By DAWN CECILIA PEÑA
MANILA – Environmental defenders in Southeast Asia aired their concerns over the worsening impunity in the mining industry which continues to take advantage of a global health crisis.
A roundtable discussion titled ‘Shifting the Power Lines: Southeast Asia Regional Exchange on Energy and Extractives’ was held with representatives from Indonesia, Philippines, Timor-Leste, and Myanmar.
Leon Dulce, Southeast Asia coordinator for Oil Watch Network (OWSEA) and the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNMSEA), said that the session “aims to facilitate this exchange through a round table discussion representing various countries of Southeast Asia and [for the audience] to learn about the situation and struggles of environment, climate, and natural resource activists and advocates from other parts of [the region].”
In 2020, a report by YLNMSEA revealed that the mining industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has received little scrutiny compared to other industries seeking to profit from the crisis.
“We condemn and reject the ways that the mining industry and numerous governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to manufacture new mining opportunities and establish a positive public image, now and for the future,” read their statement.
The alliance explained how these destructive measures pose immediate threats to the health and safety of communities and
organizations that have been struggling to defend public health and their environments against the destruction and devastation of mining for decades.
Immunity for mining corporate-oligarchy
In Indonesia, 16 out of its 30 ministers in the cabinet and half of its parliament are linked with mining businesses; paving the way for 44 percent of its land area, islands, and waters to be controlled by mining operations.
“[The government] revised the Mineral and Coal Mining Law followed by the Omnibus Law on Job Creation. [These] claimed to be a law that would facilitate people to get more jobs, but in fact these two laws are made for mining and energy oligarchies,” revealed Ki Bagus Hadikusuma, head of Learning Circle and Networking of Jaringan Advokasi Tambang (JATAM).
Under the two laws, mining and coal energy industries are entitled to fiscal and non-fiscal incentives for mining and coal-integrated steam power generation downstreaming.
YLNMSEA explained it as, “mining companies and governments using the crisis to secure regulatory change that favors the industry at the expense of people and the planet.”
Further, these measures weakened the already-limited measures which do exist to address the social, cultural, environmental, and economic impacts of the companies’ activities that are almost always borne by the affected communities with complete impunity.
“[The period] 2020-2021, aside from being difficult pandemic years in Indonesia, these years are where the mining and energy oligarchy have had their harvest year,” Hadikusuma said.
Ignoring the pandemic
The YLNMSEA report also reflected the circumstances in Indonesia, how mining companies ignored the real threats of the pandemic and continued to operate, using any means available.
“In doing so, they have become key vectors for the spread of the virus and are putting communities, rural and urban populations, and their workforces, at great risk,” explained the report.
In the Philippines, as explained by the international solidarity and networking officer of Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (AGHAM) Clemente Bautista Jr, environmentalists are campaigning to halt reclamation efforts in the capital city.
“We are very active right now in opposing the privatization of our shores in Manila and give it to private corporations,” Bautista said.
In September 2020, the government started to dump piles of crushed dolomite along the shores of Manila Bay. The P389 million ($7 million) “beach nourishment” was deemed unnecessary amid a pandemic.
In May 2021, an additional P265 million ($5 million was allotted for the second phase of the project, which is expected to be finished by the third quarter of 2022.
“In the past three decades, the Philippine government has been promoting globalization policies,” Bautista explained, “it identifies that in order to develop the economy it needs to open different industries to foreign investors and big private companies.”
He enumerated three policies, privatization – which turns over public utilities to private corporations; liberalization – which allows foreigners and big businesses to enjoy the same privileges as Filipino corporations; and deregulation – which prevents the government to regulate a particular industry to allow the free operation of multinational companies.
“These policies, however, mean less job security for workers, lower environmental standards, a lack of corporate accountability during disasters, and an absence of democratic space for peasants and indigenous peoples on whether they will agree or not to said investments or projects,” he continued.
Shutting down protests
This may been the case for the citizens of Myanmar who have been subject to a military coup since February 2021.
“We are not only living under the heavy military security, we are also living under the 2008 constitution. [This gave the central government] the license to sell natural resources in ethnic states. They do not have to do any consultations or ask the original owners,” explained Thum Ai, coordinator of Shan State Farmers Network and also a part of the coordinating body of the Myanmar Mining Watch Network.
Since the coup, the military has killed more than 1,000 protesters throughout the country including more than 80 children.
Moreover, YLNMSEA pointed out that governments around the world are taking extraordinary measures to shut down legitimate protests and promote the mining sector. During the COVID-19 pandemic, land defenders faced greater risk of targeted violence and some remain unjustly prisoned, posing additional risks of infection.
“About 5,800 democracy activists are currently detained or sentenced, including democratically-elected President U Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, civil society leaders, journalists, and celebrities,” shared Jockai Khaing, a land and natural resource rights activist and executive director of the Arakan Oil Watch.
Khaing expressed distress that Myanmar’s regime survives on mining, oil, and gas revenues, which make up 35 percent of Myanmar’s official export revenues.
“This regime has used the oil, gas, and mining revenue to buy weapons, mostly from China and Russia, to kill its own people,” continued Khaing.
Every year, international oil companies provide over US$1 billion to the Tatmadaw regime by exporting fossil gas to Thailand and China from four offshore gas projects, constituting the regime’s single largest source of export income.
“Now, Myanmar people are struggling with 3Cs – a coup, COVID-19, and climate change. You can imagine [the] triple damage we are facing,” lamented Saw The Phoe, an indigenous Karen activist and campaign coordinator of Karen Rivers Watch and a member of the Asia Pacific Network of Environmental Defenders.
Much like what is happening in Myanmar, the people of Timor-Leste have struggled as one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world.
“The government relies on the Petroleum Fund to finance majority of the state budget. Since 2008, withdrawals from the fund have paid for around 86 percent of state expenditures,” explained Bree Ahrens, a researcher of La’o Hamutuk or the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis.
The country’s income from exporting oil and gas goes directly to the Petroleum Fund, which was established in 2005. This fund has received $23 billion in revenues and currently contains $19.5 billion.
“Successive governments have transferred unsustainable amounts of money from the Petroleum Fund,” Ahrens lamented, “the Petroleum Fund may soon be empty in ten years.”
Once the Fund is empty, Timor-Leste will not have money even for its most basic government services. There is urgent need to develop alternative sources of state revenue and non-oil economic activity.
“Timor-Leste needs to create a more sustainable economy. The way that the global community responds to impending climate crisis and the economic transition from fossil fuels, will have a massive impact on Timor-Leste’s future,” continued Ahrens.
Stand in solidarity
Ahrens’s call to the global community mirrored what YLNMSEA appealed for – that national governments should respect and support the autonomous organizing and self-determining processes of mining-affected communities and indigenous peoples.
“Economic ‘reactivation’ must not promote more mining, but should, instead, acknowledge and bolster community-based initiatives,” their statement read.
Aside from promoting grassroots-level programs, YLNMSEA called on international human rights bodies to pay close attention and actively condemn humans rights violations committed by governments and mining corporations during the pandemic and the recovery period to follow.
Jockai Khaing concluded the exchange by urging the public to sign a petition by Oil Watch Southeast Asia that called on international mining, oil and gas companies to end all communication with the military regime.(RVO)