'We Will Not Give Up'


The Montara oil spill occurred on 21 August 2009, when the Montara wellhead exploded within the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone in the Timor Sea.

Light sweet crude oil bubbled and flowed into the Timor Sea unabated for 74 days, until 3 November 2009. It was the largest offshore oil spill in the history of the Australian petroleum industry. Eyewitness reports from Indonesian fishermen noted a “lake of milky oil” in fishing grounds south of West Timor within days of the spill. The oil continued to flow for more than 60 days.

Reports of ill health in the aftermath of the Montara oil spill, included poisoning, bruising, incurable skin rashes, cysts on the skin, tightness in breathing, food poisoning and even death. No compensation has been paid to the affected communities.

East Nusa Tenggara, a community of Islands in the Timor Sea, has many horror stories to tell about the Montara oil spill.

On the Island of Alor, for example, 14 fishermen from the crocodile island (Pulau Buaya) ate fish from the sea. Afterwards, their lips felt swollen, they suffered dizziness, fatigue and ultimately, four of the fishermen died on the boat within hours. The others required medical treatment in hospital.

There are many other stories, which all appear to be directly connected to poisoning from chemical dispersants and oil flowing from the spill. One hundred and eighty-four thousand litres of toxic dispersant were sprayed on the millions of litres of oil to create a poisonous cocktail which has ruined the livelihoods of thousands of East Nusa Tenggara citizens.

Fishermen across the region have been forced out of fishing. The spill has devastated fisheries and seaweed farms throughout East Nusa Tenggara.

For four years now we have been fighting with the oil company to face its responsibility to the communities. We have also called on both the Indonesian and Australian governments to take action on behalf of the inflicted people.

Unfortunately, even with a mountain of evidence, members of the former Australian Labor government were quick to bury their heads in the sand.

What needs to happen is an independent scientific investigation. No scientific research has taken place in East Nusa Tenggara waters. The oil company’s glossy reports and media department have tried to make its hands look clean.

But the hands of some of the seaweed farmers in Indonesia are still covered in rashes that no doctor can cure.

For more than four years now, I have continually called on the oil company and the governments of Australia and Indonesia to conduct a proper scientific investigation into the effects of the spill in East Nusa Tenggara water. This study should be funded by the polluting oil company.

If Montara oil and dispersant is not found in our waters then the oil company pays nothing, and has discharged its responsibility. If Montara oil and dispersant is found, then the oil company must face our community and its corporate responsibility.

Why does the oil company refuse to conduct proper scientific research? The answer is obvious – the company is scared of what will be found in the beautiful waters of the Timor Sea. It is scared of facing its corporate responsibility to the environment and my people.

We will not give up. We must have an independent investigation as to the environmental, social and economic impacts. When this is done, we can begin to discuss remediation and compensation and rebuild the life of our communities.

We will not rest until this happens. I will not rest until the poison in the Timor Sea is cured and the fisheries are restored; until the seaweed farms return to production and my people are released from poverty; until thousands of children across the islands are able to return to school and it is safe to eat the fish from the sea; until the sickness is cured and those who have lost loved ones are compensated.

The relationship between Australia and East Nusa Tenggara is a rich and important association which should be treasured and nourished. We have a long history together.

East Nusa Tenggara fisherman mingled with Aboriginal people for centuries before Europeans arrived here. Captain Bligh was nursed back to health in Kupang in West Timor and Captain Cook was hosted by the King in Savu Island. As Japanese forces attacked in 1942, the Australian special army “Sparrow” Force fought and died with Timorese by their side in Kupang West Timor. The Japanese went on to murder 70,000 Timorese citizens.

This is a history that should cause strong trust and honesty between our two nations. We deserve strong partnerships on our borders.

Cooperation between our fisherman and Australian authorities could stop boats bringing asylum seekers to Australia. We share the despair with Australians in seeing men, women and children drowning at sea between our two countries.

I have a vision of an “Australian-Indonesian Joint Fishing Zone” along our border which would allow temporary access for Indonesian fisherman to a small part of Australia’s fishing zone north of Christmas Island, while the waters of East Nusa Tenggara recover from pollution. Our fishermen could be the eyes and ears to stop illegal boats, instead of being exploited in their poverty to act as crew for the people smugglers.

This solution would be cost effective and a way to build the relationship between Australian authorities and the fishermen of East Nusa Tenggara. It would stop the poor souls from drowning in the Timor Sea. This is a simple approach, a solution based on friendship, partnership and trust. It would help to alleviate our poverty and the flow of people to Australia.

East Nusa Tenggara is the closest neighbour to the Northern Territory and Western Australian and there many strong kinships between our peoples. We must strive to be more like brothers and sisters than foreigners living in different countries.

The time is right for Australia and Indonesia to bolster ties and work together for a better future.

Ferdi Tanoni is this year’s winner of The Australian Lawyers Alliance National Civil Justice Award for his work in raising awareness of the effects of the Montara oil spill. This is an edited version of his acceptance speech.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.