‘Everything dies’: Mining, climate change threaten livelihoods of Bintan’s fishing communities

BINTAN: Fisherman Budi, not his real name, furiously scanned the sea in front of his house in eastern Bintan, Indonesia.  

The water was brown and it has been hard to get a catch for the past few years. He is among hundreds of fishermen in the Kawal regency who has faced this problem.

“We are not talking about whose fault it is. But when there have been two months of hot weather and then there is sudden rain for a day or two, the fishes will die.

“The fishes die, the snakes die, everything dies,” said Mr Budi, adding the crabs would also be wiped out.

(ks) Kawal river
Kawal river in east Bintan, Indonesia. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

He said the colour of the water at the coastal area and the Kawal river which flows to the sea will usually change after rain and this has happened several times in the last nine years.

“Whether it has rained for a day or two, the water will change becoming reddish. Not blue like ocean water.

“We have complained to the local environment agency, and they have come here but nothing (has changed),” the 42-year-old recounted.

What is the reason for this phenomenon? Those interviewed by CNA said previous mining upstream could have resulted in environmental degradation and sedimentation, therefore affecting water quality and fish stocks. Coupled with changing weather patterns due to climate change, fishermen in Bintan are finding it hard to make ends meet.

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When the fisherman approached the local government for answers, they received a letter from the environmental agency saying that the water quality of Kawal river has deteriorated. The letter also recommended against animal farming there.

Head of Bintan’s regency pollution and environmental damage control Hasyim, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said that the dead animals at the river mouth could have happened due to pollution caused by human activities including littering.

But he recognised there may be other factors at work too.

“We don’t really know but Bintan is a bauxite producer. The rainfall also affects the water flowing into the sea.

“Bintan used to be a mining area. Perhaps previous mining activities may have played a role. But now there is no mining anymore that we are aware of,” Mr Hasyim told CNA.

The island, especially the southern part, is a producer of bauxite. However, as it has been running out of reserves in recent years, legal mining activities have largely shifted to other areas in Indonesia such as West Kalimantan province. However, some illegal mines continue to operate, according to local media.

Indonesia is one of the world’s top producer of bauxite. It also produces aluminium which is used in everything from consumer electronics such as smartphones to household appliances like refrigerators and washers.

CHANGING WEATHER PATTERNS

Mr Aman Arafa has observed a different phenomenon. The retired fisherman, 63, is the community head of fishermen’s families in Gunung Kijang district, just a few hundred metres away from Mr Budi.

(ks) retired Bintan fisherman
Mr Aman Arafa has lived in Gunung Kijang district, Bintan, his entire life. (Photo: Kiki Siregar) 

Apart from declining fish stocks, he said the weather is different nowadays compared to decades ago. 

“In the past, when it is December, there would be strong weather,” he said, adding that the fishermen would not be able to go out to sea.

These days, however, he said the weather has actually become easier to navigate at the end of the year. “Now, people can still go fishing (in December),” he said.  

But this does not mean fishermen nowadays have more catch. “In the past, it was easy to find fish. Just fishing nearby would be enough. But now there’s none nearby,” he said.

He said the fishermen in his community can get 30 per cent of what he used to catch in the 1980s.

READ: Time is running out for Indonesian fishing village as it battles coastal erosion

Mr Arafa said the fishermen now have to sail to as far as to Kalimantan to make ends meet. 

This became apparent from 2005 onwards, Mr Arafa claimed.

“Perhaps this is because of industrial waste… the water is not good anymore… it seems to be contaminated by something like bauxite, so there’s less fish.

“There are many companies along the river, their toxic waste goes into the river, that’s why there’s nothing anymore here,” he said.

But he said that he is not aware of any legal active bauxite mining anymore.

He said that the only mining activity he is aware of is by a company called Bintan Alumina Indonesia.

The company is known by its abbreviation BAI and has been operating in southern Bintan for the last two years. It is in a special economic zone (SEZ), one of 15 in the country, where it processes bauxite to become aluminum.

CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK

Several years ago, a team of scientists noted that Bintan is also experiencing something which is less visible to the naked eye: climate change.

With more than 20 other researchers from several Indonesian institutes, Mr Indarto Supriyadi, a researcher with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences’ Oceanography Centre, looked at longitudinal data spanning four decades. The team also visited east Bintan numerous times over the years.

They concluded that there are linkages between climate change and the changing weather patterns observed by Mr Arafa.  

(ks) East Bintan (1)
Many fishermen of eastern Bintan have to go to Kalimantan to catch some fish. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

Mr Supriyadi said that apart from fishermen telling him five years ago that the weather in Bintan is different compared to the 1990s, the latter also said there has been less catch due to unexplained reasons.

He said that the local air temperature in the past four decades has increased and there are changes in rainfall patterns.  

“The wind direction is also different, it used to be from the south now from the north,” said Mr Supriyadi.

Based on data from the meteorological, climatological and geophysical agency (BMKG), Mr Supriyadi and his team also noted longer dry periods. 

The team, citing data from 1971 to 2018, noted that the temperature in Bintan has increased by 0.41 degrees Celsius every 10 years, or 0.04 degrees Celsius every year.

Longer dry periods and rising temperature have an impact on fish population, as they tend to migrate to cooler areas. This has affected the operations of fishermen in the area.

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The mining activities over the years may have exacerbated the impacts of climate change, said Mr Supriyadi.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon. But locally in Bintan, this is also caused by human activities, the people there. For example, we have rainfall data from 1976 to 2016, for four decades, which shows it tends to increase.

“If the rainfall tends to increase, it means that if we look at the land use, the vegetation area in Bintan which we also have data from 1990, the result is there was a trend of vegetated areas being converted into mining sites such as sand and bauxite,” Mr Supriyadi explained.

“Triggered by increased rainfall, it will have an impact on environmental factors, namely sedimentation. This will scrape the fertile surface layer of land and bring (sedimentation) to shallow water.”

He said that the development of hotels on the coastal side of east Bintan without considering the spatial layout also worsens the problem.

(ks) mining in Bintan
The conversion of vegetated areas in Bintan contributes to the increase in the local temperature, a study shows. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

Mr Arifsyah Nasution, an ocean campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia concurred.

“Environmental damage is what happens in a relatively short span like one or two years and can worsen the impact of climate change in the medium to long term…

“So what happened in Bintan can be both. Especially if mining activities also change the landscape and function of land which cause degradation of ecosystem functions carrying capacity and as well as the release of carbon emissions (from land conversion activities),” he told CNA.

Mr Nasution noted that sedimentation can increase the degradation of coral reefs, which are direct food sources for fishes.

Mining activities can also contribute to climate change due to the carbon emissions, Mr Nasution stated. “I view this as two different things, but they are related. So we can’t separate them.

“It is impossible for us to separate the impact of climate change from the impact of environmental damage because indeed, both complement each other and the impact (to the environment) will be more negative.”

RESTORING THE ECOSYSTEM

What can be done to ensure the livelihoods of Bintan’s fishing communities and protect the environment from further damage?

Responding to CNA’s queries, BAI said it gets its bauxite from seven companies in West Kalimantan province, not from Bintan.

Its operational manager Zulkarni Alfikri also insisted that there is no waste in Bintan. He also said BAI uses the latest technology such as FGD (Flue Gas Desulfurization) to reduce sulphur during the gas disposal.

Mr Nasution, the Greenpeace environmentalist, said that if mining companies have the will to restore the environment, the carbon emissions can actually be accounted for, with corresponding actions taken to mitigate the impacts.

(ks) children at Bintan's fishing village
Children in Kawal, Bintan. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

But he is sceptical since most government programmes are focused on restoring forests rather than mines.

“What needs to be done is to restore areas where the ecosystem functions need to exist in order to sustain the rights of the people there, especially fishermen.

“Don’t sacrifice the land function anymore, maximise the value of the land, the existing economic area,” the environmentalist asserted.

For now, Mr Budi, the fisherman said authorities should monitor things carefully and be transparent, not just give statements without addressing the real problem.

“What we have been talking about was just the dead fishes. If children who don’t know anything, suddenly swim in the water and drink the water… if fishes and snakes can die, then humans can die too.”