Dirty Cement: The Case of Indonesia

(Click here for translated version of the article in Bahasa Indonesia "Semen Kotor: Kasus di Indonesia")

Since 2001, the worldwide production of cement has increased threefold, due primarily to the massive construction activity in China, where half of the cement produced globally (2.36 of 4.6 billion tons) is consumed.

Cement is a bonding agent used to produce concrete.[i] Chemically speaking, it is a compound of silicon dioxide (quartz) and calcium oxide (sintered chalk) mixed with aluminum, iron and sulphates. The basic ingredients of cement are chalk and clay, resp. marl that are sintered with sand and iron ore at 1,450 °C and then milled into cement with other materials such as sand, ash or gypsum.

Cement is stable and durable. Already 4,000 years ago, a precursor to modern cement was used to build the pyramids. The Romans produced enduring masonry with sintered chalk and stones. In the 18th century, the important role of clay for the cement mixture was discovered. Cement as we know it today has been produced since the mid-19th century.

Cement works are polluters with every step in the production process creating a substantial environmental burden: mountains are levelled to extract the chalk from quarries; ecosystems and water cycles are destroyed; dust and toxic gases escape into the environment during manufacture. In Germany high environmental standards apply and yet despite ingenious filter technology, the output of dust as well as nitric and sulphuric oxides is still very high.[ii]

Moreover, enormous quantities of energy are consumed in the sintering process. Consequently, the energy costs for cement manufacture total some 50 percent of the gross value added[iii] – despite the fact that producers in the Western industrialized countries meanwhile prefer to burn industrial waste rather than fossil fuels.

During the manufacture of one ton of cement, 600 kg of CO2 are released: 400 kg from the chalk and 200 kg through the sintering process. Over 4 billion tons of cement are produced worldwide, generating a total of some 3 billion tons of greenhouse gases – four times as much as the international air traffic and between 6 and 9 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Since cement production in Western Europe has stagnated, cement corporations such as LafargeHolcim (France, Switzerland), HeidelbergCement (Germany) and Italcementi (Italy) have increasingly transferred their production to the newly industrialized countries in Asia and Latin America where they compete with companies such as Anhui Conch Cement and CNBM (China), Taiwan Cement and Cemex (Mexico). In addition, the USA remains an important production location.

Dirty cement

Indonesia is an important producer.[iv] With an annual output of 74 million tons, the country ranks fifth among the cement producing nations, after China (2,482 million tons), India (286 million tons), USA (80 million tons) and Iran (78 million tons). President Joko Widodo has a vision: Indonesia is to become a “global maritime axis” with 24 large seaports and 1,500 smaller harbor projects. In particular, the “backward” eastern part of the island republic is to be “developed” with the help of ambitious infrastructure projects. Like his predecessors, Widodo bets on growth. The planned 7 percent growth is to be reached largely by domestic consumption and investment.

The terms “investment” and “economic growth” ultimately mean “cement”. Without cement, infrastructure measures are inconceivable: the annual consumption is an index for the country’s construction activity.

Today the Indonesian market is dominated by three producers: the state-owned Semen Indonesia with more than 45 percent market share (as of 2013), followed by Indocement, of which the German HeidelbergCement[v] holds a 51 percent majority stake (31 percent market share) and Holcim Indonesia (14 percent market share). Indonesian cement production has increased by 50 percent since 2009, as has the per capita consumption (from 166 to 250 kg). While this is still a very low rate compared to the neighbouring states and China, the industry expects a further increase in production by more than 30 percent by 2019.[vi]

Investment projects are already in the works. Semen Gresik, subsidiary of the state-owned Semen Indonesia, is building a new plant with capacity, so-called kiln output, of 3 million tons, with two more planned. Altogether the group intends to increase its annual production from 32 million tons (2015) to 40 million tons by 2018. HeidelbergCement wants to turn its Indocement subsidiary into a world market leader and plans a new facility in Pati district which is supposed to produce for Indonesia’s domestic market and for export.

Cement is not a building material that is easy and cheap to obtain. To make cement mountains have to be levelled, villages displaced and their inhabitants employed and pacified. Not a particular problem in Indonesia where environmental laws, such as those protecting biodiversity, mostly exist only on paper. The ultimate decision as to the use of the landscape is made by corporations and local potentates.

In the north of Java, about half way between the volcanoes Muria and Lawu, more than 3000 meters high, lie the Kendeng Mountains. The karsted limestone formation extends through the districts of Blora, Rembang, Grobogan, Pati and Kudus (Central Java) as well as Tuban (East Java). The mountain range, with peaks of just about 1000 meters, protects the island’s interior like a fortress.

A field with Kendeng Mountains on the background

The mountains rise above green teak trees and the yellow shine of harvest-ripe rice fields. Subterranean rivers run through countless caves to emerge on the surface and feed springs. The water from the karst region is a blessing not only for the locals but also for the greater region and all of Java. The island is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with 141 million people on just 130,000 km2, four times the population density of Germany.

Today the Kendeng karst is acutely endangered. Its limestone and gypsum are the basic ingredients for the building materials necessary for all large infrastructure projects, such as seaports, airports, skyscrapers, motorways and factories.

Karst is a geological formation comprising water-soluble stone – mostly limestone but also gypsum and rock salt – eroded by rain and CO2 to form caves and bizarrely shaped landscapes with sink holes, towers or cones.

Karsts are not just dead stones. They are active, like a lung with many pulmonary alveoli; they absorb rainwater and carbon dioxide, they store some of it and discharge some of it, which again leads to more karst formation.

Cave researcher Petrasa Wacana from the Acintyacunyata Speleological Club in Yogyakarta, explains that “The karst regions absorb some 0.41 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually from the atmosphere and discharge 0.3 billion tons by way of the karsting process. They store some 0.11 billion tons annually, hence their importance for the global carbon circulation.”

The cement factories devour fertile loam soil

The rocks continuously change their chemical composition. Caves are formed which regulate water circulation, supply springs and feed rivers.[vii] Scientists warn against any interference in the karsts as it jeopardizes the water supply and might cause floods and droughts.

According to Karyadi Baskoro, ornithologist of the University of Diponegoro, the Kendeng karst, which is an important bird migration area, should be strictly protected. Moreover, destruction of the karst landscape would surely end the smallholder agriculture, as can already be seen in some places within the Kendeng range.

However it is precisely here where four large cement works are being planned. The project of the HeidelbergCement subsidiary Indocement alone would devour 2,025 hectares of karst. Additionally several hundred hectares of fertile loam soil will be lost to clay extraction at the foot of the mountains.

“Twenty percent of Java’s karsts are already destroyed”, says Eko Haryono of the Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta and chair of the Asiatic Union for Cave Research. Mining licenses for karsts are easy to obtain even for protected areas. The cement lobby simply has more influence, Haryono reports, than the environmental laws in force.

In Citeureup (West Java) Indocement operates one of the world’s largest cement works, along with two smaller plants in Cirebon (West Java) and in Tarjun (South Kalimantan). The company plans to erect another plant in central Java through a subsidiary with the poetic name Sahabat Mulia Sakti (which means noble, holy friend, abbreviated PT SMS).

The plans for the PT SMS project were already submitted in 2010. While the planning staff expected the permit to be granted within six months, it has not yet materialized. Nevertheless the project has already fundamentally changed the lives of the people of central Java. Business and government representatives talk about wealth and jobs, peasants fear relocation and irreparable destruction of nature.

The conflict about industrial sites and the promises of fast money rip families apart and sow strife in the villages. Critics consider the measures the company praises as corporate social responsibility (CSR) to be mere attempts to bribe people so that they will surrender their land to the cement manufacturer.

Peasants have inhabited the fertile region at the foot of the mountains for generations. One of the local rural communities is Samin or Sedulur Sikep, “the friendly ones” as they call themselves. This community living close to nature is traditionally skeptical toward any authority. The so-called “Green Revolution”, agricultural “progress” forced brutally upon Indonesian peasants back in the days of the Suharto dictatorship (1966-1998), never reached the Samin.

To this day the “friendly ones” dispense with chemical fertilizers for planting rice and vegetables. They preserve the knowledge about plants’ medicinal properties. They buy mainly at traditional markets and avoid the new supermarkets that spring up everywhere like mushrooms. They do not send their children to state schools. They have refused to pay State levies since the colonial days. They do not belong to any of the six officially recognized religions. That again means that they have problems obtaining the state identification documents, to which they themselves attach no value.

At the end of the 19th century, the founder of this community, Samin Surosentiko, gathered several thousand followers around him. His non-violent resistance in the struggle against colonial oppression and for social justice earned him great support among the poor. He became dangerous for the Netherlands colonizers. In 1907, they banned him to the island of Sumatra from whence he never returned.[viii] His memory survives in stories or in an old song that says: “Accuse no one, steal not, hate not”.

Gunarti, mother of three in Pati district, is one of the “friendly ones”. She plants her fields and teaches the children of several Samin families. “Peasants are the Earth’s protectors”, she says. “We do everything to maintain this tradition”. When she prays, she says, she speaks to the Earth, “In it all forces are joined.”[ix]

The Samins love their land. And they defend it, non-violently. They do not wage a solitary battle against the rest of the world, but are part of a wider alliance that arose in 2005 when the state-owned Semen Gresik (toSemen Indonesia) announced the construction of a cement factory in the Kendeng Mountains.

When the local authorities and the Semen representatives refused to disclose further information, the peasants formed a grassroots organization, the “Network of the people who care about the Kendeng Mountains” (in Bahasa Indonesia, Jaringan Masyarakat Peduli Pegunungan Kendeng, abbreviated JMPPK). They contacted scientists and began to compile detailed information about the springs and subterranean rivers in the Kendeng karst upon which millions of people depend. They spread the data and presented them self-confidently during the hearings for the environmental impact assessment of the planned cement works.

Kendeng Community Against Cement Mining and Plants Construction

Although the police and paid thugs repeatedly intimidated members of the organization, resistance grew steadily. In the end JMPPK carried the battle to the judicial level – and won because the official regional development plan, valid at the time the factory was approved, specifically focused on agriculture and tourism. The victory of the JMPPK was a first in the Indonesian history of social movements: the citizens prevailed over a large corporation that had the full support of the government.

However the authorities learned their lesson from this defeat. In 2010, the status of the attractive Kendeng mountain region was revised by law to allow the provincial government to approve mining activities. According to Mokh Sobirin of the Indonesian environmental protection organization Desantara this move violates national laws which designate the karst regions as protected geological zones.

Nevertheless, Semen Gresik, meanwhile Semen Indonesia, maintained its plans to mine limestone in the Kendeng karst. In 2012, the company was given the green light by the provincial government in central Java to build a plant in Rembang – also at the foot of the Kendeng Mountains. In 2014, the cornerstone was laid. Operations are to begin in 2017. JMPPK stages protests against the factory. Aerial photographs of the building site by the filmmaker Dandhy Dwi Laksono for the documentary “Samin vs. Semen” shows a huge grey hole in the midst of a green landscape.[x]

Since the beginning of the construction works, women have been camping in front of the gates to the site. The film documents their peaceful resistance and the repression to which they and their supporters are subjected. Although a suit by JMPPK has proceeded through the courts and is now pending before the Supreme Court, construction continues in Rembang, protected by local police.

The plans of HeidelbergCement with its PT SMS subsidiary were also approved by the provincial government. In Pati district however many inhabitants feel bypassed. The JMPPK network filed suit against the obligatory environmental impact assessment: The local population was insufficiently involved; the company’s report contains false statements about the ecology of the Kendeng karst. In November 2015, the network won the case but PT SMS appealed and prevailed in July 2016.

“HeidelbergCement is firmly convinced that the Pati project’s environmental impact is acceptable and that the local population will profit from construction of the plant,” says a statement from the corporate headquarters. When pressed for details, the company remains vague. According to HeidelbergCement the life cycles for cement works are “as a rule between 20 and 30 years”, however they can also be “much longer”. “After the extraction from a certain area,” renaturation is performed “step by step” and “in accordance with the local government specifications for future use”, the company claims.

The factory’s water needs, the corporate headquarters said, will be satisfied by surface water “stored in reservoirs especially constructed for this purpose”. Thus residents’ water supply will not be “impaired”. The question from whence this surface water is to come, whether from rivers, lakes or rainwater, remains unanswered by the company.

The approval process moreover met with criticism by scientists. The cave researcher Petrasa Wacana points out that the environmental impact assessment ignored the special protection classification of the Kendeng karst as a reservoir for rainwater. This water reservoir would disappear with the karst, as studies of the existing HeidelbergCement plant in Citeureup already prove. Thus more frequent flooding is to be expected, according to Wacana. Moreover the nitrate level in the ground water rose by more than 13 fold between 1999 and 2009, a result of acid rain caused by coal burning.

Building is possible without cement: The JMPPK citizens’ organizations built a large wooden house in traditional Javanese style in the Pati district. It serves as a place for information exchange and for children’s activities, for instance, to play traditional Javanese instruments. Their struggle against the cement works has brought the peasants of Kendeng much attention and solidarity: Scientists, activists and artists protested in creative ways, such as with silent marches to the court hearings and mass meetings in the villages as well as the capital.[xi]

On 12 April 2016, women from the Kendeng Mountains donned their traditional costumes with colourful blouses and sarongs with traditional Javanese patterns and the woven hats typically worn by the farmers and marched before the presidential palace in Jakarta singing the songs in praise of nature that they normally sing while working in the fields.

Indonesia's President Jokowi

President Widodo makes promises

Their feet did not touch the soil of central Java but were in buckets full of cement. When the government’s representatives said that this was dangerous, they answered ,“This risk is far smaller than the threat that the construction of cement factories would mean for our children and grandchildren”.

“Mother Earth loves us and treats us well”, said Murtini, one of the protesting women. “What we plant, she lets grow; the soils are fertile.” The government must give highest priority to agriculture, she demanded. “How can it be that our beautiful, fertile land can be destroyed in this way? One cannot trade land for money. It is our heritage for our children and grandchildren.”

The women held out for a day and a night, filmed, photographed and interviewed by numerous media.[xii] After a presidential adviser consented to let them meet with the chief of state to present their case personally, they ended the action. One month later the women marched to Jakarta again – this time to the German embassy where they demanded “German investment must not be for profit only but it must also respect people and nature.”

On 21 June 2016, women from Kendeng and other activists celebrated President Widodo’s 55th birthday. As present they set up a banquet of rice and vegetables from their fields in front of the president’s offices to persuade him to hear their concerns. But unfortunately the birthday boy was out of office at the time. So in late July the “Mothers of Kendeng” came back to build a protest tent in front of the presidential palace. When the police forbade installation of tent poles, they simply held the tent cloths with their hands above their heads.

Finally, on 2 August 2016, Widodo received them. He promised the women that a comprehensive environmental impact assessment would be conducted which is to serve as the foundation for spatial planning in central Java. Such a study actually would have been required before the 2010 planning change permitting mining activities in the Kendeng karst. Now Widodo announced all cement factory permits for the Kendeng Mountains to be suspended for one year until conclusion of the environmental impact assessment. This suspension was understood to apply for all comparable projects in the region, including the works under construction by the state-owned Semen Indonesia and the planned works of the HeidelbergCement subsidiary PT SMS.

But to date the president’s promises remain unfulfilled. “We are still waiting for the appropriate presidential decree”, said Gunarti at the end of September. “The reality in Rembang is that the construction work continues; the Semen Indonesia factory is already 90 percent finished.” In early September the citizens’ organization brought the PT SMS case before the Supreme Court aiming for the previous judgment to be overturned and building plans to be stopped. “We are optimistic” said Gunarti, “If the judges understand only the tiniest bit of environmental protection, then they can only decide in our favour.”



[i] To make concrete gravel and sand are mixed with cement and water. Not every type of sand is suitable building material, see Kiran Pereira, “Sand, ein knappes Gut“, Le Monde diplomatique (Hg.), „Atlas der Globalisierung. Weniger wird mehr“, Berlin (Taz Verlag) 2015, pp. 72 et seq.

[iv] According to the figures of the Indonesian Ministry for Environment and Forests nearly half of the industrial emissions are caused by the cement industry.

[v] HeidelbergCement has been present in Indonesia since 2001 and produces cement in three Indocement plants. In addition there are eight cement terminals and 45 other (additives and concrete) plants. All information are from Data Consult, ASI and Semen Indonesia.

[vii] Maps and geology of Kendeng karsts:  https://ptbudie.com/2009/01/03/pegunungan-kendeng/

[viii] See C.f. Christina Schott, “Stur, standhaft, selbstbestimmt“, in: Marc Engelhardt (Ed.), “Völlig utopisch. 17 Beispiele einer besseren Welt“, Munich (Pantheon) 2014.

[ix] See Anett Keller, “Hüter der Erde“, in: natur 2/2014.

[xi] See Helena Manhartsberger, “One Mountain – One Strug¬gle: A Story About Zombies, Dragons, Punks and Farmers in Their Fights Against Giants“, www.seas.at/aseas/6_1/ASEAS_6_1_A13.pdf


Marianne Klute holds a degree in chemistry and has spent many years studying Indonesia. Anett Keller is a freelance journalist and editor of “Indonesien 1965ff. – Die Gegenwart eines Massenmordes”, Berlin (regio­spectra) 2015.

© Le Monde diplomatique, Berlin

Image removed.

This article first appeared in the German edition of Le Monde diplomatique on 13 October 2016 <http://monde-diplomatique.de/artikel/!5337730>. We would like to thank Le Monde diplomatique for their kind permission to translate and publish the article on our website.