"Spare our homeland" rainforest tribes plead with B.C. mining giant

Provincial governments, indigenous peoples, environmentalists and academics from Canada to Asia to Australia are lining up to stop mining giant Placer Dome from tearing down a rainforest on the island of Borneo to hunt for gold.

The company is eyeing the last remaining native forest in Kalimantan called the Meratus Mountain Range, which is on the Indonesian side of Borneo.

The pristine rainforest and fragile eco-system is home to the Dayak tribes who live a traditional existence in 115 community groups alongside new sanctuaries for the disappearing Orang Utans.

The Meratus forest has been designated as a "protected area" under Indonesian law since 1928.

But Placer Dome officials together with representatives of other international mining companies want the Indonesian government to cancel the area's protected status so they can get at a treasure trove of minerals that lies under the forest.

The Asian Pacific Post has learned that Placer Dome representatives have been using the offices of the Australian embassy in Jakarta for meetings on how to pressure the Indonesian government to lower its environmental standards and rescind the area's protected status.

Placer Dome's finance director Shane Volk attended at least two of the meetings - one on Sept 27, 2001 and the other on January 30, 2002, where trans-national mining company executives met with then Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Smith.

They plotted strategies on how to influence the Indonesian authorities to rescind "Forestry Act No. 41/1999", which prohibits open-pit mining in protected forest areas in the Southeast Asian nation.

According to records obtained from the Australian embassy in Jakarta, mining officials, many from Australia held several meetings on the issue between August 2000 and July last year.

In turn Ambassador Smith and embassy staff lobbied on behalf of the mining companies, holding meetings with high-level officials of the cash-starved Indonesian government.

Similar meetings were held at the Canadian embassy in Jakarta. Those records were not available.

The mining companies claim that Forestry Act No 41/1999 unfairly restricts their mining rights and that some of the areas that it protects are "not forested" or are not of high quality or biodiversity value.

They claim they have spent millions of dollars exploring mining leases granted by the Indonesian government and are therefore entitled to mine.

The companies are also threatening lawsuits against Indonesia if they are not allowed to mine in the areas they deem should not be protected.

The Indonesian Mining Association agrees with the mining giants saying the prohibition on mining in protected areas came from the "euphoria of democracy and reform" and that no area of bio-diversity will be impacted.

In addition to Placer Dome, 21 other companies are wanting to mine in Indonesia's protected forests areas by the end of this year. The Indonesian government expects to make a decision on 15 of the applications soon.

The aggressive behind the scenes lobbying by the mining companies has triggered a world-wide chorus of protest, demonstrations and action plans to stop the attack on Indonesia's rainforests.

Dayak elders with the support of the Kalimantan provincial government have sent letters to the mining companies and Indonesia's president Megawati Sukarnoputri, pleading with them to spare their homeland.

The Meratus Mountains, targeted by Placer Dome is "our water source, our sacred site our community source of livelihoods," they wrote.
Students last month demonstrated outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta protesting its aggressive lobbying which they describe as an attempt to cash in on Indonesia's ravaged economy.

A large and varied coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and MiningWatch Canada, is coming together to defend in this case what they say is an attack on Indonesias rainforest.

Even Indonesia's former environment minister, Sonny Keraf has joined the protest.

"In my time as environment minister, I worked to achieve a level of environmental protection," said Keraf.

"I would like to support my successors to increase these standards, not erode them... I call on Parliamentarians to not change the function of protected forests to be developed for mining, and to value conservation."

Longgena Ginting, Executive Director of WALHI an Indonesian environmental organisation said: "The government needs to stand up and protect the conservation areas of its own people and not engage in a short sighted scramble for foreign investment."

"It is utterly unacceptable that a Canadian company should try to subvert Indonesia's attempts to protect what is left of its natural forest habitat," said Dr. Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada.

"Placer Dome is well-known in Canada, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea for the extensive environmental damage the company has caused and clearly cannot be trusted as a steward of Indonesias fragile ecosystems," said Coumans, who made an impassioned plea on behalf of the Dayaks at Placer Domes annual general meeting last April in Toronto.

Placer Domes operations are also opposed by the South Kalimantan provincial government, which stands firm in its position against mining activities in the Meratus Mountain protected forest.

Bachruddin Syarkawi, the leader of the provincial House of Representatives, has called on the national government to stop Placer Dome.

According to a report from Indonesia, Placer Dome has approached a number of NGOs in Indonesia to explore the possibility of dialogue but as Placer Dome admits, "these approaches did not meet with much success or encouragement."

Placer Dome has also commissioned Eco Bumi Nusantara, an Indonesian Environmental Consultant firm to help with their "initial stakeholder communication, education and consultation process in addition to assisting with community and media relations."

Although there is no mention on Placer Dome's website about the exploration in the Meratus Mountain Range, the mining company boasts a strident sustainability program at all its projects.

Greg Martin, Placer Dome's director of investor relations said the exploration in Meratus is in very early stages and being done with approvals from the Indonesian government.

He said while there is opposition in certain quarters, there is also a lot of support in the local community groups for the project.

Martin said he could not answer questions pertaining to Placer Dome's push for a change in Indonesian forestry laws nor the direct appeal from the Dayaks.

He said the project is handled by Placer Dome's Australian office.

Meanwhile, the growing movement to protect Indonesia's rainforests from mining has already seen more than 1,100 protest letters and 6,000 postcards from 43 countries arrive at the offices of Indonesia's House of Representatives, the Forestry Department and the Minister for Mineral Energy and Resources.

The Story at a glance

Pressured by international mining companies and starved for cash, the Indonesian government is considering opening up Indonesia's protected forests to a total of 22 mining companies, including three from Canada. The companies have been using the offices of the Canadian and Australian embassies to aggressively lobby Jakarta to rescind a law that prohibits mining in these areas.

The flashpoint

Among the companies leading the charge is the Vancouver-based Placer Dome mining conglomerate. It wants to mine in the Meratus Mountain Range Protected Forest in the province of South Kalimantan in Borneo. The area spreads over 400,000 hectares of fertile land, ranging 650 kilometres from southwest to northeast. It is the last stretch of native forest left in Kalimantan.

Who is Placer Dome?

Placer Dome is the worlds fifth largest gold mining company. Headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, PDG as its called now has interests in 17 mines employing 12,000 people in six countries around the world. With a market capitalization of US$4.7 billion as of December 31, 2002, Placer Dome is traded on the New York, Toronto and Australian Stock Exchanges, as well as Euronext-Paris. It considers the Meratus Mountain forest area the first potential mining project to be developed in all of Indonesia since new regional autonomy laws were passed.

Why is the area so sensitive?

There are at least 115 Dayak Meratus indigenous community groups that inhabit the Meratus mountain region. The Dayak Meratus still largely live from the renewable products of the forest. The area has also been recognized for its significant biodiversity and its important function as a water catchment area. It is also sanctuary to the disappearing Orang Utans, the great apes of Borneo - an island also famed for its native lifestyles, iron-wood jungles, oil and gold.

What do the mining companies say?

Mining company executives say the Indonesian law that prohibits open pit mining in protected areas is unfair and protects areas that have little ecological value. They say they have spent millions of dollars in exploration on leases and have a right to the areas. They are threatening to sue the Indonesia government if it fails to yield.

What does the opposition say?

Deforestation in Indonesia has reached 2.4 million hectares (1.2%) per year or approximately 10 acres of rainforest a minute. Currently, mining is encroaching on 11.4 million hectares of forest in Indonesia. These areas under threat of mining include 8.68 million hectares of protected forests and 2.8 million hectares of conservation areas.

They say mining multinational companies and foreign governments are lobbying the Indonesian government to sacrifice protected forest areas and national parks as a means to boost the countrys ravaged economy. They say if the plan goes ahead, the lungs of Asia will collapse.

What happens next?

While the mining companies are hiring local firms to consult with the opposition and native people, the Indonesian government is expected to make a decision on 15 applications to mine in protected areas by the end of this year.

These 15 companies are awaiting word on their applications to open-pit mine in Indonesia's protected forests:
1. PT Meratus Sumber (Placer Dome, Canada),
2. PT International Nickel Indonesia Tbk (Inco, Canada),
3. PT Weda Bay Nickel (Canada),
4. PT Freeport Indonesia Papua (Freeport McMoran, Rio Tinto, USA/Australia/UK),
5. PT Newmont Nusa Tenggara (Newmont, US),
6. PT Indominco Mandiri,
7. PT Arutmin Indonesia,
8. PT Aneka Tambang Tbk
9. PT Karimun Granite,
10. PT Nusa Halmahera Minerals Maluku (Newcrest, Australia),
11. PT Gag Nickel (BHP-Billiton, Australia /UK),
12. PT Citra Palu Minerals (Rio Tinto / Newcrest, Australia /UK),
13. PT Natarang Mining Lampung (MM Gold, Australia),
14. PT Meares Soputan Mining (Australia),
15. PT Nabire Bakti Mining (US/Australia)