickel production. Thomas Lembong, the head of the national investment agency, recently said the country’s nickel-related industries could surpass the value of palm oil, of which Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer, in the next 10 or 15 years.

The Southeast Asian nation has some of the world’s richest deposits of high-grade nickel sold into the steel and electric vehicle battery industries. Much of the recent growth in its nickel market is related to demand for electric vehicles elsewhere in the world.

“Electric vehicles are good for the environment, but [they’re available] only to those who have money,” Mando says.

Mando has been in contact with Melky Nahar, head of campaigns at the Mining Advocacy Network, or Jatam, a national NGO. Melky has advised the Wawonii activists to make enough noise that officials in Jakarta can’t ignore them.

“[Wawonii citizens] need to ensure that the land owned by residents who aren’t in the concession area or who suddenly are put in the concession area without their approval isn’t destroyed by mining activities,” Melky told Mongabay. “The people must stand guard as landowners and the masses. That will force the government to choose a side.”

One of the huts in Roko-Roko. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Just catching the attention of the district government has been a struggle. Amrullah, the head of Wawonii district, has refused to comment on the mining since March and didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

“We have no idea what the government is doing now,” Henara Gama, a resident, said at one of the gatherings in Wawonii. “We’re neglected and alone in this.”

The best way to resolve the conflict might be through a lawsuit, says Henri Subagiyo, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.

In 2016, the Supreme Court invalided the permit of an iron-ore mining company on Bangka Island in North Sulawesi province after residents sued, culminating years of protests by locals.

In Wawonii, some residents accuse GKP of failing to consult locals about its mining plans as part of the environmental impact assessment process, as required.

“The permits will continue until they are cancelled, or until they are brought to court and told to stop,” Henri said at his office in Jakarta. “As far as I know, Southeast Sulawesi has a lot of problems with mining, but no one has brought the problems to court.”

Mando, fourth from right, sits with locals in Roko-Roko. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

On Aug. 26, Governor Ali told reporters in Kendari that his administration had examined the remaining permits and found no irregularities, meaning he couldn’t revoke them without risking a lawsuit from the companies.

It wouldn’t be the first time Harita has gone to court over the revocation of a nickel-mining permit. In 2017, it sued the governor of North Maluku over the cancellation of a land concession there.

Lester Wong, a representative of the Japanese-owned firm Igawara, which holds two mining concessions in Wawonii, suggested Igawara would contest the revocation of its permits when Mongabay contacted him in May. Because Igawara’s permits were held through foreign direct investment limited liability companies, known as PMAs, he said, they were under the authority of the central government, not the provincial government.

Other companies with mining licenses in Wawonii are owned by Indonesian businessman Anton Sugiono, whose Dharmawangsa Group is also building a controversial dam conservationists say threatens the only remaining habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan, in North Sumatra province; Vence Rumangkang, a prominent businessman who co-founded Indonesia’s Democratic Party and who is fighting for a piece of a vast oil palm development in Papua province; and Teuku Badruddin Syah, an Acehnese businessman who is also involved in coal and palm oil on the island of Borneo, according to corporate filings with the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. None of them responded to a request for comment.

GKP was previously owned by the Tamara Group, which belongs to the family of the Indonesian billionaire Pek Teng Beng. The Lim family bought it in 2017.

“This is in the interest of the people and the region, not for any one person,” Governor Ali told reporters in Kendari last month.

As he spoke, another video was circulating, showing Wawonii residents holding excavator operators hostage as they were working. The video was featured on Patroli, a national news show on the Indosiar network.

A gravesite in the forest near Roko-Roko. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

For Mando, who graduated from Kendari’s Haluoleo University last year with a bachelor’s degree in archaeology, organizing against mining has forced him to delay plans to continue his studies in the field. Nine caves in his home village were the focus of his senior thesis.

“There were bones, remnants of food consumption, pottery, paint,” he said. “We don’t know much about Wawonii’s history, but it could all be lost with mines.”

Source: Mongabay