Narrating the Story of Mining in Renah Sekalawi: Key Takeaway from the Discussion of the Future of Mining Sector in Lebong District

By: Erwin Basrin*


People of Rejang living in Lebong District, Province of Bengkulu, have a long history in managing the extractive industry, particularly mining industry. The history of mining is attached to mythology, tenure history, identity, even in the culture of Rejang people in Lebong. Pinang Belapis, Renah Sekalawi, and Kutai Belek Tebo are the sequence of names given to an integrated area of Puak (tribe) Lebong. The history of gold adheres closely in the identity of said tribe.

It is told that Ajai (a title for a leader of patrilineal clan) is chosen based on the property ownership, including the possession of gold. Thus, the rich one ranks first, followed by a the sensible one, then the knowledgeable one.

Then, the leader’s property will be granted for the interest of his people. The more possession, the more people can be helped. That’s how the logic of communalism democracy is constructed. Gold as a medium of exchange at that time is an indicator of people’s welfare, not the leader’s welfare.

“Gold has a strong influence in our history,” said Mr. Alinudin, one of indigenous people of Tribe IX that attended in last (20/2) discussion. The term of “gold” Kutai, for instance, is today still used as a term for medium of exchange to pay the obligations of the community in the procession of marriage other than dowry.

“86% of community in my village work as a miner,” said the Head of Village of Lebong Tambang. The identity of mining is again attached to the name of village which neighbors with Village of Tambang Sawah, Lebong Donok, and can be ascertained that the majority work as a miner. However, the stereotype of illegal miners still attached to them if we use the legal framework imposed by the state. Whereas, they mine far before the establishment of the state and the discovery of an exploitative modern mining technology.

The possession of plenty of gold and mineral deposit in Lebong District was utilized as the main support of the survival and communal-culture system of Rejang people in Lebong. When gold became a massive economic transaction tool, mining activity was possessed by the greed which beat the common sense.

The gold reserve became a hunt for many parties. That’s what happened in Lebong, thus, the plenty of gold resources have never become a blessing, but a curse. Economically, it plunges society into poverty (resource curse hypothesis).

Netherland for instance, as an example of so-called case, where its wealth traps the country in a stagnant situation, this phenomenon is known as a dutch disease. The economic changes, from communalism to capitalism makes Lebong being infected by dutch disease.

Gold hunting in Lebong happened long before the arrival of the Dutch. The gold hunting has been a common practice conducted by the King of Paga Ruyung, Sultan Daulat Mahkota Alamsyah to look for a new gold-rich areas. It might be the reason behind the reign of King Mawang, which is a Minang, in Lebong.

Likewise, the arrival of Bikau (leader or founder of a clan in Lebong) who did conquest through marriage system, can be driven by gold hunting. The word of ‘Lebong’ which means ‘gathering’ is the creation of Bikau when they cut the wood of Benuang Sakti. After that, the name of Renah Sekalawi is getting dimmer, while the name of Lebong is getting shine like a reflection of gold dentures. Lebong is then being connoted as a mining area.

Massive gold hunting began in the Dutch colonial. The conquest began politically through an agreement between the Rejang tribe and the Dutch Colonial in Topos in 1866. One of the point of the agreement is that the Dutch Colonial is not allowed to interfere the customs practices,  though in the future their intervention is getting stronger by giving a title of prince to a cooperative head of tribe.

The weakness of Rejang people in 1866 agreement is their ignorance of natural resources in their area. This condition was used by the Dutch colonial. Slowly, the Dutch colonial used the Mijn Reglement 1850 as the legal basis to take over, rule, and utilize minerals for Dutch Colonial’s interest. According to Helfrich’s note, the year of 1870 was the hardest time and the peak of the setbacks of the rule of local elite, especially in Rejang area which has mineral deposit, because in that time the regent position was deleted.

29 years later, the Dutch Colonial revised the Mijn Reglement 1850 regulation with the Mijnwet 1899, a mining law composed by Staten Generaal and the central government in Netherland. In this new regulation, the position of Dutch is very central in managing the mining in its colony. Anyone who wants to mine, they must have a permit from the government.

The control of mining resources and massive exploitation brought Lebong into a primary gold and silver exporter in the Netherland Indies in 1936, worth of ƒ 3.538.000, 94.5% of total export of ƒ 3.715.000.

Redjang-Lebong Mining Company is a leading and oldest company established in 1897 with the name of Redjang-Lebong Gold Exploration Company. Said colonial mining company was called maatschappij by the local. In 1898, it became Redjang-Lebong Mining Company with the concession of 4.079 bau for 75 years with excise tax rate of 10% from net profit and the rent cost of 0.25/bau, but in 1936 Redjang-Lebong Mining Company was closed for temporary, then operated again after obtaining 23 concession permits from the government owned mining company.

After Indonesia declared its independency in 1945, the gold mining concession and the Dutch buildings were taken by Lebong people. In 1988, PT Lusang Mining commenced the mining operation both in Lebong Tandai and Lebong Simpang.

Like the swift and fresh flow of Ketahun River, the gold deposits are inexhaustible and invite the modern gold hunting. For instance, in 2007 PT Sugirco Graha through its subsidiary PT Tansri Madjid Energi drilled to get 200 samples in 6 spots with the depth of 2.000-2.400 meter. This drilling process is still in the exploration stage to identify the content of gold and other minerals.

There are 3 locations that were drilled, including Lebong Tambang, Tambang Sawah, and Belimau. The overlapping of operational area between 2 mining investors, PT Nusa Palapa Mineral (NPM) and PT Tansri Madjid Energy (TME) also muddied the gold hunting areas in Lebong. PT Lion Power Energy (LPE), PT Mineral Gading Kencana (MGK), PT Seribu Pulau Indo Mining (SPIM) and PT Jambi Resources also involved in gold and mineral hunting activities in Lebong.

The issue of environment, source of conventional energy from coal and gas are proven economical, but at the same time brought detrimental effect to environment and health. This awareness shifts the focus of gold hunting and started to look for other renewable energy resources.

Once again, Lebong which is located on the backs of two tectonic plates i.g Indo-Australia and Eurasia plates provides a plenty of geothermal resources. The arrival of PT Pertamina Geothermal Energy (PGE) which is spread in several sub-districts, such as PT PGE Proyek Hulu Lais, PT PGE Bukit Daun in Rimbo Pengadang Sub-district, and PT PGE in Tambang Sawah, considered as the biggest energy supplier in Bengkulu.

Lebong has plenty of renewable and non-renewable resources, but is also prone to the disaster. Its forest ecosystem whose underneath has natural resources that can be extracted, provides material that can be used directly by the living creatures, and also has an important role in ensuring the sustainability of the natures function, such as the water system, air filter, climate stability, and soil binder. Lebong is the complete example of the unity system and ecosystem function for centuries as the source of life and livelihood and at the same time play an important role in ensuring the function of the nature.

Discussion on the future and the refection of long journey of mining in Lebong, which was conducted by Akar Bengkulu, PWYP Indonesia, and Lebong District Government, makes the writer sniffed the institutional failure, where there is no clarity about property rights of natural resources and environment. Local community that hereditary practicing mining activity in their area for long time, but still considered as illegal miners.

Lebong Tambang cases for instance, the indigenous people becomes the stowaway which needs to be curbed because the land has coopted by the mining permit of PT TME. The government and policy failure are sniffed by the writer. The government policy cause distortion and give a wrong signal to the mining investors toward the real value of natural resources and environment.

Lebong District Government starts to gain consciousness, the transparency initiative and public participation in managing the natural resources and development is open.

“E-planning, e-budgeting and e-basen, and Corporate Socio-Environment Responsibility are a breakthrough initiative that we are starting to develop seriously,” said Mr. Dalmuji, the Assistant II of Lebong Government in the discussion which held in Bina Graha Room.

People of Lebong have learn a lot about the mining exploitation activity in their area. They begin knowing lack of good governance & transparency phenomenon. Good governance has become a magic mantra which echoed in the modern development theory. The word of governance refers to ‘govern’ which mentioned as a secret formula that determines the progress or decline of a country. We hope that the initiative which started to be practiced in Lebong District can determine the direction of common progress, as which has been practiced in the communal government of Puak Rejang’s ancestors in Lebong, and imprinted in the motto of Lebong District “Swarang Patam Semutang” (abstinence divorce and leave, together in happiness and difficult time).


*Erwin Basrin is Executive Director of Akar Foundation. Akar Foundation is a non-governmental organization based in Bengkulu, which works on the issue of agrarian policy and local economy. Akar also has an extensive experience in the empowerment of indigenous people.

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