destructive can man get, how ruthless, in his quest to secure maximum
profit, even as he endangers the very survival of our planet?
tropical forests of Kalimantan (known as Borneo in Malaysia), the
third largest island in the world, have almost totally disappeared.
Coalmines are savagely scarring the hills; the rivers are polluted,
and countless species are endangered or already extinct.
is all a terrible sight, whether you see it from the air or when
driving (or walking) through the devastation that is taking place on
the ground. The soil is black; it is often saturated with chemicals.
Dead stubs of trees are accusatively pointing towards the sky. Many
wonderful creatures, big and small, who used to proudly inhabit this
tropical paradise, are now hiding in the depth of what remains of one
of the largest tropical jungles on earth.
are instantly roaring everywhere; huge equipment is continually
cutting through something pure, or digging and finally transporting
what has already been extracted, killed, or taken down mercilessly.
Mira Lubis, Senior Lecturer at Tanjungpura University, Pontianak in
Western Kalimantan, summarizes the situation honestly but brutally:
think we, the people of Borneo, have lost our sovereignty over our
own space and resources, under the pressure of global capitalism…
Apparently, we just became poor despite all the wealth that we have.”
morning I looked from my hotel window in the city of Samarinda (East
Kalimantan), spotting an enormous coal barge. It was sitting right in
front of me, stubbornly, under the bridge (one of only two bridges
connecting two shores of this steamy city of 850,000). The barge was
too big to move, as the current appeared to be too strong. One push
boat and one tugboat were trying to move it against the torrent, in
went downstairs and encountered a frustrated Mr. Jailani, a shipping
manager employed by a coal company.
were supposed to use a pilot boat, but there is none in sight,” he
lamented. “This happens so often. Coal barges already hit this
bridge on at least three occasions.”
were exactly what I was looking for, but he dismissed my questions
with a polite but firm answer:
can never make it to the mines. They are off-limits. Guards are
everywhere, and you’d have to have special permit to enter the
area. And there is not much to see, anyway. Our company was recently
awarded a prize for environmental consciousness.”
decided to ignore his words and polite warning. I went to Sambutan, a
mining town a 40-minute drive from Samarinda. At some point,
continuous and depressing urban sprawl gave way to a fully devastated
landscape. Some images were striking: a man, alone, with a metal bar,
singlehandedly crumbling the entire side of a mountain, supposedly in
order to sell stone for a local construction site.
in a makeshift stall, a couple and a child were selling fruits. I
asked them about the mountain and the man, and they replied with a
certain amount of admiration:
are selling coconuts here for almost two years. For as long as we are
here, he has been here as well. He is a real daredevil. What he is
doing is so dangerous, but he never stumbles, never falls.”
Makroman town, we turn left, soon leaving the main road behind.
Wherever one looks, the entire landscape is ruined: mountains
mutilated beyond recognition, forests gone, and huge tracts of land
what I already witnessed in all corners of Indonesia for years, I’m
still not prepared for what soon opens in front of my eyes: the
endless and horrifying sprawl of natural calamity: dozens of square
kilometers of dust, noise, and mud.
try to avoid 100-ton trucks, which almost run my car off the path.
They are transporting coal. I see filthy processing plants. I see
old, rusty equipment scattered all around the area.
I realize that I’m “there,” in the middle of the notorious ‘PT
CEM’ (Cahaya Energi Mandiri), a giant Indonesian-South Korean
coalmining joint venture.
not supposed to be here, and to see all this with my own eyes. But
I’m entering the mining area with a car equipped with local license
plates. It is right before 1pm – the end of lunch hour. Checkpoints
are unattended. I step on the gas, and dash in. Guards will soon
return, but it will be too late to stop me. My rented car is already
cutting through dirt and dust, progressing towards its goal.
CEM has operated in this area since 2008, and it counts on mining
concessions covering approximately 1,600 hectares, in the area of
Sungai Siring, Samarinda.
In Indonesia, the images of natural
disasters like this one are hardly ever publicized. Mining in Papua,
Kalimantan, Sumatra, and elsewhere brings in billions of dollars
annually, into both government coffers and into the deep pockets of
corrupt individuals. This country, with the fourth-largest population
on earth, is producing very little, but is extracting in an unbridled
manner all that is still available above and below the ground.
National mass media is fully subservient to both local and foreign
native population is stuck with low-paying jobs and almost no
benefits. The environment is “changing,” pollution is reaching
epic proportions, but there is very little awareness, even among the
poorest of the poor, of the dreadfulness of the situation.
the way out from the mining site, three men (sub-contractors of PT
CEM) are trying to fix their broken truck. They speak, first
reluctantly, then more and more openly:
pay here is very low. Our basic salary consists of US$115 per month,
which is bellow official minimum wage. We have no health insurance,
and no housing allowances.”
nearby Makroman, Ms. Suwarti, a housewife married to a farmer,
have two lots, each with 200 square meters, producing bananas and
other crops, but the mining company wanted to use it. They offered
compensation of only US$110. If we’d refuse, the company would
still grab and use the land, but would give us no compensation. After
all, coal that was extracted from our plot, they filled the pit but
now nothing can grow there, anymore. The land is ruined. We were very
angry, but what could small people like us do?”
is like this all over the area, all over Kalimantan, all over the
entire Indonesian archipelago.
are often confused; only few of them are fully aware of the
Ruswidah owns a store near Muara Badak. She appears to be content
with the increasing number of palm oil plantations:
think it is good that there are palm oil plantations here because
there are many people out of jobs after an oil company VICO closed
down its operation here. Business is very bad for me now. Now, at
least there is something replacing VICO.”
oil plantation is good for the environment around here. Why? Because
after they set up this plantation here, there are no more forest
fires here. I have already seen three big forest fires in my life,
and I’m only 36 years old. Before, bad people would just burn the
forest down, but now at palm oil plantations, they have guards.”
Ms. Ruswidah doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know, is that most
of the forest fires in the area were triggered in order to “clear”
the land for either palm oil plantations or for mining operations.
kilometers further down the road, I speak to Ms. Nurliah, who used to
work for PT. Kelapa Taruk, a palm oil plantation owned by Korean. Now
she is considered an “outsource worker”:
used to pay me Rp. 76,300/day (US$5.7). But now, they pay us
according to our performance. They pay us Rp. 200,000 per hectare,
and Rp. 100,000 for chemical spraying per hectare.”
Korean company is using the customary lands that belongs to the
village. Usually they negotiate a 25-year contract. And there is
always some profit sharing scheme with the village, but I don’t
know the details. They don’t share this information with us,
the Korean company hired a Javanese manager. Since he is in charge,
the conditions of our jobs here are becoming worse and worse. Now for
the whole month we probably get paid only about Rp. 1.5 million
(US$112). They don’t construct school and don’t provide health
insurance. I don’t think we get any benefits from having palm oil
Yhenda Permana, director of LNG-producing company PT Badak NGL, which
is based in Kalimantan, says:
very sad to see destruction of Kalimantan. If we look from above, the
island is already ‘bald,’ dotted with black toxic lakes. They
burn the forest with, even with orangutans still living there. Local
people do it, but who is behind them? Protected forests are also
logged out and burned. Afterwards, in most of cases, palm oil is
of the national forests I visited, symbolically named ‘Bukit
Soeharto’ (Suharto’s Hill) is almost gone. I ask an old local
lady, Ms. Halbi, who is selling basic goods at the side of the road,
whether there is any respect for native protected forests on this
are allowed to grow some plants here. Even I do. Pepper and dragon
fruit. It is not our land, but nobody does anything to stop us.”
and stubs, everywhere, ‘replacing’ magnificent trees, in what
used to be one of the greatest areas, often described as “the lungs
of the planet Earth.”
Ms. Windrati Kaliman, former lecturer at
INSTIPER (Plantation Technology Institute) Yogyakarta, has her theory
on the matter:
deforestation accelerated after ‘de-centralization.’ Now local
governments are free to give permits for logging. Rainforest is being
converted into palm oil plantations and mines. In theory, protected
forests and parks cannot be used for logging, but in reality they
are: In Kalimantan, but also in Aceh, Riau, and many other parts of
is not only trees that are disappearing, and not only people who are
living in increasing misery.
legendary Borneo orangutan is almost extinct. And so are bears,
countless species of birds, and insects.
Samboja Orangutan Sanctuary & Rehabilitation Center, Mr. Andreas
(a caretaker), can barely hide his outrage:
cannot imagine what is being done to these intelligent and
fascinating apes. This one – we rescued him from a timber plant.
Just for fun they had him chained under the generator, for years. As
a result, he lost his hearing and suffers from brain damage. It is
very common in Kalimantan to hunt for female orangutans, shave them
and sell them for sex to desperate forestry workers. It is like rape,
like horrible slavery. Remember, these apes have 97% same DNA as
humans, and as humans, they have 4 types of blood.”
walk around the Center, observing from the distant these fascinating,
melancholic creatures. So many awful stories and fates! This used to
be a paradise on Earth: for apes, for other mammals, for butterflies,
plants and hundreds of different trees. This used to be “the end of
the world” and the beginning. Oh Borneo, what is left of you now?
traveled through several parts of Indonesian Kalimantan, around
Samarinda and Balikpapan, as well as Pontianak. I testify that I saw
those “black lakes and rivers,” as well as countless open pits,
and palm oil plantations, almost everywhere. I flew over hundreds of
kilometers of hellish wastelands. I listened to people suffering from
cancer, from respiratory diseases, but above all, from hopelessness.
Mira Lubis confirmed what I discovered:
the Kapuas River and its tributaries are increasingly polluted by all
types of waste, ranging from household waste, pesticides, fertilizers
to mercury, which is mainly dispersed because of mining activities
and large scale palm oil plantations. This creates a serious threat
to the survival of communities along the river network…”
Mr. Yhenda Permana concluded: “Can you imagine, this once
stunningly beautiful island with deep native forests and thousands of
living creatures, is now converted and ‘dedicated’ to only one
crop: palm oil?”
tragedy is not only devastating Kalimantan, but almost the whole of
Indonesia. This is what has been happening to this country with a
deep and ancient culture, and enormous natural beauty, ever since the
1965 US-sponsored coup, and re-introduction of savage capitalism,
feudalism, and unrestrained corruption.
much is left. Who knows whether anything at all will remain here in
one or two decades from now? If not, then what will happen? But the
savage capitalism does not bother to ask such questions. It consumes,
it plunders everything, while it can. In Indonesia, it seems that
there is absolutely nothing that can stop it!
a philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He
has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. Three of his
latest books are revolutionary novel “Aurora” and
two bestselling works of political non-fiction: “Exposing
Lies Of The Empire”
Against Western Imperialism”. View
his other books here.
Andre is making films for teleSUR and Al-Mayadeen. Watch Rwanda
his groundbreaking documentary about Rwanda and DRCongo. After having
lived in Latin America, Africa and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides
in East Asia and the Middle East, and continues to work around the
world. He can be reached through his websiteand