Inside Indonesia’s illegal mines, where coal is seen as a “gift from God”

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“I earn about Rp. 1,500 [US$0.11] per bag and I’ve been working like this for two years. It was tough at first. But after a while you get used to it, “he said.

One of the approximately 200 community mines in the area where Ripan works is considered illegal by the government. It is “owned” by the Muara Enim Coal Community Association (Asmara), which means it is run by members of the local community rather than a legal company.

These types of collectives operate community mines with the permission of the landowners on whose land the mines are located, usually with a profit sharing scheme in place.

“Coal… this gift from Almighty God should be appreciated by all people, especially those who live in the mining areas. Not just corporations, “said Herman Effendi, president of Asmara, when asked why such illegal operations exist.

He said most of the buyers of the coal produced by the Community mine are textile, garment and steel factories in other parts of Indonesia. Each day the community mines of Muara Enim can fill up to 100 trucks, for a total value of around Rp. 600 million (US $ 42,000).

Motorcycle drivers haul sacks of coal out of the mine to be loaded onto trucks and sold to factories.  Motorcyclists can usually carry between 4-6 bags of coal at a time weighing up to 20kg.  Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

Motorcycle drivers haul sacks of coal out of the mine to be loaded onto trucks and sold to factories. Motorcyclists can usually carry between 4-6 bags of coal at a time weighing up to 20kg. Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

There are between 30-50 workers, plus drivers, who are there every day (there are no mines at night as it is too dark and expensive safety equipment is not available). As well as Penakil like Ripan, there are bikers – called areng – and the workers loading the sacks of coal onto the trucks.

Ripan comes to the mine site every day, six days a week, wearing his own clothes. Sometimes he wears a mask, but the air is so hot, steamy and stuffy that the workers prefer not to cover their noses and mouths.

“If it’s windy with a lot of dust, I wear a mask, but I don’t wear it regularly because it’s hard to breathe. It’s also normal for your feet to burn, after all we’re standing on coal, right, “Ripan said.

There is usually a foreman to remind miners to be careful. If a landslide occurs, it can be deadly, as happened in another mine in the region in October 2020, where 11 workers were killed.

On the outskirts of the mine where Ripan works, there are about thirty temporary structures with tarpaulin roofs, nestled in the middle of what used to be a rubber plantation. Here the miners and their families live. There are also stalls selling cheap meals, coffee and cold drinks to miners. The shops also act as an after-work social center.

Sometimes, traders on motorcycles come to sell meatballs and ravioli and are immediately surrounded by the inhabitants of this mining town that has multiplied around the mouth of the mine. Some workers have moved their families, including children, and residents have opened small workshops where motorcycles and trucks carrying coal can be repaired.

Informal workshops have also sprung up near the mine to repair motorcycles or trucks carrying coal.  Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

Informal workshops have also sprung up near the mine to repair motorcycles or trucks carrying coal. Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

Evidently, community coal mining creates a small business cycle. “Only one thing is missing here, and it’s a mini-market,” joked one miner.

In 2019, CNN Indonesia reported that the eight illegal mines that had been closed in South Sumatra that year had cost the country 432 billion rupees (US $ 30 million) a year in revenue.

While the government still considers Community coal mines in Indonesia to be illegal, the Darmo mine continues to operate unhindered.

“If anyone asked me, I would admit that it is illegal mining. But thank God, no one has reported us to the police until now. Whom was something stolen from, what was stolen? ”Said Herman.

According to Herman, before the opening of the illegal Darmo mine crime was high in the area, but since it was created the community has been able to meet its basic needs and crime has decreased.

According to Venpri Sagara, general manager of mining affairs at PT Bukit Asam, a state-owned mining company in Muara Enim, community mining is a kind of legal gray area in Indonesian law. He said that no part of the penal code uses the term specifically, but that it is clear that the mines operated by the local community in the Muara Enim regency are illegal.

Some miners and drivers have brought their families, including children, to live in the area surrounding the mine so that they are closer to their work. Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

“They are illegal because they operate without permission. And if they are illegal, it means that a crime is being committed. There are actually stakeholders who have the authority to take action against them such as the agency that issues the permits for mining, ”Venpri said.

Herman is quick to point out that the situation is not ideal for anyone.

“Whatever the process and if there are regulatory issues, then we must work to protect the community’s mining under a legal umbrella so that community activities can run smoothly. This is what we want to ask the government, “he said.

Muara Enim’s interim regent, Nasrun Umar, said he wanted to legalize the practice through formal cooperatives or village-owned businesses.

Similarly, the governor of South Sumatra, Herman Deru, said that both he and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources were pushing for the legalization of smallholder coal mines in the Muara Enim regency so that the mines communities could function more safely, particularly after the October 2020 landslide.

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