Preventing and resolving conflict between companies and communities in Aceh Tamiang, Indonesia, is challenging, but as Centre of Social Excellence (CSE) graduate Andi Nur Muhammad has experienced, it is possible too.
Locals suspected the shortage of water, which had now spread to 15 villages across Aceh, was being caused by the companies who were mining in nearby Wonosari. The dolomite and limestone extracted was being used to make concrete, amid further plans to build a cement factory in the area.
Andi Nur Muhammad is a consultant at the civil society organisation Kempra, which was assigned by local government to investigate the causes of the water shortage. Andi’s role involves carrying out social mapping and assessing how conflict between different groups can be best prevented. The discrepancies between what he and his colleagues found and what was in the company’s environmental impact assessment threatened to damage the local water source.
“We found many things associated with the characteristics of karst,” said Andi. Karst is a natural underground drainage system of sinkholes and caves, evidence of which is often only visible beneath the ground, with the dissolved soluble rocks of limestone, dolomite and gypsum that karst consists of tending to be covered by foliage and other types of rock. As Andi and his colleagues discovered, there was further evidence to suggest the presence of an underground water source. “We found a river and a surface water inlet, which it ran into, in the concession area,” added Andi. “Both within the area which was being mined.”
Quarrying limestone in such a place can cause severe water pollution. Groundwater quality can be affected by an increase in sediment, not to mention possible contamination from the oil and gas equipment used to do the mining. The community filed a lawsuit, but within 24 hours it had been revoked, amid rumours that those who had filed it had received a gift of a motorcycle.
Kempra and other activist groups continued to make their voice heard on this matter. Then, as a gesture of good will, the company released 600 hectares of land around the river back to the community. Meanwhile, Kempra had alerted the government geological department to use their data for a further investigation, which would discover a clear link between the cave, where the mining was taking place, and the river.
Andi's efforts to preserve this water source continue. "We are currently educating the community about the functions of karsts and how damage to them risks the safety of the water," he said. "We are also exploring other avenues, like the potential tourist visits the community could offer to caves and underground rivers."
Protecting the water resources of these people is something Andi is proud of. Although such scenarios between local people and companies are all too common in countries with an abundance of natural resources like Indonesia. Carrying out such mediation work between company and community requires an understanding of the environment combined with the needs of the people living in it and the possible impact being made upon them. Having empathy with anyone who’s been impacted upon is very important, but so is remaining neutral in how you go about your business.
Andi is a graduate of Earthworm’s Centre of Social Excellence, which has been equipping companies, civil society organisations and governments with professionals who are able to build good relations between communities and companies for the last decade, first in West Africa, then in 2015, in Indonesia too. The training provided helped Andi see how solutions could come from collaboration between different groups.
In Andi’s experience, People tend to think only from the perspective of their group, whether that be a company, NGO, community or government. “Our work is about fostering a new found sense of trust between communities, company, NGO and government,” said Andi. “That way, instead of one group being stuck and focussed on its own needs, a shared solution can be worked towards together.