Fishermen in East Halmahera are struggling with dwindling catch as they fend off barges that spew waste into the sea. While PT Aneka Tambang continues to sow profit.

This story was first published in Indonesian on 4 June 2021 by

By Haris Prabowo

Anas Pajung slowly advances in the deep mud in the bay of Moronopo. It takes the 28-year-old man a lot of effort and energy to move his legs in the calve-deep mud. The sandals he wear often gets trapped in the mud.

Anas is trying to prove that the mud he is walking on is the result of years of sedimentation build-up from waste released by PT Aneka Tambang (Antam). The state-owned mining company that has been reaping annual net profit of around Rp1.15 trillion, has also been dumping waste from its nickel mining operations high up on the hill, to the coast.

The waste released by the company that has been operating there since 2006, has now covered and polluted the bottom of the coastal area. Anas says that the place where he is now standing, was once teeming with corals, a habitat for fishes and other marine life.

His father, who was a fisherman from Sulawesi and moved to the area under the government’s sponsored transmigration program in the 1980s, often recounted that there used to be so many fishermen working in Moronopo Bay but now no more.

“The mackerels which are commonly consumed by people were a staple. But now their habitat has been destroyed,” Anas said during an interview in mid-May.

The Moronopo Bay is administratively located in Soasangaji village, in the Kota Maba sub-district of East Halmahera, North Maluku. It takes five hours to reach the area from Sofifi, the main town in North Maluku.

The East Halmahera Environment Agency has noted that the waste sedimentation had covered an area of four hectares. At the farthest point from the coastline, about 100 meters from the source of the waste disposal, the waste layer, consisting of mud and rock, rises up to almost one meter from the beach surface.

The company tried to cover the waste by planting mangroves but Anas said it was a failed attempt as the waste continued to flow into the bay and the mangrove could not survive, in contrast to the naturally grown mangroves in the area.

In one corner where mangrove seedlings had just been planted, a board that says “PT Antam Mangrove Planting Conservation” sticks out from the ground. The board also indicates the first mangrove was planted in 2009.

“So, these mangroves were planted in hopes to reduce the impacts of the waste pollution and it has been done several times, but they are still a far cry from the massive scale of their mining activities,” Anas said.

The worsening condition of the Moronopo bay is what prompted local residents to hold a protest on April 7, 2021, demanding that Antam cease all its mining activities. There was no response from the company.

The nickel mining operation on top of the hill in the Moronopo Bay area, is part of a mining concession owned by Antam and will expire in 2040. The concession of some 39,000 hectares, or more than half of the surface of the nation’s capital, Jakarta, straddled two subdistricts – Maba and Kota Maga.

Antam is also mining nickel in Tanjung Buli, Maba subdistrict, since 2001; and in Pakal Island, in Kota Maba subdistrict, since 2011.

In 1998, Antam started mining nickel in Gee Island, Maba. The island has entered rehabilitation phase, although remnants of exploitation of the area remain evident.

In 2012, Antam also built a nickel refinery in Tanjung Buli but this facility is not yet in operation, while the permit will expire in 2032.

The company that was established not long after the establishment of the New Order, has been exploiting mineral in these two subdistricts of East Halmahera for more than two decades.

Fishes unfit for catch and consumption

Nur Santi, 32, is busy laying fishes to dry on a mesh supported by wooden poles in front of her home. She uses her right hand to lay the fish on the net while her left hand carries a black bucket containing a variety of fish including anchovies and mackerels. Not far from her are a group of men who gather dried fishes and place them into gunny sacks for sale.

A native of Sangir Talaud of North Sulawesi, Santi and her husband who is a fisherman, migrated to the Belemsi island in the sub-district of Maba in 2007.

She says that the income of fishermen on that island has been shrinking from year to year. She still remembers the time when the island’s fishermen could catch up to 22 tons of fish in a month, more than enough to meet their daily consumption. These days, being able to catch 500 kilograms of fish in a month is a triumph.

“The average income of a head of a family here is only Rp3 million a month,” Santi told me at the end of last May. “In 2008, they could earn up to Rp10 million a month.”

For Santi, Rp3 million is not enough to cover her family’s daily needs. The cost of living there is high as food ingredients have to be purchased from another island, using boat.

“One cannot plant here. There is only fish. We have to buy vegetables,” she said.” We also need boat to take clean water and that would mean needing money for the fuel.”

What Santi has been going through was revealed earlier during a research conducted in 2016 in the area where Belemsi fishermen went fishing. The report titled “The Impact of Nickel Mining on Fishing areas in the Waters of East Halmahera District,” showed that the massive mining operations in the area has led to the degradation of the quality of the water in the surrounding area, and also on the size of capture fishes by fishing platforms.

The research concluded that anchovies — one of the main catches of the Belemsi fishermen — were no longer fit for catch.

“The presence of nickel in the water can have an effect on the survival of the marine life, including fish, because nickel is toxic,” the researcher cited in the report. “The heavy metal content can affect the presence of fishes, and can even lead to the contamination of the fish, which then affects the safety for consumption.”

In another research, a high nickel content is dangerous and cause “systemic disorders, immunological disorders, reproduction disorders, developmental disorders, carcinogenic effects, and death.”

Catching waste instead of fish

Belemsi island is just one of several small islands in the Maba sub-district, nestled in the middle of a number of islands where Antam operates. In the West, there was Tanjung Buli, Gee Island to the north, and to the east Pakal Island.

Its population is a mere 200, split in 32 families living in 23 houses and the only other building there is a church where residents often gather.

All are fishermen and their family rely on the sea for their livelihood. I saw several fishing boats, known locally as bagan, off the coast right across where Santi’s home is.

Santi’s husband, Ronaldo Riung, 46, says that the local fishermen are not only struggling with decreasing fish catch but also the threat of passing large ships owned by the mining company.

Ronaldo has been operating a fishing bagan since 1995. He would spend a night or two at a specific location before he gathers enough catch.

But in recent years, Ronaldo says, the fishing bagans of fishermen were often forcefully moved away by the mining company’s ships without their consent.  Displacing these bagans often results in damages to the fishing nets or also to the platforms.

“Because they say our bagans are disrupting the route of the ships,” Ronaldo said.

Antam’s large ships also dumped their waste into the sea in areas where fishermen operate. Just one week prior to meeting Ronaldo and Santi, a number of bagans had fallen victim to the release of dirty oil from the mining ships.

Ronaldo showed me a number of photographs showing nets and tarp which are part of the bagan that had been exposed to the nickel waste and oil.

“If hit by the waste, all the fish accumulated in the bagan are lost,” Ronaldo said.” It is not possible that the ground (below the sea) releases oil, is it?”

The fishermen from Balemsi have then been forced to routinely wash their nets and tarp, at least once a week, something that Ronaldo and the other fishermen never had to do the 1990s.

“If they are not washed within a week, we will not have the strength to lift the nets because they would have a lot of reddish sludge on them,” he said. “We can mostly be sure that it is (the sludge) mining waste.”

On March 10, 2021, Antam finally admitted that one of the factors of the declining catch of fishermen was because of their activities in the waters of the Maba subdistrict. They promised to provide up to Rp500 million in aid to the fishermen.

In their response to the complaints, Antam’s corporate secretary, Yulan Kustiya, claims that the company had made sure that its mining operation respected the environmental policies that all parties must comply with. Antam is also committed to honor its obligation to perform its social responsibility towards the people living around its mines.

But Yulan also claims that the fishermen around the mining area were not at all impacted by the company’s activities and are able to carry out their activities as they normally would.

“Based on the research conducted by academics from the Fishery and Maritime Faculty of the Khairun University (Unkhair) in Ternate, the sedimentation that is taking place in the coastal area of Moronopo was only temporary in nature and does not interrupt the activities of fishermen,” Yulan told Tirto (4/6), without giving further details about the research she quoted.

Yulan also note that the Moronopo area is a Mining and Economic Growth Zone, as stipulated in the East Halmahera Spatial Zoning Plan for 2010-2029.

A profession reduced to mere memory

For people in the Maba and Kota Maba sub-districts, Belemsi island is often regarded as the “last fishermen village,” that still supplies fish. However, this profession could soon become extinct if the expansion of the nickel mines do not take into account its environmental impact.

Above: The number of fishermen in Maba subdistrict from 2004 to 2018. Source: Central Statistics Agency (BPS).

In the last two decades has seen a decline in the number of fishermen in East Halmahera district. The number of fishermen in the district had once peaked at 8.587 in 2004 but the number has continues to dwindle over the years to only 3,532 fishermen by 2018.

The same trend can be seen in the Maba subdistrict where total fishermen stood at 2,338 in 2004 but declined to just 245 in 2018. In Kota Maba, from the 347 fishermen in 2011, only 115 were left by 2018.

Above: Fish production in Maba sub-district for a ten-year period (2007-2017). Source: Central Statistics Agency (BPS).

Above: The number of fishing boats in Maba subdistrict from 2003 to 2018. Source: Central Statistics Agency (BPS).

The decreasing number of fishermen is also in line with the dwindling volume of fish catch and the number of boats in the past two decades, according to data from the Central Statistics Agency.

Iqbal Djurubasa, was not surprised when I showed him these data. The 39-year-old fishermen from Maba Pura village, says that in the 1990s, when his father was still fishing, the monthly catch could reach up to four tons and the fishermen did not need to sail far into the sea as fish were abundant near the coast.

Iqbal who started fishing in 2016, suspects that the declining fish catch has forced a lot of fishermen in islands that mostly depended on fishery, to change profession in order to survive.

“On the other hand, there is also an absorption of manpower, those who were fishermen, now work in mines,” he said.

Also read:

This report is a result of series of “Journalist Fellowsea” class supported by the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ and EcoNusa Foundation

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