Plan to let religious groups operate coal mines in Indonesia criticised by observers, ministers

JAKARTA – A plan floated by the Indonesian government to amend regulations so that religious organisations can get permits to operate coal mines has been met with growing criticism from observers, with a Greenpeace campaigner calling it “terrifying”.

The plan has also faced opposition from several Cabinet ministers under President Joko Widodo who expressed their concern that mass organisations, let alone religious groups, would not have the required technical capacity and financial strength to develop mines. 

The radical idea was first floated at a Cabinet ministers’ meeting earlier in 2024 by Investment Minister Bahlil Lahadalia, with the aim of improving economic equality.

The argument was that Indonesia’s rich natural resources should not only be enjoyed by established business groups, according to Tempo weekly magazine.  

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of thermal coal, which is used in power generation, and also has the world’s largest reserves of nickel, a main raw material in the making of electric vehicle batteries.

South-east Asia’s largest economy received US$34.59 billion (S$47.2 billion) from coal exports in 2023, according to the national statistics agency.

Tempo reported in its latest edition on April 14 that Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Arifin Tasrif had at first opposed Mr Bahlil’s idea, but became agreeable to the plan after the draft regulation was amended to limit the permits to only religious organisations, and to only cover coal mining.

The earlier draft would have allowed any mass organisation, with the mining concessions covering other minerals including nickel, Tempo said.

A spokesman for the investment ministry did not respond to queries over the issue from The Straits Times.  

Mr Putra Adhiguna, director at Jakarta-based Energy Shift Institute, said that a few years ahead of the election, President Joko Widodo made a promise to Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) to give mining concessions to help NU members.

“Jokowi made a political promise, and now he is obliged to deliver on that promise,” Mr Putra told ST, using the moniker by which Mr Widodo is widely known.

NU, with an estimated 80 million members, is widely believed to be an important player in deciding Indonesia’s election, hence it is being wooed by political elites.

While the presidential and legislative elections were held in February, Indonesia will hold in November local elections to elect governors, mayors and regents across 37 provinces, 415 regencies and 98 cities.


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