‘They didn’t tell me before’: Residents left with little after being evicted to make way for ICBC’s Bengkulu coal power plant in Indonesia

26 May, 2021

Written by Rassela Malinda

Fifty-seven-year-old Nurjannah has been living and working on a plot of land in Teluk Sepang village, Bengkulu, for decades. She started her small-scale farm in the early 2000s and expanded it in 2013 into a small palm oil plantation.

For the first three years, she cleared the land with her own hands, planting oil palm trees one by one and caring for each of them. Farming was the sole source of income for her and her young child. 

After three years of working every day in the heat, she had planted 800 palm trees, and they were now ready for their first harvest. She was planning to use the money to take her once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mecca. 

“I was hoping that all the money I would earn from harvesting all these trees could be used to go on haj [an Islamic pilgrimage] to Mecca, Saudi Arabia,” Nurjannah said.

But her dream never came true. 

In early 2016, she was told by officials from the state-owned port operator PT Pelabuhan Indonesia II (Pelindo II) that some parts of her land would become a construction ground of a new coal-fired power plant, known now as the Sepang Bay Power Plant.

“I thought they would only take a few parts of my land. But when I came to check on my palm oil trees, the excavators had cleared almost all of my ready-to-harvest palm trees,” Nurjannah recounted, as she recounted that only one plot of her farm remained.

“I was very upset because they didn’t discuss it or even inform me. I cried watching the machine get rid of some of the last remaining plants I had grown with my hard work, just for the sake of the power plant construction.”

Nurjannah was one of 14 residents of Teluk Sepang village who Pelindo II evicted to make way for the coal plant. 

Nurjannah in the remaining land flooded by oil (Intan/Nurjanah’s Daughter) Photo © Rassela Malinda

With a total capacity of 200 MW, the plant is estimated to consume 1 million tonnes of coal each year. It was launched in 2016 as part of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s national electricity program, which has only reached 24 percent of its targeted capacity nationally. 

The plant is owned by PT Tenaga Listrik Bengkulu, a joint venture between Bengkulu Power Co. Ltd. – an Indonesian subsidiary of Hong Kong-based PowerChina Resources – and PT Inta Daya Perkasa. However, the project’s biggest funder is the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which provided US$270 million to get the project off the ground.

During the construction process, Pelindo II knowingly evicted 14 residents living on a 50-hectare land plot managed by the port operator. 

Residents responded to the eviction and the project’s construction with protests soon after the first stone-laying ceremony in 2016. The residents, including Nurjannah, not only were not consulted but were paid as little as $600 for their land as compensation, a figure they believe is far too low. 

“They gave me Rp 9 million [US$630] on the evening after the eviction. One of the company’s representatives came to my house on a rainy night and handed me the money without saying any words,” she said.

As if it was not enough to be evicted, Nurjannah’s remaining plot of land was flooded by oil in April 2020. The oil damaged dozens of her remaining crops, including recently planted palm oil, coconut, eggplant, and peanuts.

Nurjannah and Kanopi then decided to report this alleged violation to the local police. “Is it not enough to evict us? Then you have to go and flood my last plot of land with oil again?!”, exclaimed Nurjannah rhetorically.

However, PT Tenaga Listrik Bengkulu Director, Singgih Hari Santoso, denies the allegations. He asserts that all operational activities within the power plant were in accordance with the government’s standards and regulations.

Unsatisfied with the company’s explanation, Nurjannah and the other affected residents continued their protest against the coal power plant.

Sepang Bay Coal-Fired Power Plant. Photo © Rassela Malinda

They also tried to meet local government officials, representatives from the companies involved, local administrations and the House of Representatives to communicate their demands. 

Nurjannah recounted that the protesting residents were met by Abu Bakar, a spokesperson for  PT Tenaga Listrik Bengkulu, who told locals in 2019 that his company would pay the appropriate amount of compensation for each eviction, according to an agreement with the Bengkulu provincial administration. But until now, the company has not paid out the additional compensation.

In 2019, residents further took action into their own hands, filing a lawsuit against the power plant. Under the environmental justice group Blue Sky Coalition, affected communities of the Sepang-Bay power plant filed a complaint against the administrators involved in issuing its environmental permit. 

“We demand that the government provides a Clean Indonesia, for a better Indonesia”, said Rustam, one of the four plaintiffs of the lawsuit.

But the court rejected their lawsuit as the judges argued the coal plant was part of an important National Strategic Project, and the environmental impact could be limited with an environmental management and monitoring report from Amdal.

Though this rejection was a challenging moment for Nurjannah and fellow residents to take in, they have not stopped their fight. 

Last year, the advocacy team of Blue Sky Coalition appealed the decision, this time taking the case to the Supreme Court.

About the author:

Rassela Malinda, Indonesia

Currently working as a field researcher in Yayasan Pusaka Bentala Rakyat, Rassela is passionate about issues related to agriculture. She’s addicted to Zumba, and enjoys Shiba-Inu memes. 

Rassela is looking forward to improving her knowledge about climate issues.

This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.