Indonesia mineral dispute heightens business uncertainty

By Olivia Rondonuwu, AFP

JAKARTA–A drawn-out row between the Indonesian government and the mining industry over a mineral export ban has added to growing uncertainty in Southeast Asia’s top economy ahead of elections, observers warn. The ban on the export of unprocessed mineral ores from resource-rich Indonesia came into effect Sunday after ministers agreed at the 11th hour to concessions following sustained lobbying by domestic and foreign miners.

The government had originally proposed a blanket ban on the export of certain raw minerals but the revised version does not cover concentrates for the time being, allowing U.S. giants Freeport McMoRan and Newmont to continue to export from their huge copper mines.

Despite the last-minute tweaks, the industry is still set to suffer as exports of key unprocessed ores, notably nickel and bauxite, have been banned and even minerals granted concessions will be hit with higher taxes.

While there was relief that the policy was not as restrictive as initially feared, the run-up to the ban has been criticized as highly chaotic, affirming the image of Indonesia as a notoriously difficult place to do business.

Bill Sullivan, a Jakarta-based lawyer and mining expert, said the process highlighted “the shameful failure of government policy-making” in Indonesia. “This past year has been quite extraordinary — the number of regulatory and policy changes, the complete disregard of the interests of foreign investors. It’s just made it so hard for foreign investors to justify putting money into Indonesia,” he added. Export Ban Aimed at Keeping Profits at Home The export ban is one of a series of policies, from the banking to the energy sectors, promoted by nationalist politicians who argue Indonesia should do more to stop foreigners reaping all the benefits from business opportunities in the fast-growing economy. The trend towards such nationalistic policies has only intensified in recent times as politicians seek to win votes before parliamentary elections in April and presidential polls in July, observers say. The export ban was first announced as part of a 2009 mining law.

It obliges miners to build smelters in Indonesia to process mineral ore to high levels of purity in an effort to keep more of the profits from the lucrative industry in the country. Its implementation was delayed until 2014 to give time for smelters to be built.

However, many miners took little action, betting that Jakarta — notorious for backtracking on policies — would not push through a ban that could cost the government vast amounts in tax revenues and lead to huge layoffs. In the event, the government did water down the policy following warnings of widespread job losses and closures in the industry.

But even that was only finally decided on an hour before the ban took effect and there is still confusion over the policy several days after it was implemented, with the government yet to release all the details. ‘Problem only delayed’ Even after the concessions, the problem has only been kicked down the road, critics say. The blanket ban on mineral ore exports has simply been delayed to 2017 and the threat of new taxes is looming. While miners such as Freeport can export so-called “concentrates” — partially processed ore — of certain minerals such as copper, they face higher export taxes which will increase to up to 60 percent in coming years.