Insights and Analysis

Indonesian Lawsuit Pushes Local Government to Regulate Massive Coal Mining Industry

October 15, 2014

By Tessa Toumbourou

This post is part of a two-part series.

In last week’s In Asia, I examined the growing environmental and social costs that the coal mining industry is having on Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province, home to 28 percent of Indonesia’s total coal reserves. Already, 6.6 million hectares have been allocated for mining across the province, and in the provincial capital, Samarinda, where mining expansion is most pronounced, the local administration has allocated more than 70 percent of the municipalities’ land for mining. As plans for expansion continue and attempts by civil society organizations and communities to halt expansion have had little effect, one citizen coalition decided to take the issue to court.

Coal mining area in East Kalimantan

East Kalimantan province is home to 28 percent of Indonesia’s total coal reserves, and already 6.6 million hectares have been allocated for mining across the province. Photo/Armin Hari

In 2012, a group of NGOs, academics, and local residents – including farmers and indigenous people’s representatives – came together to form the citizen coalition, Samarinda Lawsuit Movement (Gerakan Samarinda Menggugat, GSM), to take the relevant local, regional, and national government bodies to court for negligence and for violating existing environmental laws.

After submitting the case to the Samarinda High Court on June 25, 2013, a year-long trial began. The GSM brought together 19 plaintiffs impacted by coal mining, including rice farmers and fishermen who claimed that their water sources had diminished and that the increasingly scarce water supplies are now polluted with dust particles released from mining and contaminated with increased acidity levels. They also argued that impacts from mining had diminished soil fertility and contributed to a reduction in produce yield. Other plaintiffs included university students, academics, religious leaders, and private sector workers who had been hindered from accessing their places of work and study due to landslides and flooding that directly followed mining expansion in Samarinda. The constant noise and coal dust from mining operations posed health risks, and the unprotected mine holes were identified as dangerous safety risks. (Read more about these risks in last week’s post.)

The GSM plaintiffs submitted charges against the East Kalimantan government, the Samarinda municipal government and mayor, the national government’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources and Ministry of Environment, and the East Kalimantan provincial parliament. The plaintiffs submitted 14 demands, including that the government review all mining licenses that have been given out; cancel mining permits that are found to violate legal regulations; enact regulations to obligate reclamation and post mining clean-up; protect farming and fishing areas from the impacts of mining; protect child safety in mining operations; provide healthcare and medicines for residents with health ailments related to mining; and install clean water facilities in every village that is near a coal mining concession.

Makroman farmer and GSM plaintiff

A Makroman farmer and GSM plaintiff stand at the edge of a mining pit that borders with her farm. Photo/Armin Hari

The GSM used 38 different pieces of evidence to support their case. To build their case, the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM) of East Kalimantan – supported by The Asia Foundation – leveraged the Freedom of Information Act to request the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) from 63 coal companies with permits to operate in the city of Samarinda. When no response was received, JATAM pursued the case through the local Administrative Court, which ruled in JATAM’s favor – that the government had to comply with the information request. JATAM is now working together with the law faculty at the University of Mulawarman to analyze the EIA documents from the Environmental Agency to assess legal compliance. These documents were used as evidence in the GSM case, including clarifying where environmental and safety measures should have been in place to mitigate impacts from mining activities.

After a series of 26 court sessions, on July 16, 2014, the judges announced their decision, ruling in favor of GSM’s charges that the government had been negligent in fulfilling their obligations under the 2009 Environmental Law, which states that: “Everyone shall be entitled to a proper and healthy environment as part of their human right,” and that by not fulfilling this requirement, the local government had consequently detrimentally impacted the people of Samarinda. The court also ruled that the government must revise public policies about coal mining including: evaluating all coal mining permits that have been allocated, monitoring reclamation and post mining efforts, making environmental improvements, and strengthening strategic efforts to protect community farming and fishing areas from contamination from coal mining activities. The court also ruled that the government had not managed mining permits appropriately.

The Samarinda district court buzzing on the day of the July announcement. Photo: Armin Hari

The Samarinda district court buzzing on the day of the July announcement. Photo/Armin Hari

Supporters of the case were jubilant as news of the decision made its way outside of the courthouse. “This is a win for all the residents of Samarinda who are tired of flooding and coal dust, and for the people who have drowned in mining holes,” said Merah Johansyah with JATAM East Kalimantan.

Since the July court announcement, the government defendants have lodged an appeal with the High Court of East Kalimantan. The GSM is now working on strengthening their evidence. Many are optimistic that the evidence is strong enough that the decision is unlikely to be overturned. Regardless of how the appeal goes, the case sets a legal precedent for other district governments in Indonesia to change the direction of negative impacts to their environment and communities.

Tessa Toumbourou is a researcher for SETAPAK, The Asia Foundation’s environmental governance program in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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