Merapi’s Sabo Crushers

PT Surya Karya Setiabudi is suspected of finding an indirect way to obtain a sand excavation license on a forbidden location which undermines the stability of the lava sabo dams on Mount Merapi. The safety of thousands of residents living around Mount Merapi is in danger.

Six excavators were digging blackish sand at Bebeng River’s headwaters at the Kemiren Village in the Srumbung subdistrict in Magelang, Central Java. Around these heavy equipment were big potholes from the excavations. However, only a few meters from there is a sabo construction: a giant dike to contain the flow of Mount Merapi’s lava. Behind the sabo, a mere six kilometers away, Indonesia’s most active volcano stands tall.

Dozens of trucks are milling back and forth to collect the dug out sand, and then go off with the sand long potholed village roads. On the trucks’ front windows are stickers saying ‘SKS’, which is the acronym for PT Surya Karya Setiabudi, the compnay that has been illegally taking sand there forthe past two years. Everyday, hundreds of pick ups go back and forth to take sand, gravel and stone to be taken to various projects in Magelang, Kulon Progo, and all the way to Yogyakarta.

Sand excavation by PT SKS in the Bebeng River, Kemiren Village, Srumbung District, Magelang, Central Java. (Shinta Maharani)

The large-scale digging around the sabo area is worrying villagers in surrounding areas. Clearly, their safety is dependent on the sabo’s sturdiness. If the Merapi explodes, it will spew out substances from sand to rocks as big as water buffaloes through surrounding rivers, including the Bebeng river. Around this river there are 12 sabo constructions. Throughout the whole Merapi area, there are a total of 300 sabos. Every sabo can holdup up to 25 to 30 cubic meters of cold lava.

This large-scale mining of sand in the sabo area can potentially compromise the sabo’s fortitude. If the sabo is not strong enough and collapses, then the lava will hit parts of the village by the river. “It is as if these miners just don’t care, and continue to operate,” says Mukri, a resident from Jrakah by Kaliurang village in the Srumbung subdistrict in Magelang.

The mining is certainly not without risks. Last December, eight miners were buried under a landslide and died. Kemiren borders Kaliurang, and both are by the Bebeng River.

Mukri isn’t the only Kaliurang resident who is concerned about PT SKS’ sand mining, as other residents along the Bebeng river are also worried. If the dike breaks, villages such as Kemiren, Nglumut, Cepagan, andJrakah would potentially be buried under cold lava. The lives of thousands of residents are on the line. “If the sabo and the dike break, we at the headwaters are threatened,” said Nglumut village resident Indra Kurniawan.

They have become increasingly distressed since the research and development agency for geological disasters BPPTKG in Yogyakarta said that a new lava dome has appeared on the top of Mount Merapi. Lava domes are one of the signs that Mount Merapi may erupt again. This new dome is five meters taller than the one which formed at the 2010 eruption. At that time, the Merapi spewed 140 million cubic meters worth of material. Consequently, it decimated the surrounding villages and killed hundreds of people, with hundreds of thousands of others having to evacuate.

Source: PPK PLG Merapi.

Mukri, Indra, and other villagers have attempted to block road access towards the mining area to prevent PT SKS from digging sand. However, they were unable to stop the company’s hired hands. Not wanting to give up, the villagers went and reported PT SKS’ activities to the Magelang Regency administration, the Ombudsman, the provincial administration, and even the National Police headquarters. However, to no avail. “Until now, PT SKS is still mining almost around the clock,” Mukri complained.

Disaster risk prevention expert from the Veteran National Development University UPN in Yogyakarta, Eko Teguh Paripurno, said that the villagers are rightly worried. Sabo is built to control material flow onto headwaters around the Merapi. These constructions contain the flow of debris or lava so that it becomes less strong. Sabo also functions to steer and slow down the flow of material in the river, a place for precipitation, controlling the spread of the materials’ flow, and reducing the flow of lava and Merapi’s secondary threat.

If PT SKS continues its extensive sand mining around the sabo areas, it could erode and damage the sabos. If this happens, then an eruption could lead to cold lava flowing into the homes of people along the Bebeng river. “The lives and homes of people at the river’s headwaters would be at risk,” Eko said.

Source: PPK PLG Merapi.

Illegal Mining

The sand mining of PT SKS has also been brought up by the BBWSO, the local branch of the public works ministry dealing with water (Balai Besar Wilayah Sungai Serayu Opak). The issue is that company owner Muhammad Sury is conducting his mining operations without a technical recommendation from the BBWSO. This recommendation is required for this type of operation, and also a prerequisite to obtain a mining license from the Central Jawa provincial investment and service department. In short: the sand mining is clearly illegal.

BBWSO chief Tri Bayu Adji said that his team has done some field work and found that PT SKS is careless in carrying out its operations. Regulations require that sand can only be dug at an area at least 50 meters away from a sabo headwater, and at least 100 meter from a sabo downstream. However, PT SKS digs without paying heed to these regulations, and even does its digging in the vicinity of a sabo construction, which could potentially compromise the sabo’s sturdiness.

BBWSO Head Tri Bayu Adji. (Personal Documentation, Tri Bayu Adji)

The digging, which has gone on for over a year, has caused a degeneration of the river’s trough, damaged the river, and sparked dangerous landslides which put the miners in danger, Tri Bayu Adji said. “Non-mineral mining around a sabo dam clearly disturbs its stability.”

On November 16, 2016, the BBSWO team visited PT SKS to question the latter’s illegal sand mining at the Bebeng river. At that time, they were met by company commissioner Suryo. Suryo denied that the company’s mining is done illegally. He claimed to have an official permit, and was ready to show the said document.

The following day, Suryo handed over a photocopy of a permit for special stone mining operations from the Central Java provincial investment agency (Badan Penanaman Modal Daerah Jawa Tengah), which has now changed its name to Central Java one door investment and integrated services (Dinas Penanaman Modal dan Pelayanan Terpadu Satu Pintu Jawa Tengah). The letter with the number

543.32/10860, 2016, was signed by Central Jawa provincial investment agency head at that time, Sujarwanto Dwiatmoko, on November 4, 2016. PT SKS, the letter said, had the right to take 200,000 cubic meters of sand for 12 months. However, Suryo was unable to show the technical recommendation letter from BBWSO. “This is because BBWSO has in fact never issued a technical recommendation letter to PT SKS,” said Tri Bayu.

A copy of a mining business license for PT SKS obtained by Tempo. Swipe right.

The issuing of the permit without a BBSWO technical recommendation is clearly odd, as this recommendation is the premise of obtaining a mining permit. This means that the permit was issued without following the proper regulations. This prompted BBSWO to state that PT SKS’ mining was illegal. BBSWO also issued a letter of reprimand, which also asked that the company immediately halt its operations.

BBWSO’s firm stance angered PT SKS, and the latter proceeded to intimidate Tri Bayu and his team. A few days after BBSWO issued its letter of reprimand, Tri Bayu received a phone call from a man who said he was Brigadier General Karyoto, intelligence director of the national narcotics eradication body. He asked that BBSWO not stand in the way of PT SKS’ mining operations at the Bebeng river. “This person saying he was Brigadier General Karyoto called me two or three times,” Tri Bayu said. Meanwhile, PT SKS carried on with its sand mining activities.

It didn’t just stop there: on March 27, 2017, Suryo came to the BBSWO office in Yogyakarta with a man claiming to be Karyoto. As Tri Bayu was not at the office, they were received by a number of BBSWO empoyees. The man claiming to be Karyoto was angry and threatening. “Don’t look for faults. If you do that, we can double the efforst to look for your mistakes,” one BBSWO employee quoted the man as saying.

PT SKS Commissioner Muhammad Suryo (Source: Facebook).

Tri Bayu said that the same man met with him at the BBSWO office. He asked Tri Bayu to stop bringing up PT SKS’ mining permit. Tempo had shown a photograph of Brigadier General Karyoto to Tri Bayu and a number of BBWSO employees, and they agreed that the man visiting their office resembled the person on the photograph.

Tempo tried to confirm the statements of Tri Bayu and the other BBSWO employees to Karyoto. However, until the publication of this article, he had not responded. Phone calls and text messages remained unanswered. A letter asking for an interview, whichTemposent to his home address and his BNN office in Yogyakarta, also received no response.

Besides intimidating BBSWO officials, PT SKS had also taken the body to the Yogyakarta Administrative Court on May 18, 2017. SKS director Muhammad Luthfi claims that the BBSWO reprimand letter to PT SKS was inappropriate. According to him, his company had already obtained a letter of recommendation and a mining permit. “We already have the permit. It’s not proper that BBSWO reprimands us because BBSWO does not issue mining permits,” Luthfi said. He further said PT SKS already has permits for normalization, mining, transport and sales for the mine.

PT SKS lawyer Layung said that BBSWO does not have proper legal jurisdiction, and has barked up the wrong tree. He further said that the body which has the right to admonish PT SKS is the Central Jawa Energi and Mineral Body ESDM (Dinas Energi dan Sumber Daya Mineral Jawa Tengah). “We are taking this to court because this is outside BBSWO’s domain. In fact, it is within the domain of ESDM Semarang, since PT SKS applies for its permit to ESDM,” Layung explains.

However, on August 25, 2017, PT SKS suddenly revoked its suit, saying that its mining permit expires in September 2017, and that it was applying for a new permit and a technical recommendation letter.


Monkey Business Behind PT SKS’s Mining Permit

PT SKS’ success in obtaining a mining permit without a BBSWO technical recommendation has puzzled many people. Tempo traced the process of how PT SKS went around the procedures to obtain the bogus permit.

The suspicion is that this questionable permit was issued thanks to the collaboration between the company heads and Central Java ESDM officials. On September 5, 2016, ESDM Central Jawa head Teguh Dwi Paryono sent a letter to the BBSWO head. The letter contained a notification of a request by PT SKS to be involved in the maintenance of the Bebeng river.

As the BBSWO chief, Tri Bayu immediately replied to the letter, saying that PT SKS would be allowed to take part in the maintenance of the Bebeng river as soon as they fulfill their administrative requirements. One of those requirements would be the BBSWO technical recommendation.

In order to issue the technical recommendation letter, the BBSWO has to first conduct a review. Usually, such a recommendation would contain points where mining is allowed or not allowed. The aim is for the sand mining to not be exploitative and disturb the sabo’s strength.

Apparently, Tri Bayu’s response was claimed as the technical recommendation letter, which was then used by the ESDM to issue an IUP technical review permit letter for sale for PT SKS.

Armed with this letter, PT SKS then asked for a special stone mining operations permit from the Central Java provincial investment agency. Without checking with the BBSWO, the Central Java provincial investment agency issued the permit.

Tempo visited the Central Java one door investment and integrated services to ask about the PT SKS permit letter dated October 30, 2017. The agency’s head, Prasetya Aribowo, said that permit was issued based on the technical permit letter issued the by the Central Jawa ESDM office. ESDM official Budi Setyawan, who was present at the interview, said that his office had mistakenly viewed the BBSWO letter as a technical recommendation.

Prasetyo further said that his office has revoked that mining permit on September 26, 2017. However, he said the reason for the revocation was the PT SKS had exceeded its permitted mining volume. “We have already revoked the permit according to our field assessment,” Prasetyo said. Asked to comment about the fact that PT SKS has continued its mining activities, Prasetyo said that this matter was no longer under his jurisdiction. “Field supervision is under the jurisdiction of the Energy department.”

In January, Tempo visited the Central Jawa ESDM office. However, chief Teguh Dwi Paryono declined to meet with Tempo. “I think the Bebeng issue is over and done with, since you have already met with Mr. Prasetyo and ESDM staffer (Budi Setiyawan) who was also present at the interview. I don’t have anything to add,” Teguh said by telephone.

PT SKS declined to comment about its alleged intimidation towards BBSWO officials and the schemes they concocted to obtain their permit. Several times,Tempo went to PT SKS’ office at Magelang kilometer 17, Margorejo, Tempel, Sleman. However, Suryo declined to speak to Tempo. Telephone calls and messages to his personal mobile also went unanswered.


Japan Expresses Concern

This illegal sand mining has also attracted the attention of the Japanese government. Funding for sabo construction along all the rivers around Mount Merapi comes from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

When the Merapi erupted in 2010, the majority of sabo constructions were damaged, and some were even completely destroyed by the lava. The Indonesian government immediately conducted renovations and reconstructions of the sabos, using Japanese aid worth some Rp 780 billion.

Pembangunan Sabo
A sabo dam which has been restored in the Bebeng River, Kemiren Village, Srumbung District, Magelang Regency (Source: PPK PLG Merapi)

Masaharu Mizoguchi, chief consultant for the JICA team, expressed his concern regarding the illegal sand mining around Merapi’s sabos. “Sabo maintenance and sand mining just don’t go together. This endangers the construction’s stability,” Masaharu said.

The Japanese government conducts periodic evaluations in conjuction with its loan for the sabo constructions. In 2017, the JICA team audited the infrastructure construction after the 2010 Merapi eruption. Five items are included in the evaluation, which are relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, impact and sustainability. “It scored badly on sustainability. The others received ‘A’ grades,” Masaharu said.

By sustainability,Masaharu refers to maintenance of the construction. Exploitative sand mining has proven damaging to the sabos. And restoration costs for sabos is anything but cheap: restoration costs for one sabo is some Rp 10 billion, or half the bill for building an entirely new sabo. Thus, JICA has asked the Indonesian government to give its guarantee for the constructions’ sustainability. If not, JICA threatens to halt its funding. “It would be useless to build sabos which would subsequently be destroyed by sand miners,” he said.

There is plenty of proof of damaged sabos due to uncontrolled sand mining along the rivers of the Merapi. The sabo at Kali Woro, for example, is damaged because its foundation has been pounded so badly that it has holes in its midst. The same happened to that in Kali Putih, Srumbung, which stands on the brink of disintegrating because of the sand mining.

A damaged sabo dam in the Pabelan Pucungrejo River, Muntilan District, Magelang Regency, Central Java (Source: PPK PLG Merapi).

Currently, some 250 sabos are being built at 15 rivers with headstreams at the Merapi in Yogyakarta and Central Java. Masaharu expressed hope that those constructions would not be disturbed. He pointed out that damage to the sabos would increase the danger of a Merapi eruption. The people at the foot of the Merapi in the regions Magelang, Yogyakarta, Klaten, and Boyolaliwould be in jeopardy. Magelang is the region with the biggest risk, since this regency is on the west of the Merapi, which has many rivers with headwaters at the top of the mountain.