A Woman in a Mine’s World

Written by Tracy Glynn on May 3, 2007

At an age when many Canadians begin planning their retirement, Rima has begun a new life back on the land that she and others in the Karonsi’e Dongi Indigenous community say was stolen from them. Photo from WALHI (Friends of the Earth South Sulawesi).

At an age when many Canadians begin planning their retirement, Rima has begun a new life back on the land that she and others in the Karonsi’e Dongi Indigenous community say was stolen from them.
Photo from WALHI (Friends of the Earth South Sulawesi).

National roundtable on mining fails those struggling against Canada’s corporations abroad

The hidden costs of the steel found in our forks, cars and bombs are not easily traceable but are more than tangible for those most affected by steel’s origins. Nickel, a main ingredient found in stainless steel, is all around us. The companies that have controlled the extraction, processing and refining of nickel have been implicated in a multitude of serious human rights abuses and extensive environmental degradation around the world.

Werima Mananta, known by her abbreviated first name Rima, turns 60 years old this year. At an age that many in Canada begin planning their retirement, she has begun a new life back on the land that she and others in the Karonsi’e Dongi Indigenous community say was stolen from them in the midst of a rebellion and resource-grab a half-century ago. Today, Rima and her community are once again being threatened with displacement.

Rima hails from the scenic village of Sorowako on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Historically, Sorowakans were shifting cultivators of various crops and jungle foragers of rattan, bamboo and other forest products. They lived in relative seclusion among mountains surrounded by impassable rivers.
Rima’s community is “becoming an audience to its own extinction.” Photo: Tracy Glynn

The land where the Karonsi’e Dongi people lived produced such lucrative rice yields that the area was known in the local language as “Lembo Moboo”, the valley where the harvest rotted. The Karonsi’e Dongi would give away surplus rice to those less fortunate in nearby communities.

Rima was ten years old when the 1957 rebellion broke out and her family and community were forced to flee their homes for safer parts of the island. Rima and others in Sorowako rarely talk about this painful part of their past that claimed the lives of many including some of Rima’s family.

When the rebellion ended and it was safe to return in the late sixties and seventies, many came home to find their green roaming hills roaring with the sound of bulldozers and excavators stripping their sacred mountains for nickel. A contract had been signed in 1968 between Indonesian President General Suharto and Inco, a Canadian-owned mining company. Inco took control of huge swaths of land on the island of Sulawesi for the purposes of nickel mining and production.

The Karonsi’e Dongi received little or no compensation for their lost lands and crops. They were not involved in the land negotiations. Local leaders in the Sorowako community were jailed in an apparent demonstration of who was in charge.

The Karonsi’e Dongi people, stripped of their land and livelihoods, asked for assistance and justice from their local government officials. One official’s response is etched in the minds of many Karonsi’e Dongi people today: “It is better to get rid of one community at a time than it is to get rid of Inco.”

Once again, the Karonsi’e Dongi people were forced to flee their land to find a means to support their families. In the 1970s through the end of the 1990s, Rima lived in the nearby city of Palu, where she married and raised three children while working at a church bookstore.

President Suharto was forced from power in 1997 and windows of political freedom opened throughout Indonesia. Abandoned mining land was freed in 2002 along the outskirts of the Inco golf course, once the site of the homes, fruit tree groves and graveyard of the Karonsi’e Dongi people. In 2002, Rima walked away from her job – five years shy of retirement and a pension – to return to Sorowako and take part in the effort to restore, live and work on the land that she says is integral to the survival of her people’s Indigenous identity.

Thirty families, including the families of Rima and her equally vocal sister Naomi, have built huts and planted crops of cassava, corn and other vegetables and fruits on this piece of reclaimed land. Today, they are told that they may have to leave to make way for a world-class hotel to accompany the world-class golf course.

In the past, before the mining operations, Sorowako was a place of about 300 households with fertile land that provided livelihoods for growers of rice, cocoa, cassava, spices and a variety of fruit and vegetables. Three lakes provided transportation, clean drinking water, and habitat for the endemic Butini fish, found nowhere else in the world.

Today, Sorowako, to its disenfranchised population, is a place of hardship, where homes, lands and livelihoods have been taken away. Lack of access to land and overcrowding, due to immigration of people seeking jobs at the mining operation, have led to approximately 1,000 shanties on Lake Matano’s waters. The tectonic Lake Matano, the seventh deepest lake in the world, is now a disposal site for raw sewage and garbage. Its resident butini fish are a threatened species; and the fishes’ disappearing and shrinking teeth and smaller bodies are yet to be explained. Sorowako has become a place where an Indigenous community watches expatriates and local elite play golf on their land.

The turn of the century has been a time of frequent community demonstrations in Sorowako over unresolved land issues and unfulfilled promises of provisions that were supposed to accompany the mine like education, healthcare, electricity and clean water. Today, the Karonsi’e Dongi people continue to live in their huts along the Inco golf course with no secure water supply and no electricity, under the watchful eye of armed security.

In November 2006, Rima travelled across Atlantic Canada to talk to Canadians about her community’s struggle with Inco. The reaction of the audience was telling of a public sympathetic but largely ignorant of the plight of communities around the world affected by Canadian corporations. She commented repeatedly in public presentations and media interviews that her community is becoming an audience to its own extinction . “Our children are not able to go to school because parents cannot afford school fees. To feed our families, we women have planted vegetables and bananas around our huts. We can no longer grow rice because the land has been degraded. In 2003, the police and Inco security threatened to burn our huts because we were on ‘Inco land.’ Some of us were brought to the police station, interrogated and threatened with a three-month jail sentence.”

Rima gave her final speech before returning to Sorowako at a government-organized roundtable on “Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Sector in Developing Countries” in Montreal on November 14, 2006.

When asked what she wants to convey most to Canadians, Rima reiterates four demands, “First, the Canadian government must acknowledge that Canadian mining companies have caused human rights abuses and therefore the government has a responsibility to resolve these abuses. Second, the Canadian government must ensure that Canadian companies abide by the same regulations in Canada at its operations abroad. Third, the Canadian government must ensure that Canadian companies do not intervene on regulations of other countries, like what happened when Inco successfully lobbied the Indonesian government to amend its Forestry Act that previously banned all open-pit mining in protected forests. Finally, the Canadian government must ensure that environments destroyed by Canadian mining companies are restored, and compensation, agreed upon by the communities, is provided to communities that have incurred losses due to Canadian mining companies.”

The roundtable report released in late March 2007 by an advisory group comprised of industry, government and civil society representatives, recommended the adoption of a set of corporate social responsibility standards for Canadian extractive-sector companies operating abroad. The recommended enforcement of these standards is through reporting, compliance and other mechanisms.

At best, the long-anticipated roundtable report is a first step towards binding and enforceable legislation that would rein in mining companies and stop the wave of mining abuses seen today. But while Canadians pat themselves on the back for voluntary guidelines pointing in the right direction, according to local newspapers, the Sorowako community is turning to hostage-taking of Inco workers, road blockades and the occupation of the Inco regional office in a desperate attempt to defend their land.

Originally published in the Dominion on May 3, 2007.

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