Unrest tarnishes drive to tap Indonesia’s gold riches

JAKARTA/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – When Hong Kong-listed G-Resources Ltd opened its $1 billion Indonesian gold mine in July, six months behind schedule, it had high hopes it would be hitting its annual output target of 250,000 ounces by next year. Less than three months later the company halted operations after hundreds of protesters blocked the entrances to the Martabe mine, in the north of Sumatra island, in a dispute over the installation of a water discharge pipe.

It began laying off the 2,000-strong workforce at the mine, the company’s sole asset, this week. “There is misinformation being spread, relating to poisoning of waters and other issues relating to the river,” Peter Albert, chief executive at G-Resources told Reuters. With the world’s fifth-largest gold reserves, estimated at 3,000 metric tons, Indonesia is eager to ramp up exploration and production as it pursues its ambitious target of becoming a top 10 global economy by 2025.

But illegal mining, politicking between central and regional government and a spate of demonstrations and violent attacks against junior gold miners are hampering development of the sector and could deprive it of crucial foreign investment. “It is the first major mining investment of this size in Indonesia for more than 10 years,” said G-Resource’s Albert, whose company is backed by investment firms Mount Kellett Capital and BlackRock Inc. “Inevitably this will put gold miners off. Investors are going to look at this and ask if this is the right environment, that’s a fact.”


The push to open up new deposits is bringing miners into conflict with local communities, who complain of environmental damage and loss of livelihoods and say they are not sharing in the mineral wealth being extracted from the land in their areas. “They feel that they did not get anything beneficial from it and thus they reject the plan from the company,” Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik told reporters, according to a report on the Martabe dispute in the Jakarta Post. “Therefore, the company must improve its approach to the community.” G-Resources is not alone. At least six gold miners have had similar problems over the past 18 months.

Two people died when villagers and students in the town of Bima on Sumbawa island rioted earlier this year – forcing the government to revoke an exploration permit for a joint venture of Arc Exploration Limited, a small Australian-listed firm. Back in north Sumatra, security guards could only stand and watch as hundreds of protesters burned buildings at a project run by Sihayo Gold, another Australian company. “No specific demands – rather that ‘we want you to leave the area’,” said Sihayo Chief Executive Paul Willis, adding that illegal miners had stirred up the trouble. “It wasn’t anything out of the horror movies. It’s a challenge that you just have to deal with. It’s best described as: that’s Indonesia.” LAND


With spot gold prices rising from about $300 an ounce 10 years ago to more than $1,700 an ounce today, mining the precious metal in Indonesia should still be a very attractive prospect, despite the risks involved. Indonesia is already the world’s seventh largest gold producer, with foreign-owned miner currently responsible for the majority of the country’s annual output of 111 metric tons in 2011.

But land disputes are common in the world’s fourth most populous country, where the mining industry now accounts for around 12 percent of GDP. “There is a challenge faced by all mining companies in Indonesia – rising anti-mine or pro-environment sentiment,” said Anton Alifandi, analyst for Southeast Asia at business risk consultancy Control Risks. “With foreign mining companies there is an extra layer in that sometimes people or stakeholders play the nationalist card.” Many Indonesians who live on or near mine sites believe they have a right to plunder the land for minerals.

Although the central government has banned small-scale gold mining, local officials and police often have interests or turn a blind eye to the practice, which provides a livelihood for thousands of otherwise impoverished families but poses a major threat to their health and the environment.

Thirty-year-old Taofic began his career as a gold miner earlier this year, on the edge of a vast Borneo rainforest. “I came here to look for quick money,” he said, sitting on a motorcycle that, like many other miners, he uses to roam a sandy, moon-like landscape about two-thirds the size of Manhattan. “But the work is much harder than rice farming at home and the income is very uncertain.”


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