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Social movements can achieve success in legislative outcomes, why does real change lag?

Updated: Mar 16


Coal mining site in Kalimantan, Indonesia

Image Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR


A just-released paper from researchers at the University of Melbourne and co-authored from Anthony Bebbington (Toumbourou et al. - LINK) traces legal changes related to post-mine reclamation in Kalimantan, Indonesia and analyzes them using theoretical concepts from legal geography and the political settlements literature. In this framework, laws are fundamental to the mediation of social-environmental activities such as mining that have profound consequences for human development and ecological conditions, and such laws are a manifestation of the explicit and implicit agreements among elites about how resources and opportunity ought to be distributed in society.


For decades, coal mining in Kalimantan was centrally-regulated by the Suharto administration. There was effectively no opportunity for local consultation or input, and distribution of mining revenues via patronage networks was a key tool for maintaining political support. Mining governance was decentralized following the fall of the regime in 1998, but it became perhaps more instrumental in underlying patronage practices that structure sub-national politics in the areas where it occurs. While the licensing of new mining leases ramped up after devolution, there was no concomitant increase in the degree to which local concerns could be incorporated to improve social and environmental protections.


Through the process of open-cut mining, coal extraction in Kalimantan is an incredible disturbance to the landscape, and one that poses a particular set of hazards post-closure. This mining practice unearths sulfide-rich rocks that leach heavy metals that accumulate in rain-filled voids of abandoned mines and contaminate the groundwater. Complete de-vegetation of the overlying land increases the severity of floods and thus the spread of these toxicants further. Impacts on nearby communities have been severe, through drastically reduced crop yields and the tragic drowning deaths of children in abandoned mine voids.


Image Andrew Taylor/WDM


On the basis of dozens of interviews with government, civil society, and business actors, the paper's authors detail the ways that JATAM (The Mining Advocacy Network) and other civil society actors responded to these threats in Kalimantan since the passage of a national mining law in 2009. Early, broad-based lobbying and focused protests at offices allowed for engagement with lawmakers but was not successful in leading to change. After regrouping, the coalition filed a negligence suit in 2013 targeting government actors for their failure to enforce protections that led to the damages of farmers' crops.


Prior even to the conclusion of the case, public pressure around drowning deaths was brought to bear specifically on the issue of mine reclamation, and the East Kalimantan governor issued a mandate that brought more stakeholders into the monitoring process. With the help of lawyers who crafted the regulation to be sufficiently narrow as to avoid sufficient counter-mobilization, legal institutions that raised company responsibilities related to reclamation took effect.


But this has been seen to be insufficient in improving conditions and avoiding deaths. One reason has to do with legal interpretation. A contested meaning of "reclamation" has companies focusing on re-vegetating sites rather than infilling mine voids. State oversight is underfunded and split between agencies: inspectors typically require rides on company vehicles to reach sites. Law enforcement have not standardized a process of enforcement, and would face financial and social conflicts of interest in any intervention, while systems of production are rife with paramilitary and organized crime violence.


The lack of substantial success in effecting outcomes points to the multi-part and disjointed nature of law: legislation, interpretation, and enforcement. Public pressure was mobilized to enact law related to preventing drowning deaths, yet similar forces could not be brought to bear on, for example, the process of budgeting sufficient funds to allow for site inspection, or of undoing political-economic structures underlain by violence. It is also a reminder that so many facets of the political settlements governing mining operate extra-legally.

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