Community perspectives of mining in Bokong Village, Nusa Tenggara Timur (West Timor)

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Community perspectives of mining in Bokong Village, Nusa Tenggara Timur (West Timor)

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By Sarah Hobgen

The rough, potholed road to western part of Bokong Village crosses two rivers, including the river that supplies the Tilong Dam, a domestic water supply source for the city of Kupang. The rough going gives us time to appreciate the steep slopes and the green mixed gardens of corn, bananas and coconut trees surrounding small houses, most of the houses remain traditional thatched rooves with lontar palm walls and dirt floors. As we drive into the area where people have been collecting and mining Manganese in small scale, individual plots predominantly on their own land, the houses change, modest colourful painted houses, built from cement blocks with iron rooves become more common, a sure sign in farming villages of the NTT that people have some cash income other than farming.

The village meeting room is cool, the walls made from lontar palm leaf stems let the breeze flow through, as people start to wander in and eat betel nut, they introduce themselves to our research team, Remi Natonis from Universitas Nusa Cendana, Harris Oematan from CIS Timor, Imelda and Ayu from CARE international and Syafei Kadarusman from APRI – Indonesian Association for Community Miners and Hannah Ling and myself, Sarah Hobgen from Charles Darwin University.

The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the moratorium that was placed on ‘unlicensed’ manganese mining in the government district of Kupang in late 2014, and possible paths towards obtaining licences for community mining activities. The Kepala Desa, Nathanial Atameha is an articulate gentleman, who has led the community for the past 5 years. He opens the meeting by explaining that the people of Bokong are primarily farmers, who do some mining on the side. Farming (maize, banana, coconut and some rice) meets most of their subsistence needs, but little is left for sale, leaving people with little opportunity for cash income. In 2004-2009 the first people started to mine manganese, initially producing around 300 kg/day, escalating to 50,000kg/day by the time the moratorium was put in place, people generally received Rp800 – 1,400 per kg of ore. Currently they have stocks of manganese, but nowhere to sell it to, due to the ban. People who have tried to sell manganese have been stopped by police and the manganese confiscated.   

The community were informed about the moratorium at a community meeting attended by government, police and army officials, and were warned that if they were caught mining, they would face arrest or heavy fines. When questioned about the process of applying for a mining permit, they were told there was no point trying, as it was too expensive and there were tax implications.       

Syafei from APRI responded to this version of the licensing system in his presentation. Firstly he urged the community to think of mining as a legitimate profession, and community miners as having rights. APRI are currently helping other mining groups across Indonesia to formalise their activities by pushing local governments to establish Community Mining Areas (WPR - Wilayah Pertambangan Rakyat), supported by the national mining laws (Undang-Undang 4/2009- Minerals and Coal).   The WPR is a 25ha area designated for community mining, for which the local government is responsible for pre-mining environmental impact assessment, monitoring health, safety and environmental impacts and for post mining rehabilitation works. Within these WPR areas miners can apply for a Community Mining Licence (IPR – Ijin Pertambangan Rakyat), for a portion of the area, individuals up to 1ha, groups up to 5ha and cooperatives with 25 workers up to 10ha. Where these licencing arrangements are already functioning, the broader community gain more benefits from mining through the tax contributions of mining, and environmental impacts are able to be addressed strategically.

Harris suggested the example of Community Green Gold Mining village that they visited on a recent GPFD study tour in Bali and Java. Harris told the meeting how he, as a local Timorese NGO activist, had been anti-mining, fiercely campaigning for moratoriums in other regions. However after seeing an example of a community mining area where the community and the environment were both flourishing, he felt very differently. Harris emphasised “We need to be campaigning for community mining, where people really care about their environment and their futures, and against big scale company mining with few benefits to the community”.     

The community were very happy to hear of the work of APRI and to support formation of an APRI branch in Kupang District, to advocate the rights of miners and push for designation of WPRs, as one miner stated “I am happy to hear about these possibilities, but I don’t think it will be that easy, we will need your help”.

Following the meeting everyone enjoyed a leisurely lunch, and we got the opportunity to talk about the impacts of manganese mining on their lives. A young mother said “Manganese collection was just part of my day, I would collect the water and firewood, work in the garden, and then on the way home collect some manganese. I would just pick up the rocks on the soil surface, the kids would do it too, they could easily make enough money to pay their own school fees, it gave them some independence” another miner said “our kids were able to go to university because of manganese, now we also have a new house and a motorbike, it makes things much easier”. When asked if they had any health and safety concerns they replied that the majority of diggings are less than 1m deep, a so there is no risk of collapse.    

When we asked to see some areas where they had been collecting the manganese, we were surprised by the answer “here, right in front of this house, in the creek bed over there” referring to the scene in the photograph below. “We also sometimes dig into the riverbanks, as the dirt falls into the river the nodes as easily picked up”

On the bumpy drive home we were left to contemplate the extraordinary differences in the impacts of artisanal and small scale manganese mining in West Timor, and gold mining in South East Sulawesi. In Bokong village, manganese is mined by local farmers and is an additional form of cash income. People are mining on their own land (though some is designated forest estate), and the ore is not processed locally, so no other chemicals are introduced to the environment. So far the results have allowed people to send their children to university and make modest improvements to their lifestyle. Worrying about the hunger season at the end of the dry season, was a thing of the past, but with the current moratorium they have felt the difference keenly.

The current moratorium in the Kupang District appears to have been put in place due to legitimate concerns that mining was unregulated and the land area and number of people involved in mining was expanding rapidly. The next step in the GPFD project is to look at ways to work with the government, APRI and the local communities to further understand the social and environmental impacts of manganese mining, and advocate a formalised version of community mining in which the negative impacts of mining can be ameliorated.