Vice-president defends handling of Java mudflow

Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, has defended Jakarta’s handling of a massive mudflow in east Java even as he said the family of an influential minister bore ultimate responsibility for the environmental disaster.

Noxious mud has covered 250 hectares of land, smothered four villages, caused the closure of transport arteries and forced the relocation of more than 12,000 people since it began flowing from the area around an oil well being drilled by a subsidiary of the Bakrie Group at the end of May.

The Bakrie Group is the family business empire of Aburizal Bakrie, Indonesia’s chief welfare minister, and environmentalists and other critics have accused government officials of playing down the disaster.

This week the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced it had formed a special team to try to stop the mudflow and 1,400 Indonesian soldiers have been deployed to work on the disaster.

But in an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Kalla defended the government’s handling of the disaster, arguing “legal matters” should be dealt with after the mud had stopped flowing.

The government decided to step in only after establishing that the mud could continue flowing for years, he said.

“That’s why the central government has taken the responsibility and we are making a national effort.”

In the most pointed comment yet about the family to be made by a senior Indonesian official, Mr Kalla also said the Bakrie family was “totally responsible” for the mud flow and any costs associated with it.

“The company should be responsible. But the company is owned [by someone] . . . You cannot say this is capital only [and] we don’t carry any responsibility. I know the Bakrie family have responsibility, higher responsibility. They are responsible until the end . . . They are totally responsible.”

The disaster has provided a rare insight into Indonesian business practices more than eight years after the crony-fuelled Asian financial crisis. Despite claims it was the subject of an open tender, the drilling contract for the well was awarded to a company owned partly by one of Mr Bakrie’s nephews which stands accused of causing the mud flow by trying to cut corners and save costs.

Lapindo Brantas, the Bakrie company which operated the well, says it has spent up to $40m trying to stop the mud and shouldering the costs of compensating and relocating people and businesses displaced by the disaster. A company spokesman said yesterday it had allocated a total of $70m till the end of this year to deal with the disaster and was prepared to double that amount if needed.

The Bakrie Group is also trying to repair its image by financing a soap opera set around the mud flow while local officials have turned to clairvoyants and other spiritualists to try to use supernatural forces to stop the mud.

Additional reporting by Taufan Hidayat

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