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Penakil is a local term for miners who work with a pickaxe. Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

Inside the illegal people’s mines of Indonesia, where coal is seen as a ‘gift from God’

  • In South Sumatra, more than 700,000 hectares of land are occupied by illegal mining operations run by community collectives of local residents
  • It is back-breaking work and there are few safety measures. Deadly accidents happen. Yet workers feel they are part of a blessed community

It is August 2021 and the sun is scorching in Darmo. A glance at the weather report on a mobile phone confirms what everyone here is feeling. “Temperature: 33C”, it reads.

Darmo is a village located in Muara Enim Regency in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province. While the sun blazes above, the ground beneath smoulders. South Sumatra is home to the largest known coal reserves in Indonesia, and Muara Enim regency is particularly resource-rich. There are more than 77,000 hectares of coal concessions in the location, out of the one million-hectare province, according to figures provided by Indonesia’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.

Some 13 coal mines have permits in South Sumatra, but with millions of tons of coal temptingly there for the taking, illegal mines have mushroomed in the province. More than 700,000 hectares of land are believed to be used for illegal mining across South Sumatra. In 2019, eight illegal mines were closed.

Mohammad Ripan, 56, is one of more than 4,000 people in Muara Enim who depend on the illegal mines, also known as “community mines” or “people’s mines”, which are usually run by community collectives of local residents who don’t own them legally but who work together to organise and operate them. He is a penakil, a local term used to describe a coal miner who mines for coal manually.

The community mine at Darmo is one of around 200 such mines in the area which operate without permits and are run by local residents. Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

At the mine in Darmo, Ripan casually swings a pickaxe, breaking up lumps of coal into smaller pieces and scraping them into a sack. Shirtless and wearing tattered cotton trousers, sneakers faded from repeated washing and a World War Two-era Japanese cap, Ripan strives to meet a personal target of filling at least 100 sacks with coal every day. If he hits the target he makes about US$11 per day.

“I earn about 1,500 rupiah [US$0.11] per sack and I have been working like this for two years. At first it was hard. But after a while you just get used to it,” he said.

One of around 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 that it is run by members of the local community rather than a legal corporation.

These kinds of collectives manage community mines with permission from the landowners whose land the mines sit on, usually with a profit-sharing scheme in place.

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

He said that most of the buyers of the coal produced by the community mine are textile, garment and iron factories in other parts of Indonesia. Every day the community mines in Muara Enim can fill up to 100 trucks, worth around 600 million rupiah (US$42,000) in total.

Motorcycle drivers carry bags of coal out of the mine to be loaded onto trucks and sold to factories. Motorcycle drivers 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 is no mining at night because it is too dark and there is no expensive safety equipment available). As well as penakil like Ripan, there are motorcycle drivers – called areng – and workers who load the coal sacks onto the trucks.

Ripan comes to the mine site every day, six days a week, wearing his own clothes. He sometimes wears a mask, but the air is so hot, steamy and suffocating 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 one regularly because it is hard to breathe. It’s also common for your feet to burn, after all we’re standing on coal, right,” said Ripan.

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Usually a foreman is there to remind the miners to be careful. If a landslide occurs, it can be deadly, like it was at another mine in the region in October 2020, where 11 workers were killed.

On the outskirts of the mine where Ripan works, there are around 30 temporary structures with tarpaulin roofs, huddled in the middle of what used to be a rubber plantation. This is where the miners and their families live. There are also stalls selling cheap meals, coffee and cold drinks to the miners. The shops also act as a social centre after work.

Sometimes, traders on motorbikes come selling meatballs and dumplings and are immediately encircled by the residents of this mining town that has mushroomed around the mouth of the mine. Some workers have relocated their families, including children, and residents have opened small workshops where the motorbikes and trucks that carry the coal can be repaired.

Informal workshops have also sprung up close to the mine to fix the motorbikes or trucks that carry the coal. Photo: Hafidz Trijatnika

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

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

Even though the government still considers community coal mines illegal in Indonesia, the one at Darmo continues to operate without hindrance.

“If anyone were to ask, I’d admit that this is illegal mining. But thank God, until now no one has reported us to the police. Who has had anything stolen, what has been stolen?” Herman said.

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

Community mining is something of a legal grey area in Indonesian law, according to Venpri Sagara, the general manager of mining affairs at PT Bukit Asam, a state owned mining corporation in Muara Enim. He said no part of the criminal code uses the term specifically, but that it is clear the mines managed 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 a permit. And if they are illegal then it means that a crime is being committed. There are actually stakeholders who have the authority to take action against them like the agency that issues mining business permits,” Venpri said.

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

“Whatever the process is and if there are regulatory issues, then we need to work to protect community mining under a legal umbrella so the activities of the community can go on unimpeded. That’s what we want to ask of the government,” he said.

The Acting Regent of Muara Enim, Nasrun Umar, said he wanted to legalise the practice through formal co-operatives or village-owned enterprises.

Similarly, the governor of South Sumatra, Herman Deru, said that both he and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources were pushing for the legalisation of smallholder coal mines in Muara Enim Regency so that community mines could run more safely, particularly following the October 2020 landslide.