Download Southeast Asia’s oldest and biggest Buddhist temple complex is under threat from coal mining in western Indonesia.
The Muarojambi temples were built in the 14th century and were only rediscovered in the 1970s – they’re in line for UNESCO World Cultural Heritage listing.
But coal mining, the biggest business in the local area, threatens to damage the temples beyond repair.
Quinawaty Pasaribu traveled to the province of Jambi in Sumatera for this report.
Long lines of trucks loaded with coal queue along the road leading to the Muarojambi Temples.
Five mining companies use the temple area to stockpile coal before exporting it overseas.
They have been operating since 2009, with permission from the local government.
Company security guards watch the area, and ask for entry permits from anyone who wants to enter the temple compound.
More than 300 coal mining companies operate in the province.
Most of them stockpile coal around the nearby Muaro Jambi village, before loading it onto boats on the Batanghari river near the village to send to India.
The Muarojambi temple is just next door. It covers over two hectares – which makes it the biggest in Southeast Asia, even larger than Java’s famous Borobudur temple, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
It was discovered overgrown with vegetation in 1974. So far 11 major temples have been restored.
But only six percent of the whole site has been restored so far – dozens more temples are still buried under mounds of soil called “menapos”.
They’re all under threat from surrounding coal stockpiles.
That’s because acid from the coal pollutes the river and seriously damages relics still buried underground.
Junus Sastrioatmodjo is an archaeologist working to preserve the temples.
“Coal comes from fossilized trees which tend to disintegrate into tiny particles. When the wind blows, those small particles can go inside human lungs. They also work their way into the temples rock and get stuck inside. The soil can’t dissolve the coal, it will remain coal forever. And this will destroy the site.”
Head of the Muarojambi district government Burhanuddin Mahir claims the temples are protected .
“Let’s say a coal mining company asks for a permit for an area of two hectares. If there’s a “menapo” within the area, we will put a fence around it to protect the temple.”
I visited one of the “menapos” and there was no fence. The “menapo” was located inside the company’s area, and was only 50 metres away from the nearest coal stockpile.
According to Burhanuddin, coal is the province’s main income – generating more than 1 million US dollars in 2010.
“The temple compound is huge and scattered across several locations. It includes many small sites where economic activities also take place. Must we sacrifice the economy because of the the temple? That’s my main question. As head of the district, I think we should have a comprehensive plan for the area. We can still continue economic activites while preserving the sites.”
But it’s not just the temples that suffer. Local villagers also complain about the coal dust.
“The coal trucks pass by everyday here, hundreds of them. We inhale the dust, it makes us feel unwell.”
“The companies should give something to villagers like us. But we are uneducated to demand our rights, there’s nothing to stop them doing what they want. They don’t give any compensation.”
The temple complex land isn’t only used by coal companies – thousands of people also live there.
Doddy Irawan heads Muarojambi’s district economic development office. He says the local government wants to preserve the temples, but does not want to evict villagers.
“Many people live in the area. It’s not possible for us to remove them all from their own villages. They did not know that there’s a temple there.”
But many believe looking after citizens is not the government’s main concern.
The head of Jambi’s Arts Council Naswan Iskandar thinks the government is only protecting the coal industry.
“I ask all the people of Muarojambi to join hand in hand on this issue. Come on, you will get nothing, no jobs, from the coal companies. It’s not a labour-intensive industry, you can only be unskilled labourers at the most!”
Activists, academics and history buffs have started a “Save Muarojambi” petition.
So far the online version of the petition has gathered 2500 signatures from across Indonesia.
Thousands of local villagers have also signed a big white banner to support preserving the temples.
Metta Dharmasaputra is the man behind the petition.
“We’re going to push people to save the Muarojambi site. This site is priceless. Getting people to sign the petition is just the beginning of our actions.”
If Muarojambi is not protected, the country could lose one of the most outstanding religious centers from ancient times, says senior archaeologist Mundardjito.
“If we don’t do anything about the temples’ destruction, we can only say to our children and grandchildren in the future that there used to be a temple here. That it’s gone now, it’s just a fairy tale for our future generations.”
Every historically-significant site in Indonesia is protected by the national 2010 Cultural Heritage Law.
This provides sentences of up to 15 years and fines as high as 100,000 US dollars for anyone who destroys or sells parts of important sites.
But the law is still not in force because President Yudhoyono has not signed regulations needed to put it into effect.
Last September the President visited Muarojambi and promised to declare it a world heritage site to be protected.
And in February this year the Ministry of Education and Culture promised to map the temple sites, a first step to protecting it.
Wiendu Nuryanti is the Deputy Minister.
“We can put fences surrounding the temple sites. If there are companies within the territory of the fence, who could possibly harm the site, we can stop them.”
Local villagers demand more.
“We don’t want coal companies around the temple site. We have to protect the area. The government has to be firm about this.”
“If the companies can harm our cultural heritage, it’s best to shut them down. This area cannot be used for coal.”