Source: Mongabay
Date: June 1, 2021

  • Recent floods that hit the eastern part of Indonesia Borneo may have been exacerbated by massive deforestation for coal mines.
  • There are as many as 94 coal-mining concessions in Berau district, which was hit by floodwaters as high as 2 meters (6.5 feet).
  • Twenty of the concessions are located along the two rivers that overflowed during the floods.
  • Illegal mining is also rampant in the area, and the police have launched an investigation to identify whether mining was a factor in exacerbating the scale of the flooding.

JAKARTA — Massive deforestation for coal mines may have exacerbated floods that recently inundated the eastern part of Indonesian Borneo, the country's coal heartland.

Fourteen villages in Berau district, East Kalimantan province, were flooded from May 13 to 18 after heavy rains battered the district, causing the Kelay and Segah rivers to burst their banks.

Floodwaters as high as 2 meters (6.5 feet) inundated 2,507 houses. The local disaster mitigation agency called it "the biggest flood in at least the last 10 years."

The flood also caused the failure of a dike at a coal mine operated by PT Rantaupanjang Utama Bhakti (RUB) on May 16, adding to the volume of floodwater.

The Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam), an independent watchdog, said the flooding was likely exacerbated by the proliferation of coal mines in the region, both legal and illegal. Jatam identified 94 coal-mining concessions in Berau, 20 of them along the Kelay and Segah rivers. It says these companies have left a trail of destruction in their wake by failing to rehabilitate mining pits in their concessions.

As of 2018, there were 123 coal mining pits in Berau, according to data from Jatam.

"We suspect that the mining practices in the upstream areas of the Kelay River and the Segah River are the culprit behind the flood that happened this year in the district of Berau," Jatam said in a press statement.

The concession with the largest amount of abandoned pits, 45, is owned by PT Berau Coal. The 118,400-hectare (292,572-acre) concession, an area the size of Los Angeles, stretches from upstream of the Kelai River to the Segah River.

"Based on satellite imagery, it looks like there have been clearing and destruction of forests from the mining activity of Berau Coal in the upstream of the two rivers," Jatam said.

Berau Coal did not respond to Mongabay's requests for comment.

Berau district is also a hive of illegal mining. Jatam has identified 11 such locations in the district.

The head of the district environmental department, Sujadi, said his office is working with other local government agencies and the national government to determine the factors that exacerbated this year's floods.

"There's a possibility that forest cover has been cleared which reduced water absorption," he said.

Provincial police have launched their own investigation to identify whether mining activity contributed to the scale of the disaster. The police chief, Herry Rudolf Nahak, said he had deployed officers to check on any illegal mining activities along the two rivers.

"I don't tolerate illegal mines there," he told local media.

This isn't the first time widespread flooding has been linked to the mining industry in Indonesian Borneo. In January this year, South Kalimantan province was hit by its worst floods in five decades, which displaced more than 113,000 people and claimed 24 lives.

Environmentalists attributed the floods to widespread deforestation for oil palm plantations and coal mines. An analysis by Indonesia's space agency showed an area of forest twice the size of London had been cleared in the past decade in the watershed area affected by the floods.

Two severe floods in the span of five months should prompt swift action by the authorities against the mining industry that's long overdue, Jatam said. It recommended imposing a moratorium on all mining activities in Berau to allow time for a sweeping environmental assessment of all mining companies there.

"Strictly and openly enforce the law on unruly mining companies," Jatam said. "[And] immediately recover all environmental damage due to coal mining activities in Berau."