By: Our Correspondent

mudflowsourceFor nearly 18 months, a
pillar of thick white smoke has been escaping from the bowels of the
earth 20 kilometers south of Indonesia's second-largest city,
Surabaya, signaling the location of what may be one of the world’s
worst environmental disasters.

Jakarta seems helpless
to combat the six square kilometers of goo surrounding the rooftops
of factories looming out of the mud. The odor of sulphurous rot makes
it almost impossible to approach the area. The mud contains massive
amounts of chlorides that are killing all plant life

The boiling, bubbling
cauldron gushes about 150,000 cubic meters of stinking mud a day, as
it has since a botched gas exploration by the politically
well-connected Lapindo Brantas Inc. went drastically wrong on May 29,
2006. Despite the torrents of toxic mud that have buried 12
villages, 20 factories, roads and rice fields, nobody has been held
criminally liable and the company’s most prominent figure
remains in the cabinet of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Estimates of the number of people displaced range from 11,000 to
50,000. The disaster zone is part of suburban Surabaya, in an area
zoned for living and farming – not mining.

lapindo_mud_flowThe environmental group
Greenomics has estimated the total cost of the disaster as high as
US$3.6 billion, taking into account the extensive damage to
infrastructure, including toll roads, power transmission systems, gas
pipelines and main artery roads. Rice fields and fish and shrimp
ponds also have been destroyed in what was the second biggest shrimp
producing area in Indonesia. Government officials have repeatedly
tried to build dykes against the torrent, only to have them overrun.

So far, all efforts to
stop the flow have failed. Some geologists are even warning that it
may never be properly stemmed and that any attempt to plug it could
trigger even more problems. Other schools of thought range from an
“it could stop at any time” theory to claims that it
could continue unstopped for possibly years, or even centuries.

The blame game

Police investigators
say Lapindo, as the company is known, did not install mandatory
safety casings in the lower depths of the well, which would have
prevented the mud from escaping. Lapindo is a subsidiary of Energi
Mega Persada, owned by the family of Coordinating Minister for
Welfare Aburizal Bakrie. EMP hurriedly tried to offload the two Hong
Kong-listed companies that own Lapindo to a Jersey Islands shelf
company two months after the disaster for US$2 in an attempt to
escape financial responsibility. Indonesian authorities blocked the
sale, only to have EMP try to sell Lapindo to a British Virgin
Islands company whose American owner finally acknowledged he was a
longtime friend of Bakrie’s. That sale was annulled as well.

Bakrie says it’s
none of his business. He resigned from positions of authority within
the family conglomerate, he says, when he was appointed Coordinating
Minister for the Economy in October 2004.

Last September Forbes
Asia said that the Bakrie and his family occupy sixth place on its
list of the richest people in Indonesia, with a net wealth of US$1.2
billion. In January this year he stunned a Jakarta Foreign
Correspondents' Club lunch meeting by saying the disaster could not
have been prevented. Citing "international and national
experts," he blamed it on an earthquake in Yogyakarta, 300 km
away, which killed some 6,000 people and happened two days before the
Lapindo accident, a connection that geologists find unlikely.

Political dimensions

As public outrage grows
over Lapindo’s attitude and the government’s of the
disaster, pressure is continuing to be directed mainly at Yudhoyono
in the run-up to general elections in 2009. Although the president
has ordered Lapindo to pay US$435 million in compensation to victims
and to try and halt the mudflow, critics have accuse Yudhoyono of
indecision and favoritism over the issue. Bakrie's presence in the
cabinet is also a grim reminder of Indonesia’s many conflicts
of interest between business and public office.

This is
also regarded by local critics as proof that Yudhoyono is
still firmly in the grip of Golkar, the party of former dictator
Suharto, which is now headed by Vice President Muhammad Yusuf
Kalla. Ditching Bakrie could lead to a serious political
crisis. It also highlights the apparent double standard inherent in
Jakarta's determination to press charges of environmental damage
against foreign enterprises, while protecting well-connected local
companies.

For instance,
Indonesia's environmental laws were used against Newmont Minahasa
Raya, a local subsidiary of US-based Newmont Mining Corporation, the
world's largest gold producer. The subsidiary’s boss, Richard
Ness, stood trial in Manado, North Sulawesi on charges that the
company knowingly polluted the local environment. He was found not
guilty after one of the longest criminal trials in Indonesian
history, lasting 21 months. Ness is now suing the New York Times Co.
for a series of stories that he alleges falsely implicated him in a
disaster that never happened.

Although a motion
signed by more than 200 legislators questioning the government’s
handling of the mud flow is on hold, the debate leading up to the
motion suggests a groundswell of cross-party consensus demanding
action from the government over the plight of the victims. Several
legislators want the government to force Lapindo to cover all the
costs of the disaster. The chances of quick approval from the House
of Representatives for funds to pay for this rebuilding appear to be
remote.

banjarpanjiLapindo, meanwhile,
insists the disaster was natural and that compensation costs are too
high. So far it has paid only partial compensation. Although it
promised to pay more to victims in four villages this month, payments
will only be made on presentation of residents' land ownership
certificates – most victims lost such documents along with all
their other possessions when their homes were swallowed up by the
mud.

Lapindo “brokers"
are just one of the ugly spin-offs from the tragedy. Some of the
victims, unsurprisingly, have been seeking to profit from the sale of
their land by working as brokers to fix their neighbors' land prices,
says Friends of the Earth. So they lobby victims to go along with the
latest deals offered by the government and Lapindo, even if they are
unfavorable to locals.