Mistra walked casually to the house of one of his relatives in Mekarsari Village, Patrol District, Indramayu Regency. He sat on the floor of the terrace, took a deep breath, and drank a cup of coffee.

He had nothing to do that day – a far cry from his situation when he was fishing. Mistra is lucky when someone invites him to cultivate rice fields or carry sacks of plantation products. 

His income as an odd-job farm laborer has never been steady. As a porter, Mistra earns IDR 50,000 per sack. Meanwhile, he only earns IDR 70,000 or a half-day worth of harvesting rice, onions and chilies.

Mistra was forced to look for another source of income because shrimp fishing had become more difficult. Mekarsari Village used to be one of the shrimp paste-producing areas in Pantura.

From November to April, fishermen would go to the sea to catch tens to hundreds of kilos of shrimp. The catch would then be sun dried to be processed into paste. 

“In the past, one catch could get 50 kilograms of shrimp, now it’s difficult to catch even five  kilograms,” explained Mistra.

Mekarsari fishers also earned money from selling milkfish and shrimp seeds. 

“But after the steam power plant started operating, milkfish seeds and others disappeared immediately,” said Mistra.

Mistra was referring to the Indramayu Unit 1 Steam Power Plant, which has been operating since November 2011.

The power plant is owned by the State Electricity Company (PT PLN). It stands on 83-hectare land in Sumur Adem Village, Sukra District. Within its vicinity are agricultural lands and residential areas. 

Mistra blames the poor waste management of the power plant for the scarcity of essential seafood. The plant has been allegedly disposing of its waste into the sea. 

As a result, more fishermen like Mistra shifted to doing farm labor 

Farm labor activities with the background of the chimney of the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, in the Mekarsari Village area, Indramayu Regency. The existence of the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, which was built since 2010, has worsened the agricultural products of residents, such as rice and several types of vegetables planted by residents. Not only that, the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant also caused rebon fishermen to lose their sea products. Pollution from the plant’s chimney has also increased the number of health complaints. (Bukbisj Candra Ismeth Bey)

Worsening agricultural problems

During the first year of the power plant’s operations, Rodi did not find anything out of the ordinary. But eventually, residents noticed that coconut trees were becoming bare as fronds fell off. 

When more coconut trees got affected, the matter became a cause for concern.

Over the next two years, coconut trees in the Patrol area died. Rice and other agricultural products were also not spared, aggravating concerns on yields. 

The sea and rice fields in Mekarsari Village used to make residents self-sufficient. 

“Sometimes when the rice stock is sold, some are consumed by ourselves. The point is, we used to be able to get more,” Rodi said. But now, there is barely any rice left to store.

Soil, water, and air conditions affect the quality of rice. Residents suspect that both air and soil in Mekarsari Village are polluted. However, there are no official studies yet to validate their claim. 

The issues faced by Mekarsari villagers do not stop there. The irrigation system also has problems. They repeatedly reported this to the local government, but they have yet to get a response. .

With their income continuing to decline, many farm laborers in Mekarsari Village have taken up other jobs. Some even sent their family members to become migrant workers in Japan, Korea, China, or Middle Eastern countries.

Potraits of Farm labor with the background of the chimney of the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, in the Mekarsari Village area, Indramayu Regency. The existence of the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, which was built since 2010, has worsened the agricultural products of residents, such as rice and several types of vegetables planted by residents. Not only that, the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant also caused rebon fishermen to lose their sea products. Pollution from the plant’s chimney has also increased the number of health complaints. (Bukbisj Candra Ismeth Bey)

Solution or new problem?

As the effects of climate change become more evident, companies have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint.

Since 2020, PT Pembangkitan Jawa Bali (PJB), the developer of steam power plants, has been testing a biomass co-firing scheme in the three coal-fired power plants it manages: Steam Power Plant Paiton, Steam Power Plant Indramayu, and Steam Power Plant Ketapang.

Biomass co-firing is a method of mixing coal with biomass derived from various feedstocks, such as wood pellets, waste pellets, sawdust, palm kernel shells, sawdust, and rice husks. Because it aims to reduce dependence on coal through the use of biomass, the scheme is seen as an important step toward the shift to cleaner power sources. 

The Indonesian government aims to ramp up the utilization of new renewable energy to 23% by 2025. 

A total of 28 PLTUs have implemented the co-firing technology, including PLTU Suralaya and PLTU Paiton, which are the electricity backbones of Java and Bali.

However, environmental advocates have argued that this scheme is not the most appropriate move in the transition to renewable energy as co-firing still emits greenhouse gases.

Meiki Paendong, director of the West Java chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said that co-firing could also lead to deforestation.

“What we are concerned about is the deforestation of forests that will later be used for co-firing fuel,” she said.

To secure the supply of biomass co-firing material for the Steam Power Plant (PLTU), Pelabuhan Ratu and Steam Power Plant (PLTU) Rembang, PT PLN has collaborated with Perhutani. The plan is to get biomass supply from the processing of calliandra and gamal plants starting this month.

Until 2025, PLN needs around 10.2 million tons of biomass to replace 10% of coal needs in PLTU. And every year, PT Perhutani will supply 11,500 tons of biomass for PLTU Pelabuhan Ratu and 14,300 tons per year of biomass for PLTU Rembang.

Meiki stressed that if the government is serious about replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, it should rely on sources that will not further harm the environment. Considering Indonesia’s geographic location, the country has the potential to produce clean power  sourced from solar, wind, waves, and water energies.

“The problem is, until now no one has done specific research on the potential of renewable energy in each region in Indonesia,” he said.

A number of residents who protested in the field near the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, Indramayu Regency. This action is a form of resistance from residents whose independence has been taken away by the presence of the Indramayu I PLTU. (Bukbisj Candra Ismeth Bey)

Coal still needed in the next 20 years

Despite moves to tap cleaner power sources, coal is said to still be used in the next 10 to 20 years. Apart from its availability, it remains a popular choice as proven by its high sales. 

Hendra Sinadia, executive director of the Indonesian Coal Mining Association, told BBC in June that coal demand is still high because several countries including China and India are still using coal-fired power plants. 

Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) showed the amount of Indonesian coal exports in 2021 reached 345.4 billion kilograms with a value of around IDR 381 trillion. In June, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources set the reference coal price (HBA) at IDR 4.8 million.

Mulyanto, member of Commission VII of People’s Representative Council of Indonesia (DPR RI), also told BBC that the use of coal must still be optimized for the sake of national interests and people’s welfare through low electricity prices.

However, as a result of the G20 meeting, the Indonesian government has committed to accelerating the shift to clean energy through the Just Energy Transition Partnership and the launch of the Energy Transition Mechanism Country Platform.

Indonesia is aiming to achieve net zero emissions by 2060 or sooner. 

Farm labor activities with the background of the chimney of the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, in the Mekarsari Village area, Indramayu Regency. The existence of the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant, which was built since 2010, has worsened the agricultural products of residents, such as rice and several types of vegetables planted by residents. Not only that, the Indramayu I Steam Power Plant also caused rebon fishermen to lose their sea products. Pollution from the plant’s chimney has also increased the number of health complaints. (Bukbisj Candra Ismeth Bey)

Resistance continues

In 2015, Mekarsari residents formed a citizen movement called Jatayu that strongly rejects the power plant . 

The movement became more massive when the government planned to build PLTU II, which was only a few kilometers away from PLTU I. This expansion scheme seeks to pursue the 35,000 watt target, which is needed to meet the electricity needs of Java and Bali.

Jatayu members held several demonstrations to express their opposition to the plant. Initially, Setneg conveyed that the PLTU II was built for the benefit of the state.

“Residents say that the interests of the state are not only PLTU, but citizens who need to be protected from environmental pollution,” said Rodi. 

Rodi, who is also the chairperson of Jatayu, said that he and the residents would continue to resist until the PLTU is no longer operating.

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