Indonesia Needs to Save Bangka and Belitung Islands From Tin Curse

The Jakarta Globe | Sep 03, 2014

The world depends on tin from Bangka and Belitung. These two Indonesian islands provide a third of the tin available on the world market. And tin is everywhere nowadays: without Indonesian tin, people around the world would not be able to enjoy their electronic gadgets.

Bangka and Belitung have long played a key role in global tin production, at least since Vincent Gildemeester van Tuyll van Serooskerken and John Francis Loudon founded the NV Billiton Maatschappij in the 1850s, after realizing how rich the tin deposits on Billiton Island (Belitung) were. After the war of independence against the Dutch, Indonesia took over the company’s activities on Bangka and Belitung. And decades later, the Billiton International Metals Company merged into BHP Billiton, which is currently the largest mining company in the world.

Resource curse

Indonesia still is the proud supplier of tin, a resource that is only becoming more important in modern life. Unfortunately, however, there is less reason to be proud of the way this tin is being mined.

The beautiful Bangka and Belitung islands are currently being transformed from a prime tourist destination into a wasteland. Fertile land is turned into thousands of craters that become sources of malaria. Fish stocks and coral reefs are being destroyed by dredgers and tin-sucking ships. Fisher folks in our interviews reported that their catches had fallen by 80 percent.

Accidents happen weekly, with informal miners dying in landslides and in accidents on the bottom of the sea. These are all costs of tin production that are not being taken into account.

Since tin mining has been done for a long time without proper rehabilitation and good environmental management, tin mining in Bangka and Belitung has a negative net value for society. According to a 2013 evaluation by Indonesia’s Environment Ministry, the net present value benefit from tin mining in West Bangka district was minus Rp 336 trillion ($28.5 billion) over the 2007-12 period. This negative number is caused by the high costs of health impacts, payments for clean water as an alternative for polluted water, and funds needed to manage decreasing productivity in non-mining sectors such as agriculture and fishery, due to erosion and land pollution caused by mining activities.

Sadly, our field observations show that these conditions — all part of the local resource curse — occur in all districts of Bangka that produce tin.

Per capita, people from Bangka-Belitung Islands province are among Indonesia’s top consumers of fish. The area also produces the unique and famed Muntok white pepper.

But if tin mining in the province is not managed well, its people will face environmental and economic collapse in the near future, and especially in the post-mining era. Deposits are depleting fast and tin is already becoming scarce on-shore.

Big corporations

Environmental organizations have demanded that major electronics brands like Apple, Samsung, Philips and Sony support a less destructive form of tin mining. A tin working group has been established in 2013. And after a research phase, the group now plans further engagement with mining companies, authorities and local stakeholders on Bangka to develop a system that will support responsible miners.

On-shore, the solutions are obvious. Proper land-use planning and rehabilitation of former mine sites — both in consent with local villagers — will make a difference for nature and agriculture.

But off-shore, a solution is not yet in sight. An approach to mitigate the destruction of the sea around Bangka caused by tin dredgers and suckers needs to be developed and implemented urgently. As long as there is no answer to the current destruction, off-shore mining should be forbidden. The situation around Belitung, where an off-shore mining ban is in place, and where the sea is still blue and transparent and where tourism flourishes, should be the example.

The tin working group is the result of the efforts of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), which rung the alarm bell in the global Friends of the Earth Network and in Western media. This was the start of a campaign that convinced global brands to take their responsibility.

The international public has paid attention, through petitions, plenty of media of coverage, and protests at offices of electronics brands, for instance recently at the Microsoft office in Amsterdam. It is important for major electronics brands in the tin working group, like LG, Blackberry and Acer, to take immediate action and for other brands to join the effort.

Tin sourcing from important areas, such as conservation forests and fishery catchment areas, can be stopped if we act quickly and more brands join the effort. The companies in the Tin Working Group also want to ensure that they do not use tin from sites that are not safe for workers and will be involved in the environmental rehabilitation of mining sites in Bangka and Belitung.

Chance to score

But neither chief sustainability officers nor multinationals can save Bangka from an ecological disaster. The national and regional governments are, in the long term, the only institutions that can ensure a future for Bangka. They can set and enforce the rules that guide miners and businessmen towards better mining practices. The government can also improve supply-chain transparency in the mining sector. This will enable businesses to reward companies that mine in a more responsible way than others.

But the government should act now, as CSO campaigns do not last forever and businesses in the end are in the game for the money.

The coming years are crucial as the tasks of regulators will be less burdensome now that even global brands demand that their tin suppliers work responsibly. The Indonesian president and his administration play a major role in transforming the mining sector, and not only in tin mining. President-elect Joko Widodo, set to be inaugurated on Oct. 20, can and should show that the Indonesian state is able to score, now that CSOs and major corporations have kicked the ball in front of the goal.


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