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The legal battle of an Indonesian town against coal-fired power plant

No one is immune to losing faith, especially when you know you are on the right side of the law and you’re up against one of the world’s biggest fossil-fuel financiers. 

This is the frustration felt by Saman Lanting, a lawyer based in Bengkulu, Indonesia, who represented the residents of Sepang Bay Sub-District against a coal-fired power plant over the past three years. 

”This is what happens when we fight the oligarchy, we lose. If we track the environmental movement against coal-fired power plants, it always ends up like this, throughout Indonesia, it’s never been that easy,” he said at the end of July.  

Sepang Bay is located on the island of Sumatra, the second largest island in Indonesia, and is known as a hotspot for sea turtles.

It took center stage in 2019 when a civil lawsuit against a planned coal-fired power plant (PLTU Teluk Sepang) was rejected by the Bengkulu Administrative Court, despite the irregularities found in the environmental impact analysis

The 200 Megawatt coal-fired power plant was developed, thanks to loans totalling $630 million, by Exim Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in 2016. 

Even before its construction, residents had firmly opposed the plan and staged a series of protests hoping to sway local government officials. 

Then, on December 17th, 2019, after 20 trial sessions held over six months, the court rejected their lawsuit. The judges had controversially decided that the community weren’t directly affected by the proposed power plants. 

Saman Lanting argued on behalf of the residents, including Harianto, Abdur Rasis and Jalaluddin, who work as small-scale fishermen and farmers. They complained about polluted wastewater and air pollution, known as Fly Ash and Bottom Ash (FABA), produced by the power plant.

They later filed a case in the Medan Administrative High Court in April 2020 and appealed to the Supreme Court, only to receive the same result. 

Currently, Lanting and the residents are pinning their hopes against one last judicial review of the Supreme Court’s decision. 

But their chances are slim. 

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Activity in local coal mining, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo: Cifor/Flickr

Fearing the impacts of power plant 

Protests against the coal-fired power plant began in 2016, as many residents were seriously concerned about the coal plants’ potential health and environmental impacts. 

“[If the coal projects went ahead], we would continuously live in an environment surrounded by coal ashes coming from the power plant,” said Jalaluddin, who goes by one name, in May.  

During the movement’s early phase, Lupianto, one of the many residents who to provincial-level officials conducting the environmental impact analysis (AMDAL), highlighted that it would be he, and not the officials who would have to “breathe ash from a [coal] power plant for 25 years”. 

“I remember saying, you are all civil servants and not from this city. When your work here is done, you can just return to your respective hometowns. So, who has to breathe ash from a [coal] power plant for 25 years? It will not be you, but that’s on us here.” 

Ali Akbar, director of Kanopi Hijau Indonesia Foundation, an NGO focusing on environmental issues based in Bengkulu, predicted at least 2,000 residents of Sepang Bay district would be affected by the power plant. 

“If (we) look at it in terms of coverage areas, the impacts could even potentially reach to 376,000 residents living close to the site, as the distance between the power plant and downtown Bengkulu city is no more than 20 kilometers,” said Akbar.

Local media have also reported at least 28 endangered sea turtles found dead in locations near the waste disposal site of the power plant in January 2020. 

Meanwhile, Lupiano believes that the power plant will damage the coral-reef-rich coastal ecosystem, potentially increasing the risk against sea-level rise, king tides and large waves in the future.

“I confidently say it, inshallah, Bengkulu will not be hit by a tsunami due to the large number of coral reefs we have,” said the traditional fisherman. “I don’t mean to precede God’s will, but that’s based on my experience.”

He observed that in the past, the giant waves would break in the middle of the oceans, blocked by the coral reefs from reaching the land.

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Coal mine in Indonesia. Photo: Parolan Harahap/Flickr.

Suspicious claims

Lanting argues that over the three failed suits, the judges involved had ignored a series of reports and investigations, both by NGOs and even the Indonesian Ombudsman.

He cited a study conducted by Kanopi Hijau Indonesia Foundation in 2018-19, which found discrepancies between the environmental impact analysis and field reports.

“For example”, he highlighted, “the environmental assessment claimed 92% of the residents approved the power plant development.”

However, many residents had testified that they had rejected the idea ever since it was initiated back in 2016, and 429 local residents had since signed a letter objecting to the project.

They also staged protests during the inauguration ceremony on 25 October 2016 to refuse the project. 

“So, how could they claim that 92% of us support them?” he said. 

Lanting said the approval claim was never physically shown to them during the trials. 

On 25 September 2019, the Indonesian Ombudsman launched an investigation for the environmental permit issued for the power plant. The report accused the head of the Bengkulu planning agency of abuse of its authority as it contradicted the province’s spatial planning law. 

“We brought the Ombudsman’s report as evidence to the court. But the judge ignored that fact. I was quite surprised because obviously, it was violating the law,” said Lanting.

Ali Akbar, Director of Kanopi Hijau Indonesia Foundation, who conducted the study, believes the environmental impact assessment violates existing spatial planning laws, as its approval was only granted for construction 85kms to the North of Bengkulu. 

The Spatial Planning Law only states construction in different areas of the province, not Sepang Bay. The lawyer and activist consider this an abuse of power. The administration uses its authority to pass the project despite not being included in the Spatial Planning law. 

The legal road may not be siding with the residents. However, their determination to challenge the coal-fuelled power plant shows how local people are fighting for a better and cleaner future. 

To them, national development should not be in any way at the expense of theirs, their children, and their grandchildren’s lives.

This article was originally published in ICBC as part of a partnership with Climate Tracker.