Cement plant sparks environmental debate in Indonesia
Last year, Indonesia’s biggest cement conglomerate won a final government permit to build a new 900-hectare production plant in a Central Java area south of the town of Rembang, where 5 villages now sit.
But as word spread of the project, by Semen Indonesia – formerly Semen Gresik – area residents rebelled. Tensions came to a head in June when throngs mostly of women, fearing the plant would ruin their water supplies, rushed to block access to the factory site where company officials were gathering for a stone-laying ceremony.
“If men were the ones to go, there would have been a high likelihood of violence,” said Joko Prianto, a local leader. The ensuing confrontation sparked a 3-month, women’s-only sit-in that lasted until late November, when it was broken up by police, drawing widespread condemnation from rights groups in Jakarta.
Beyond that, however, the protest has created a stir at a time when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, inaugurated last October, has espoused a commitment to infrastructure development and accelerated permit delivery. The particulars of the case have underlined the dysfunctional system that will regulate Jokowi's development projects as they move forward.
In the run-up to his election, Jokowi pledged to establish a long-awaited court dedicated to land disputes, winning the endorsement of agrarian groups across the country. But by appointing a politician, Ferry Musyidan Baldan from the NasDem party, instead of a professional to lead the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry, analysts say such a prospect looks increasingly unlikely.
Weak conservation laws
Like hundreds of others in Indonesia, the dispute stems from the devolution of zoning and land-use permit-issuing power to the local level. According to Blair Palmer, director of environmental governance with the Asia Foundation in Indonesia, local heads have been handing out mining and plantation permits "like hotcakes” ever since, with corruption a dominant theme of development.
Moch Salim, the former Rembang district head, was himself imprisoned for skimming some $2.4 million off contracts for a housing development project, just months after signing off on Semen Indonesia’s right-to-mine permits.
National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) Commissioner Dianto Bachrianti says local control over permit and zoning power has increased the odds of conservation protections falling victim to land exploitation.
“Once the local government — often full of investment interests—decides to allocate certain areas for exploitation, this becomes the law, even if practically, because of other [conservation] laws, it’s not correct.”
In the case of Rembang, both the factory and the quarry sit in the Watuputih National Spring, a protected area of karsts and underground aquifers that feed water to a whopping 600,000 persons in the surrounding environs.
In recent years, despite the area’s protected status, sections of Watuputih have been rezoned for mining, which Dianto says has significantly diminished the area’s water-catchment capacity. Citing studies, he says the addition of a large-scale mine in the area could reduce crop yields and trigger widespread flooding further afield. The women have had enough. Fearing for the quality of their water, they have since staged sit-ins in Semarang, Central Java, the seat of the provincial government. Some of the protestors, like Sukinah, turn to Kartini (Indonesia’s celebrated 19th century feminist), whose grave sits just a few kilometers from the factory, for inspiration.
“We have the right to an environment that is not ruined by those with money and ambition,” she said. “Our fight is a continuation of Kartini’s.”
Joko Prianto says the effect of the plant would be crippling. “It would ruin the environment, threatening my life and the life of my whole generation that depends on the land,” he said.
Shady land deals
Aan, an area resident, says it was unsavory practices that allowed brokers to buy land off locals at the quarry site.
“The majority [of villagers] are against mining, but land brokers said the land would be used for agriculture, not mining”, he said, adding that most of the remaining landholders courted by Semen Indonesia were now keeping their land.
“Then, after the company starts mining, it becomes easier to buy more of the land, because the quality of the surrounding land goes down and people are more willing to sell.”
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