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Central Java Governor Revokes PT Semen Indonesia's Mining Permit in Rembang

Critics say the controversial mine would've ruined the water supply of an entire region of fertile farmland.

by VICE Staff
17 January 2017, 8:05am

A rice field in Remang, Central Java. (Photo by Flickr user Mike Photo Corner)

Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo canceled the mining permits awarded to PT Semen Indonesia after the Supreme Court ruled that the state-owned cement company began construction of its controversial plant without first conducting a thorough check of any potential impacts on the local environment. 

"The licensing of cement and raw material mining activities and the operation of Semen Indonesia's factory in Rembang, Central Java, is void and annulled," Ganjar said in a press conference held at the governor's mansion in Semarang, Central Java. 

It's a step forward for the people of the Kendeng Utara mountains, who have been fighting the construction of PT Semen Indonesia's 850-hectare plant in a series of dramatic, but peaceful, protests. The women of Rembang gained national attention when they demonstrated in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta for 36 straight hours with their feet submerged in slowly hardening cement. 

The media dubbed the women "the Kartinis of Rembang,"—a reference to Indonesian women's rights pioneer Raden Adjeng Kartini—over their role at the forefront of the demonstrations. VICE Indonesia recently traveled to Kendeng Utara to report on the fight. 

READ OUR REPORT ON THE FIGHT IN KENDENG UTARA: "Does This Look Like a Barren Wasteland?"

"I thank the Governor's ruling in suspending the permit of PT Semen Indonesia," Gunretno, a community leader from Mbombong, Central Java, told VICE Indonesia. "But one of the clauses of the ruling mentions that PT Semen Indonesia can revise their approach to the surrounding environment and the environmental impact assessment [amdal]. We from the Kendeng community will keep a watch on this prices to make sure no new mining permits are issued.

"Those who were protesting in front of the governor's office dispersed after Pak Ganjar revoked the permit. Now, we're about to go out into the field to make sure PT Semen Indonesia's factory has stopped concordant to the governor's new ruling."

Critics of the cement plant argued that runoff from the limestone mines would seep into a network of underground springs that provides much of the region with its water. Local farmers use the spring water to irrigate their farmland—which has deep ties to the local community. 

Many of the villages in Kendeng Utara follow the teachings of Surontiko Samin—a Dutch colonial-era resistance figure who advocated an anti-capitalist, pro-agrarian lifestyle. Samin died in exile because of his beliefs, but the teachings of this poor, illiterate farmer eventually coalesced into a local religion called the "Adam Religion" that continues today.   

The governor's decision far from a concrete victory for the people of Kendeng Utara. The Supreme Court ruled that PT Semen Indonesia lacked the appropriate data to prove that its plant won't affect the local water supply. That's what caused the governor to cancel the permits. But the cement company could still conduct the needed surveys and apply for the permit again. 

Construction of the Rembang plant was nearing completion and was scheduled to start operations this year. Cement is vital to Indonesia's economic development—both for the construction of needed infrastructure and of new housing and commercial space. In recent years, supply has outpaced demand, resulting in a less-than-stellar year for the industry in 2016. 

The central government expects a tax amnesty program, which would provide infrastructure projects with a fresh source of revenue, to drive cement demand this year. But analysts have also suggested that the country suspect new cement permits to prevent further over-saturation of the market amid another year of sluggish economic growth.