Indonesia’s deadly illegal gold mines

Lampang has been a miner in a community gold mine in East Kalimantan, Indonesia for more than 30 years. Even still, he doesn’t like to talk openly about his work.

“Please don’t tell anyone the name of my mine,” said Lampang, who is 53 and like many Indonesians has only one name. “There are a lot of community mines in Indonesia, but they are all illegal.”

Indonesian land is known for its rich gold deposits, attracting fortune seekers from all over the country, especially from poorer regions with few employment options. But while illegal gold mining – mining gold without a permit – can be lucrative for some, for others it can be deadly.

On April 28, a cliff collapsed at an illegal mine in Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra province, fatally trapping 12 female workers in a two-meter-deep pit. The victims, aged between 30 and 55, were found after two other women, also looking for gold, raised the alarm.

Landslides around mines in Indonesia are a common occurrence, usually resulting from a combination of heavy rains and unstable land according to environmental activists, although the government does not keep official figures on the number of deaths at the sites. illegal every year.

Last year, six miners died at an illegal gold mine in Central Sulawesi, while 11 miners died at an unlicensed coal mine in a similar incident in South Sumatra in 2020.

In pursuit of fortunes

“The biggest risk in a mine is indeed a landslide,” Lampang said. “Fortunately, this has never happened to me, but it often happens when people chase their fortunes instead of focusing on safety first.”

To guard against landslides, Lampang said mine miners in his community use a blower to dry out the earth underground to make it more stable. Although hard data is hard to come by due to the secretive nature of the industry, the Ministry of Environment and Forests estimated that there were nearly 9,000 illegal mines operating in Indonesia, of which about a quarter are gold mines.

Besides gold, Indonesia is rich in minerals, including silver, copper, tin, platinum and bauxite, a sedimentary rock with a high aluminum content. The country is also home to the officially sanctioned Grasberg mine located in Papua, the largest gold mine in the world.

Nasir Buloh, deputy director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) for Aceh – a province known for its illegal mining – said miners at illegal sites are at greater risk due to resistance to calling on authorities to help when things go wrong underground.

“There have been cases of victims not being removed from a landslide and left in the mining shafts,” Buloh said, adding that mining usually involved digging vertical holes. and horizontal in the mountains or to dredge rivers using heavy equipment. “Illegal miners can be targeted by law enforcement by being arrested at illegal mining sites.” Under Indonesian law, mining without a license is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 100 billion Indonesian rupees ($6.9 million ).

Illegal operations are particularly common in abandoned licensed mines, attracting local villagers who dig in the hope of finding residual gold deposits. The 12 women who died in Mandailing Natal last month are thought to have been opportunistic residents rather than professional gold diggers.

In East Kalimantan, Lampang works as a manual gold miner, meaning he only uses a small gold dredge that digs up the earth and separates the gold in it. The gold is cleaned with an acid, Lampang said, instead of toxic chemicals like mercury that are commonly used at other sites.

“There are no safety standards in illegal mining,” said Rere Christianto, campaign manager for mining and energy at the Indonesian Environment Forum (WALHI). “This includes exposure to the use of toxic substances such as mercury and cyanide for refining gold, which can lead to life-threatening health issues. Mercury, for example, will affect the digestive tract, the urology and the nervous system In the long term, this exposure will damage the organs of those exposed.

Christianto said illegal mining continues to thrive due to lax law enforcement.

“Illegal mining activities are not carried out in secret, as they require the deployment of manpower and tools,” he said. “If government officials wanted to enforce the law, it would be quite easy to find these mines.”

Pius Erick Nyompe, director of the Mining and Environmental Community Welfare Foundation in East Kalimantan, said illegal gold mining also leads to other social problems such as gambling, prostitution, alcoholism, gangs, drugs and money lending.

Nyompe blamed the failure to legalize and regulate community mining, leaving residents with few job opportunities with little choice but to break the law, for the problems associated with the industry.

“There must be a third party who can step in to broker a solution between the government and the miners in the community,” he explained. “In the village of Kelian Dalam in East Kalimantan in 2001, 32 people died in a landslide at a community mine in a single day.”

“They are so unstable.”

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