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indonesia: tackling destructive multinational corporations in court

Many multinational corporations have a legacy of polluting the environment, forcing people from their lands, and violating human rights. Friends of the Earth Indonesia / WALHI used legal means to address the social and environmental destruction of two such corporations, miner PT. Newmont Minahasa Raya and oil and gas company Lapindo Brantas Inc. The latter is infamous for causing the massive mud flow in East Java in 2006 which submerged eight villages and caused 13,000 people to be evacuated.


indonesia lapindo miningUsing national environment law and standards, FoE Indonesia aimed to ensure the corporations upheld their responsibilities, and also aimed to increase public support for environmental law enforcement in Indonesia.

what happened: For the legal case, FoE Indonesia built up a legal team of 42 law professionals including lawyers from professional legal firms and NGOs, and paralegals. They filed lawsuits against Newmont and Lapindo Brantas in a Jakarta district court in March and February of 2007.

In the Newmont case, the defendant tried unsuccessfully to have the suit dismissed. In December 2007 the court handed down a decision, arguing that since FoE Indonesia was not a formally registered NGO it can’t bring a lawsuit, and also that the lawsuit had exceeded the authority of the plaintiff (FoE Indonesia). FoE Indonesia is appealing this decision in Supreme Court. In the Lapindo Brantas case, the decision handed down by the judges in December 2007 also refused FoE Indonesia’s suit, and stated they should pay court costs. FoE Indonesia was disappointed with this decision, and registered an appeal one week later.

FoE Indonesia also supported this work with a campaign to mobilize public support, along with direct actions in the court and in the sites of the victimized people. A team was formed with energy and mining campaigners, media relations people, and those from wider civil society and environmental activist networks. Overall, at least 23 different organisations were involved, from the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation, to the Indigenous people’s alliance, to large religious organizations.

They held mass demonstrations outside the courts, state palace and other public places. They also conducted twice-monthly media conferences or press releases to update on the public on the situation and ensure the press had FoE Indonesia’s perspective. They lobbied parliament, particularly commissions on mining and environment. A seminar and public discussions were used to bring out technical, political and culture matters in the cases. They also distributed publications analysing and explaining the cases to the public, the media and through the internet. Finally they helped people in affected villages to organize through meetings, discussions and updates.

what is changing: The project raised public awareness and media coverage about harmful mining practises, and the public’s right to take legal action against corporations that wreak environmental damage. The public showed support for the court cases, which brought environmental destruction issues into the fore through intensive news media coverage.

The cases also raised FoE Indonesia’s profile amongst legal institutions in the country, which welcomed the fact that they acted on their right to take up such a case; very few environmental organisation in Indonesia can do so due to the complex legal system. The cases also taught FoE Indonesia important legal lessons with regard to corporate legislation and the precautionary principle. Furthermore, the cases became a medium to teach those in the country’s legal system that corporations should be held liable for environmental damage, just as they are for damage in any general legal case.

what we learned: Both cases provided important lessons for FoE Indonesia on taking legal action against multinational corporations. They also raised the profile of environmental issues in the public and amongst those in government and legislature. However, the results indicate that the environment is still not a priority for the Indonesian government. 

FoE Indonesia encountered several obstacles, such as the government denying Newmont has harmed people or the environment; this despite Newmont having provided US$50 million in damages to the government in compensation for this damage. A similar dynamic exists for Lapindo Brantas; it has also paid the government compensation, yet the government claims the devastating mud flow is a “natural” disaster.

At the grassroots level, FoE Indonesia found communities divided, between those supporting the companies (usually those who profit from them); and those who are committed in the struggle over their rights, who supported FoE Indonesia.

what next: An important step will be the appeal process in Supreme Court. FoE Indonesia also plans to document health damage caused by corporations, such as arsenic pollution in the drinking water of people at Buyat Bay, where Newmont mines gold, and the high mortality amongst children and women victims. They plan to attend shareholder meetings of both companies. Finally, they intend to campaign on state responsibility, especially with regard to economic and socio-cultural rights.

with thanks to our funders: the dutch ministry of foreign affairs and the sigrid rausing trust

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