The mining curse: A lesson from Sawahlunto
The Jakarta Post, July 18, 2009
Mining activities again claimed casualties. Tens of people were killed after a mining blast in Sawahlunto, West Sumatra, in June. The explosion of this private small-scale coal mine was initiated by the methane level in the mine. This tragedy added to the list of small-scale mining tragedies in the country.
However, it is not only small-scale mining; we have already seen destructive effects of large-scale mines. Lapindo Brantas mudflow disaster has not yet been resolved. Hundreds of families lost their homes due to this tragedy. The mud has also continued to spread. The accumulation of Mercury at the Buyat Bay, caused by gold mining of Newmont several years ago, is another example. The accumulation of this poisonous mineral still haunts the lives of people around that bay, where they depend on the bay as a source of water and fishing. This is not the end of the story. Coal mining in Kalimantan, for instance, has resulted thousands hectares of tropical forests being transformed into desert. Are we cursed by our abundance of natural resources?
Richard Auty (1993) introduced “the resource curse” term. In his book, Sustaining Development in Mineral Economies: the Resource Curse Thesis, he questioned why countries blessed with plenty of natural resources in fact having a very slow economic growth. This phenomenon occurs in many countries.
There is a paradox when abundance of natural assets do not result in prosperity. It is called “the paradox of plenty”, as coined by Terry Lynn Karl (1997). Resource-rich countries tend to perform so badly in terms of economic growth and to have high rate of poverty compared with countries without similar natural fortunes. Singapore is a clear example of this. With a relatively small terrestrial area and almost no natural resources, this country could become an Asian economic giant. On the other hand, natural resource-blessed Indonesia has lower income per capita.
Many developing countries depend on natural resources. One third of export from Africa, for instance, is natural products. Indonesia has a similar figure. Indeed, this natural wealth slowly but surely will disappear. This nation really realizes this reality. Indonesia once benefited from the oil booming in 80s. In that time, the rise of oil price made us laugh. There was no need to cover national budget deficit for oil subsidies. But now, we already become a net importer of oil. It is not only because of a lack of exploration of new oil sources, but in fact we do not have much oil left anymore. Unsurprisingly, Ambalat block is becoming a hot and sensitive issue.
Forestry sector is another example. Untill several decades, we thought that we were blessed by the existence of huge areas of tropical areas that we have. This earth’s lung was then commercially traded. The result was fantastic, i.e. Indonesia became a giant timber exporter. Timber provided a major income for the country. However, it was not too long till we suffered the consequences. No longer millions of logs produced; in reverse we have been suffering from ecological disasters due to forest ecosystem destructions.
We have probably been cursed! Rather than creating public wealth, the resources that lie on the top and beneath our land produce poverty and economic gaps between the rich and the poor. Resource-rich countries, said Joseph Stiglitz (2006), tend to become “wealthy countries” with poor citizens. Macroeconomic might indicate that Indonesia seems to be wealthy, but the poverty rate and unemployment figure continues to rise. Official figures from the government show that more than 100 million of Indonesians are living on les US$ 2 per day. On the other hand, we see that Indonesia’s rich people are among the wealthiest people in Asia and even in the globe. Unsurprisingly, many of Indonesia’s richest businesses are involved in the exploitation of natural resources.
The recent mining tragedy also reflects the lack of appreciation to human life. Work safety standard seems to be an unnecessary thing. Sadly, it does not only happen in small scale and privately managed mining activities, but also in large scale mines.
Furthermore, the failurel to equitably manage our natural resources means that the citizen’s life right and the right to be economically adequate seem to be neglected. If we look at the new Mineral and Coal Mining Act 2009, the access of people to the source of natural assets is still abandoned. Corporations still have a priority. Traditionally managed forests, for instance, are still being threatened with being converted if mining activities are proposed. People are also vulnerable to the negative environmentally effects of mining. In many places in Indonesia, mining activities are worsening public infrastructures. The permission of coal loaded trucks to pass crowded residential areas has resulted negative effects in forms of road accidents due to bad roads.
The equality and public-prosperity oriented principle have to become the main paradigm in managing our natural resources. Beside, companies operating and working in compliance with safety standard must be adequately-established and well-monitored. Without these, do not expect we can get a rid of the mining curse.
Yansen is lecturer on ecology at the Department of Forestry, University of Bengkulu; Australian Leadership Award fellow