Indonesian coal mine added to World Heritage List

The Soegar Mining Pit in Sawahlunto was converted into a museum called Museum Mbah Soero Mining Pit. Photo by Office of Cultural Affairs, Historical Remains and Museum, provided by Unesco.

During its 43rd session taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan, the World Heritage Committee inscribed the Ombilin coal mine in Sawahlunto, Indonesia, on the World Heritage List managed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Ombilin was built for the extraction, processing and transport of high-quality coal in an inaccessible region of the province of West Sumatra, back when the Netherlands’ colonial government was in charge of the archipelago.

Compressor building at Ombilin. Photo by Office of Cultural Affairs, Historical Remains and Museums of Sawahlunto, provided by Unesco.

Between the late 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, the mine employed a workforce recruited from the local population and supplemented by convict labour from Dutch-controlled areas. 

Ombilin comprises the mining site and company town, considered the oldest in Southeast Asia, as well as coal storage facilities at the port of Emmahaven and the railway network linking the mines to the coastal facilities. It was administered by the Ombilin Coal Mining Heritage, which was built as an integrated system that enabled the efficient deep-bore extraction, processing, transport and shipment of coal.

The inscription of the site on the World Heritage List follows a lengthy nomination process that received conditional approval in 2015. Now that it is a done deal, the Indonesian government has to create the Ombilin Sawahlunto coal mining management body, which will be made up of representatives of federal bodies such as the Regional Infrastructure Development Agency of the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, and the Ministry of Education and Culture, as well as of provincial, municipal, district and other authorities.

But according to local environmental organization Walhi, actions to preserve the designation need to go beyond bureaucratic paperwork. According to the activists, 13 coal mines are still active in the area and their activities could pose risks to the heritage site.

“Sawahlunto [regional government] should improve the city and stop all illegal mining activities that are still carried out massively until today on the rivers and area which become the main entrance to Sawahlunto,” the group said in a media statement.

“In addition to that, the regional government of Sawahlunto should pay serious attention to the Ombilin Coal Power Plant, which to this day still emits fly ash and bottom ash pollution in an alarming amount.”

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