Borneo: The Void

About a year ago this beaten road broke through tropical forest to lead to two villages and rice fields. Now it doesn’t lead anywhere. It abruptly ends, literally cut off to meet a sheer drop of about sixty metres. Lush green and dense forest encircles this harsh grey and black pit about the size of forty football fields. The depth will only be determined when the coal dries up. We watch the digging and the trucks as they carry off their bounty, in the distance we can see a massive stockpile of the black gold. To another side we can see new mountains of earth and rock, a bi-product from the relentless mining effort. I am told this is just a small example of what goes on all over Borneo. The disastrous scar that has been made to the land is almost forced to the back of discussion due to the immensity of everything; Borneo is massive, humidity is extreme, beauty is deepest green, migration that continues to bring Javanese people here is colonial. In an operation that has changed every dynamic of Borneo, from physical, to cultural, to mental. International companies can act with greater purpose than many governments, and machines are more like mechanical dinosaurs, while the people are hooked on the black gold as if it is heroin.

The family I am staying with migrated from East Java during Suharto’s infamous program of transmigrasi during the 1970s and 1980s. In this program entire villages moved to set up colonies in less populated areas of Indonesia with the promise of better and more sustainable livelihoods. We drive by villages and the father indicates that they are Balinese, central Javanese, or Sudanese. This family, like many others, found that the new pastures were not easily adaptable to any type of farming so forget industrial farming. The heavy rains carry nutrients from the soil and when the mines open they carry the water away. Unable to farm and with mining companies offering lucrative salaries getting involved is not only easy it is sensible for the immediate and short term future. The family has been able to build homes in Kalimantan and buy land in Java. Most of us would be jealous of their home in Kalimantan, in the garden coal rises from the earth and at least four tropical fruits grow for consumption, they also have a supply of fish and ducks to eat. But for some reason they want to return to Java, partly because they are farmers not miners, and also because they don’t like what is happening to Borneo.

The first time I visit this mining site I travel down a freshly laid road designed for hundred ton trucks and their two hundred ton payload. The next time I visit this road is being dug up, re-routed and fresh roads are being laid. I am told that such remapping is common; every week new roads come into being while others are closed and it isn’t expensive or time consuming because companies have all the resources and resolution they need, more than can be said of the Indonesian government. Once emptied the moon craters caused by mining are supposed to be returned to nature and safety but in reality many are left as they are: massive voids. Many others are turned into lakes; I must have driven past more than ten such creations. Either way Borneo’s notorious geography means that hazards are not only contained to the immediate vicinity or within the time of mining operations. I visited one village that within the past week had suffered a landslide that swallowed 300 homes into a river; the mine had long closed. It was another road that abruptly ended, this time a village street with family homes. This time the void was a mustard coloured river, due to sediment from mining, with the roofs of houses bopping up and down.

Some mines are illegal, some are legal, and some are legal but shouldn’t be by law. It’s hard to tell unless you know about such things and live in the community. Anyway who really cares? People need coal, the companies have the power, the government doesn’t protect, and international NGOs only want advertising opportunities. There is no real intention to stop the inevitable. Inevitability can be seen in satellite images revealing that basically the whole of Borneo is ripe for raping. The attraction of Borneo has long been transplanted from wildlife and tropical forests to mining for coal, diamonds and gold. The best the Orang-utans can to is scurry out of the way, which they do; driving down a mining road I saw one swiftly crossing, with their swagger it was quite surreal but even they seemed accustomed to crossing such voids, after all it is now their natural environment.

But what do I know? I know little of the environment and of mining. I listened to what people said and saw some sites. I think if the injustice cannot be seen in the mines themselves at least the sadness can be; http://www.flickr.com/photos/martinruddock/sets/72157627522636983/

Peace…

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