Home to at least 537 species of hard coral mollusks and 1,074 species of reef fishes – with 104 new reef fish species identified since 2002 – the Raja Ampat marine environment is the “bulls-eye of marine biodiversity on the planet”.  Above ground, the Raja Ampat archipelago is also a biological hotspot. The region’s biogeography, isolation and relatively intact ecosystems have resulted in high levels of regional endemism (species found in a region are specific to that area). The richness and uniqueness of this area’s biology has earned it a place at the top of the global short list of UNESCO World Heritage marine sites most deserving of protection, a claim supported by local indigenous groups, local non-government organisations, international non-government environmental organisations, and the Indonesian government. Yet, this archipelago is threatened by past, current and potential future nickel mining from within its borders.

The iconic Wayag archipelago located between Gag Island and Manuran Island in the Raja Ampat islands. The Wayag Archipelago is threatened by mining. photo: Anon.

The iconic Wayag archipelago located between Gag Island and Manuran Island in the Raja Ampat islands. The Wayag Archipelago is threatened by mining. photo: Anon.

BHP Billiton’s interest in Raja Ampat dates back to 1995. In 1998 the company signed a contract of work over Gag Island, arguably one of the world’s most lucrative nickel laterite deposits. However, the project never progressed beyond the exploration stage because in 1999 the then Indonesian Minister of the Environment declared Gag Island a protected forest. In November 2008 BHP Billiton withdrew from the Gag Island project. The decision by the company not to proceed occurred not only in the context of a global economic downturn, plummeting commodity prices and legal and financial uncertainty. In addition there was a sustained campaign by a coalition of Indigenous groups and local, national and international NGOs together with members of the marine science community to protect the Raja Ampat archipelago. The question remains as to whether the Gag Island project will be reopened by BHP Billiton or another mining company.

Little known to most people, however, BHP Billiton maintained an interest in Raja Ampat. Despite Raja Ampat’s unique World Heritage values, the company’s wholly owned subsidiary, QNI (Queensland Nickel) continued to buy nickel from the socially and environmentally contentious mine on Manuran Island and transport it by tanker through the Raja Ampat archipelago to the Yabulu Refinery in Townsville, Australia. In July 2009 BHP Billiton sold their interests in QNI and Yabulu to Mineralogy, a private mining company owned by Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer.

Although BHP Billiton no longer has any interests in Raja Ampat, the company’s conduct raises serious concerns. If not addressed these issues could lead to a damaged reputation and financial risk for shareholders and investors. Specific concerns include:

  • Insufficient attention to the fact that BHP Billiton was operating in a conflict zone. West Papua has weak political institutions, high levels of corruption and a history of human rights violations by the Indonesian government’s security forces. The history of mining in West Papua has not benefited local people. Instead it has enriched a select group of political leaders and increased conflict between pro-independence groups and the Indonesian government.
  • Allegations by BHP Billiton employees and local villagers that BHP Billiton paid for materials used in the construction of a military post on Gambir Village, Gag Island. If true, BHP Billiton’s relationship with the Indonesian military raises concerns that the company or subsequent buyer of the project may become entangled in human rights violations that plague other resource extractive industries in West Papua, such as Freeport McMoRan.
  • Failure to seek free and prior informed consent from Traditional Owners of Gag Island coupled with an unwillingness to extend the report boundary beyond the island even though those living on Gag Island are all migrants.
  • Failure to reveal its proposed method of tailings disposal or how it would prevent sediment from running off into the ocean.
  • Failure to release the results of the Environmental Impact Assessment.

Sending tankers through the fragile archipelago. This practice has already been discouraged by the Asian Development Bank, which requested BP not to route its gas tankers through the Raja Ampat archipelago in order to service the Tangguh Natural Gas Project in Bintuni Bay.

Not taking sufficient responsibility for the supply chain on Manuran Island. As a major buyer of nickel, PT Anugrah Surya Pratama, the owner operator of the mine, was within BHP Billiton’s sphere of influence. Concerns on Manuran Island include intimidation of indigenous communities resisting mining, destruction of the environment (including polluting fishing grounds and sediment run-off into the ocean), poor working conditions for employees, failure to obtain free and prior consent of the local community and failure to secure equitable agreements with those impacted by mining.

BHP Billiton’s departure has left a framework in place that endangers Raja Ampat’s World Heritage status. Specifically Gag Island, the site where BHPB had hoped to develop a nickel mine, has been excluded from the area nominated for World Heritage despite its location within the archipelago.

As commodity prices recover and the demand for nickel grows in a context of dwindling finite supply, the concerns surrounding the social and environmental impact of mining on Gag will again become contentious. Indigenous communities in Raja Ampat are asserting their customary rights over Gag Island and other parts of Raja Ampat where mining was, and is, taking place. Indigenous tribes and clans want to ensure that they can realise their own economic aspirations and be active partners in the co-management of Raja Ampat as a World Heritage Area.