IN THE THROES OF GOLD FEVER:

Will mining kill children of Lombok?

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I was a presenter last month in an international conference and workshop on the socioeconomic, environmental and health impact of artisanal and small-scale mining on Indonesia.

The first of its kind in Indonesia, the conference was held at Brawijaya University in Malang, Central Java. It gathered Indonesian academics and international presenters like me from Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, New Zealand and China as well as representatives of the central and local governments, mining sector and international nongovernment organizations.

The 28 papers presented were an indicator of the current research and extension efforts in Indonesia and in several Southeast Asian nations in order to provide science-based options and solutions to problems arising from unregulated small-scale mining.

After the academic part of the conference was concluded, we traveled to the island of Lombok—one of the recent gold-rush regions of Indonesia.

Next to Bali

It is the island next to Bali and is becoming popular among local and foreign tourists. It is touted as the next tropical “paradise” destination in Indonesia.

We flew into the recently opened Lombok International Airport, where we were welcomed with a light drizzle and a rainbow.

The image of the Irish saying came to mind—“At the end of the rainbow you will find a pot of gold.” Little do outsiders know that the island is now in the throes of a gold fever. We had come to Lombok to contribute to a workshop on sustainable practices in artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

The activities were organized so that this was an outreach program to small-scale miners in order to provide alternatives and options to some very toxic practices, which small-scale miners employ.

Essentially, there are major efforts to mitigate and hopefully curb the excessive use of mercury to amalgamate and concentrate gold.

Mineral exploration activities from 1986 to 2004 identified significant mineral deposits in many localities of Sekotong, West Lombok. Small-scale mining started in 2008 in two villages and then rapidly spread to 18 localities, according to district authorities.

Within a year it was estimated that there were 3,800 miners of whom only 275 were local residents. A  majority were migrants from Sulawesi, Tasikmalaya and Kalimantan provinces. They came to try their luck in this new gold-rush area. They were affecting an area of 1,200 hectares.

Ban, protests

At the end of 2009 the local government of the West Lombok regency (equivalent of a municipality) officially banned and made illegal small-scale mining activities. The ban was part of the policy to develop the Sekotong region into a tourism area.

This led to large-scale protests with roadblocks and fires being set.

Despite the ban, artisanal mining is rampant. The most recent estimates from the West Lombok Energy and Mineral Resources office suggest that there are now 6,000 illegal miners spread across 12,000 ha of protected forests and private land, acquired by holiday and tourism developers.

Patchwork of tarpaulins

On our visits to several small-scale mining locations, the coastal scenery was stunning.  But the gold-rich hills were a patchwork of blue and orange tarpaulins, which cover the diggings of small-scale miners.

In one of our stops at a seaside village, the miners were oblivious to our visit. We observed several miners entering very narrow hand-dug horizontal and vertical shafts. Snaking through these precarious shafts were hoses connected to compressors, which pumped out water seepage.

We saw them pushing out buckets filled with rocks which were then poured into hessian sacks to be carried on the heads of women to the milling area. A brand-new rock crusher was noisily churning out pebble-sized stones, which were once again bagged and transferred to the battery of 18 glondongs (rod mills).

Mercury

Each mill is loaded with a sack full of ore and approximately a cup of mercury and topped up with water. The milling process takes four to five hours to crush, grind and extract the gold.  At the end of the process, the mercury-gold amalgam is obtained and the mercury is burnt off with a blowtorch to leave the gold button. In that same village was a gold shop, which bought the days’ taking of the miners.

The whole process—from digging the ore, milling and amalgamating, and purifying the precious metal—took place with hardly a semblance of safety.

Infants

We were told by some miners that accidents due to land and rock slides, and tunnel cave-ins are a regular occurrence particularly during torrential rains.  We could see mill workers pouring and slopping mercury and women cradling infants and preparing rice pastries next to the mercury-laden mills.

Moreover, the tailings were confined to areas in which chickens, ducks and geese were foraging. Cyanidation technology has become more evident with large cyanide tanks being used to extract gold, especially where mercury was in short supply. Arguably, it is a safer way of extracting gold without creating a major legacy of toxic-metal poisoning.

Dead shellfish

We were, however, quite disturbed by the use of cyanidation to further process the mercury-laden tailings. This further compounds the toxicity of mercury as it makes it extremely mobile. We saw dead shellfish littering fishpond channels alongside tailings storage areas of the cyanide facilities.

The leachates from ad hoc tailings storage areas were seeping into surrounding irrigation channels, which were supplying water to rice paddies, kangkong and taro plots. All this seemed to be a public-health time bomb waiting to explode.

In one village, there was a festive atmosphere and we were welcomed very warmly. They asked who we were and what we did. So we explained that we were a team of scientists looking at ways to reduce the health risks of their artisanal mining activity.

Filipino miners

When they found out that two of us were from the Philippines they warmly exclaimed that they learned their trade from Filipino small-scale miners and that the best charcoal for cyanide extraction came from the Philippines.

One of the young mothers came up and showed us her 3-month-old baby who had a slightly swollen head. She asked if this was a symptom of mercury poisoning. Our initial observations suggested that she did not have the typical behavioral symptoms of mercury poisoning. Her slightly emaciated appearance pointed to malnutrition.

It is important to know that in 2008 the West Lombok government reported that 21 percent of children under 5 were malnourished—one of the highest rates in the Indonesian archipelago.

In my conversation with one of the small-scale mining bosses, Hadji, who knew the health risks of mercury use, said the government had not done anything for small-scale miners. They could not feed their families from fishing or farming. He said they could barely survive on the rupiah equivalent of $3 to $5 a day but in small-scale mining they could earn up to $200 per day.

Union

He added that Allah had given them the right to take the precious metals to lift them out of their misery. He was not interested in the benefits that tourism would bring. In his village alone, there were 700 miners and they were starting to form a union to negotiate for their rights.

In this one village, all this illegal small-scale mining was part of a thriving multimillion-dollar industry and this all occurred in the last three years.

Hadji then posed a question: “Would we be able to help them do their mining in a way, which would not poison their children and their future?”

One could sense in his voice that they would not easily give up their newfound wealth. It was either starvation due to poverty or ill health (due to illegal small-scale mining).

Akin to Philippines

The scenario I observed in Lombok is no doubt akin to what is occurring in many parts of the Philippines.

The challenge to countries like ours and Indonesia is how to legitimize such form of mining using ecologically sound and nonhealth-threatening practices, which can provide real opportunities for people in these communities.

(Augustine Doronila Ph.D., a “balikscientist,” is a research fellow at the School of Chemistry of University of Melbourne in Australia.)

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