Indonesia: The giant cuckoos, enormous gingers, and pretty leeches of Halmahera


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Judith Schleicher and I have just left the eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera, which was the subject of my first blog post a year ago. We were there on the second supervision mission – something which must sound pretty dull. In fact it was a real pleasure to meet with friends in the project team again, to see how well they are doing, and pretty exciting to have two days and two nights in the forests of the northern block of the Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park to see – despite the rain – some of the biodiversity and human impacts in the area. P.T. Weda Bay Nickel kindly allowed us to use their helicopter to get into the forest, landing at the junction of three abandoned logging roads within the northern (Lolobata) section of the national park.

Burung Indonesia is doing a fine job of executing this project and has already developed solid relationships with government, civil society and private entities to form a strong and informed constituency of concern for the protection of this new national park.

(After the jump: More about Halmahera Island’s wildlife – including birds, trees and leeches – and photos.)

The visit was especially useful and significant because we were with Moh. Tabur, the national park's director, and it was his first chance to get into this area. The project manager, David Purmiasa, has been involved with Halmahera for over ten years and is somewhat of a local institution. He is greatly respected and much liked. He's also a good birder and was able to tell us the names (English, Indonesian and scientific) of the birds we heard or which screamed overhead. During our one full day we were lucky enough to see quite a few of the 24 North Maluku and Halmahera endemic birds, such as Goliath Coucal (the largest cuckoo in the world), Halmahera Cuckoo-Shrike, Blue and White Kingfisher, the endangered Chattering Lory, Ivory-Breasted Pitta, White-Streaked Friarbird and Dusky Brown Oriole the last of which is a real "birders' bird" (one that is unexciting to all but the most avid expert).

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly given its name, we didn't see the Invisible Rail, and this time we missed out on seeing the island's bird of paradise, the extravagant Wallace's Standardwing, but I at least had seen these displaying excited in the light of dawn a few years ago on my first visit to Halmahera.

  Hover over "Notes" for more information about each photo.
See the complete Flickr set here.

The practice and impacts of logging on Halmahera tend to be very different from on Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo). On Halmahera the loggers are really after a single tree, the dammar or Agathis. This is the only species in the forest with has very high value, so when the large trees have been cut down, hoisted onto trucks and taken away, there is little incentive for others to come in and take out more. Also, of course, the population levels are relatively low. As a result, the logging roads tend to degrade after the logging companies have left, and the roads we walked along were eroding badly and were becoming overgrown. It would take a great deal of investment to make the roads serviceable again.

We had a great team supporting us from the national park and a local village. The simple shelters they constructed were great and we looked forward to the food (always the most important part of camping), even if it was the same each time – fresh rice, corned beef, chilled sardines, and noodle soup.

After dinner on both evenings we took our flashlights and wandered – sometimes up to our waists – along the rivers to see what we could see. We encountered quite a few species of frogs, prawns (whose eyes burned red in the light), a host of various spiders, and the most beautiful leech I have ever encountered – bright yellow and black stripes. The first one we saw was lying, bloated with blood, on a fern leaf, and the second was firmly attached to a frog. Our second evening was interrupted by pouring rain, something of a hallmark of our brief visit. We were almost permanently wet or damp and we developed that aroma characteristic of all rainforest fieldworkers. Putting on damp clothes in the chill of a new dawn is a sensation one should not miss.



S. Bellows
March 20, 2009

From the environmentalist viewpoint there is something awfully ironic in getting helicopter rides from one of the companies allowed to conduct open-pit mining in protected forests.


Gavin Lee
March 21, 2009

Thanks for the kind words on your recent blog on Halmahera. As we discussed on your visit, it is so important that Industry, NGOs, institutions such as the World Bank and local Governments work together on biodiversity issues. So much more can be achieved from a collaborative approach, as opposed to working in silos. The sharing of information and a clear understanding of each others goals and objectives is a critical first step in the development of these relationships. As the National Park has been identified as on of the Weda Bay Nickel Project's key stakeholders I look forward to working with both the Pak Tabur (Director of the National Park) and Pak David (Burung Indonesia).

Tony Whitten
March 23, 2009

Thanks for your concern. To begin, I need to provide some clarifications. First, PT Weda Bay is currently only in the feasibility stage, although the expectations on all sides are that this will indeed lead to full operations. The multi-volume EIA has just been submitted to the government and additional studies of marine life etc are in progress. There has thus been no formal decision yet to allow mining to proceed. Second, while the mine would indeed be open cast, this is because there is no alternative. Third, I agree that since we all use metals containing nickel we should give attention to the way it is produced.

The ‘Protection Forest’ to which you refer is one of the three main categories of forest land in Indonesia (the others being Production Forest and Conservation Forest). Protection Forest is so designated to protect watersheds, moderate floods, control erosion, prevent seawater intrusion, and maintain soil fertility. It is not, in most cases, of special conservation value. As pointed out by the remarkable mapping work under the major RePPProT work which reviewed the physical criteria for Protection Forest and other types of forests, the boundaries of the forest types are not always in the right place. Given this, we would doubtless agree that the most important thing was not actually map boundaries or regulatory frameworks, but the actual management of the forests on the ground.

My understanding is that if the mining goes ahead there would indeed be some loss of forest but there would also be strict controls on soil erosion and surrounding land use. The most comprehensive biodiversity surveys ever undertaken on Halmahera were commissioned by PT Weda Bay Nickel (the results of which are being shared with the national park and Burung Indonesia), and the company is setting up a series of permanent monitoring plots and collecting a broad baseline of information etc against which to monitor any future impacts and to help assess opportunities for conservation programs beyond providing support to the national park and minesite rehabilitation.

So, no, I don’t think it’s ironic to be accepting transport from an active project partner whose current intentions and activities appear to be in line with best practice.

I hope this sets your mind at rest to some degree. Please watch my blog next week when I hope to post a film I took from the helicopter of an operating nickel mine on Halmahera.

S. Bellows
March 27, 2009

Dear Sir,

With all due respect, I'd like to dispute some of your arguments.

• Protection of forests

Because commercial logging and enforced cultivation depleted Halmahera forests from the 1920s through the 1970s, Indonesia passed Law No. 5/1990, banning activities with adverse impacts in protected areas, including Great Forest Parks, National Parks, and Nature Reserves. It was followed by Law No. 41/1999, passed after pressure from the World Bank and IMF to strengthen forest management, which expressly banned open pit mining in protected areas. Since that law was introduced, mining interests pressed for its change. Following a joint workshop of the Indonesian Mining Association (IMA), World Bank, and IMF in 2001, the Ministry of Forestry accepted to discuss changes to the law. A coalition of environmentalists inside and outside Indonesia opposed any change ( or ). Despite the opposition, Law No. 41 was finally amended in 2004 by a government decree, allowing 13 companies with contracts signed prior to 1999, including PT Weda Bay Nickel, to ignore the mining ban in protected areas. In addition, a Presidential Decree also of 2004 declared these companies had met all conditions needed to apply for the required mining licenses.

You say that "the most important thing was not [...] regulatory frameworks, but the actual management of the forests on the ground." Well, what protection the forest might expect at the hands of the mining company is indicated by a 2004 comment of the development director of Antam (the Indonesian company owning part of PT Weda Bay Nickel) and Vice Chairman of the Indonesian Mining Association. He said: "most of the mineral deposits are located in the forests, so if all forests are considered protected forest, we won't have any new mining areas to work on" ( ). I suspect you shall recognise the similarity with arguments espoused by those wanting to drill for petroleum or natural gas in protected areas.

• Nickel mining

Delving deeper on nickel mining (sorry, could not resist :), the Weda Project concerns laterite deposits. The Contract of Work of PT Weda Bay Nickel, signed in 1998, covers much of the region at the origin of the angle bracket formed by the eastern peninsulas, expanding northeastward from a few kilometers east of Kulo, with an inverted Ç-shape that surrounds the Kobe river basin. Most of this contract area consists of untested laterite resources; the proposed initial mine is the Santa Monica site, about 6 km north of a proposed metallurgical plant on the bay's shore. The threat to the environment of lateritic mining reaches well beyond your "some loss of forest," as I argue below.

First, these are open pit mines that cause considerable damage to the surface mining area and its surroundings. As the depth of any open pit mine increases, typically up to 60 m in nickel laterites, the excavation walls must be kept at an obtuse angle to prevent collapse; open pit mining therefore expands in width as well as depth. Further, since this mining has a very high waste-to-metal ratio (99:1 tonnes not being rare), it ends up wasting away huge amounts of the mining zone to achieve a financial profit. Also, it demands quite large mobile mining machinery as well as a fleet of heavy haul lorries to carry ores for metallurgical processing, which, in turn, demands (new) roads capable of withstanding heavy loads, leading to further environmental erosion.

Second, laterite processing produces a considerable accumulation of waste ('tailings'), with its attendant seepage; the degree of geochemical reactivity and leachable-metal pollution of the waste depends on the type of deposit and geolocation. How to dispose of mine waste is always an environmental threat, and a major one in Indonesia, a country with a tattered environmental record in this respect, which includes allowing submarine tailings disposal (STD) into the marine environment. Leaving aside other forms of contamination in a zone surrounding a deeply incised river basin, water contaminated by nickel can affect animal health in a dose- dependent adverse effect. The amount of waste would be large, as current plans call for a hydro-metallurgical plant with capacity of 60,000 tonnes of nickel and 3,500 tonnes of cobalt per year, scheduled to enter operations in 2013.

• Mining company and expectations

You assert that "[t]he most comprehensive biodiversity surveys ever undertaken on Halmahera were commissioned by PT Weda Bay Nickel." But this is the same company whose proposed method for disposing mine tailings is the environmentally infamous STD ( ), so I see little to glow about it.

PT Weda Bay Nickel is owned 10% by Antam (PT Aneka Tambang Tbk; an Indonesian corporation 65% of which is held by the Indonesian government), while the remaining 90% is held by Strand Minerals Pte., Ltd. (Singapore). Strand was originally a wholly subsidiary of Weda Bay Minerals, Inc., (Canada), but in 2006 the latter was acquired by Eramet, S.A. (France). In 2009, Eramet sold 1/3 of Strand Minerals to Mitsubishi Corporation (Japan).

Thus, it is Eramet the company that pulls the strings of the Weda Bay mining project. The environmental record of this company, which also owns New Caledonia's Nickel-SNL, is a matter of debate. Its ferroalloy manufacturing facility in Marietta, Ohio (USA) was accused in 2006 of releasing hazardous substances, causing injuries to natural resources, including injury to river life, and unauthorized wastewater discharges into the Ohio River in violation of a Clean Water Act discharge permit.


Tony Whitten
April 03, 2009

Colleagues have asked me for more information about PT Weda Bay Nickel's involvement in the project. The title of the project is 'Partnerships for Conservation Management of the Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park' and its central objective is to develop and test a collaborative framework to manage protected areas in Indonesia using Aketajawe-Lolobata as a pilot. The approved project document approved by the GEF states "In particular, Weda Bay Minerals has already made a commitment to long-term support for the park, a commitment that is conditional on starting full mining operations (expected within the lifetime of the project) and is then expected to last for at least 25 years. This commitment, in kind (provision of office space, facilities, resources) and financial support is worth at least US$100 000 per year. Contributions from other major industries in the region will be sought, but receiving contributions from logging concession will be contingent on them improving their management practices, to avoid the Park becoming financially dependent on industries which it is in conflict with". And "The company has expressed a commitment to fulfill its environmental responsibilities including managing access and exploitation in parts of its concession of work and the project aims to facilitate agreement which ensure that this potential threat becomes a net benefit for the Park". The partnership with PT Weda Bay Nickel (the new name for the company) also extends to assistance with local travel for World Bank missions.

2. Regarding the two birds, I should mention that we had not asked for the birds to be caught and, it being 11 pm when they were brought to camp, we applied best practice by NOT releasing diurnal birds at night which would make them susceptible to night-time predators.

Tony Whitten
April 03, 2009

Thanks for these detailed comments. I need to do some checking in order to respond to this in the depth I would like, but in the meantime there are a couple of things I can add.

First, and very importantly, I understand that although Deep Sea Tailings Disposal was being looked as an option, this in no longer the case.

Second, the 'untested laterite resource' has now been tested to the point where it is known that there is a greater than 50 year mine life, and the depth of the pits will be a maximum of just 25 metres, and in most cases much less.

I hope that Weda Bay Nickel will post a more complete comment soon.