PARALANGKARA, Indonesia— This day was intolerably steamy as I nestled into the bow of a “perahu,” the traditional dugout canoe ubiquitous on the rivers of Indonesia. Settling into the bow was not easy as the 26-inch-wide boat rocked dangerously with the load of four adults and gear. The waterline was a mere four inches above the water’s surface. The perahu is a mainstay along this part of the Ringan River in Central Kalimantan here in the south of Borneo, the largest of the Indonesian islands.
I relaxed a bit as we pushed off and was relieved to pick up momentum. Speed seemed to increase stability and certainly the ever-present torrent of flies and gnats couldn’t follow us in the open river. Glancing nervously back to our river guide and boat owner, I was met with a reassuring grin. I realized I was likely in good hands. After all, these boatmen are experts at hauling hundreds of pounds of ore sacks up and down this river and its tributaries without incident.
We made our way upstream, deeper into the thick jungle cut so efficiently by the Ringan. We were looking for illegal mining operations along the river banks that are becoming more common as gold miners realize the soft silt on the river bottom is rich with gold. If one has the energy and is willing to work hard, riches are here for the taking.
Central Kalamantan province is home to some of Borneo’s richest gold deposits. And years of mining activity, lack of government enforcement of environmental laws, and regional officials willing to look the other way have wreaked havoc on delicate ecosystems and poisoned the landscape and watersheds with deadly mercury and other toxic chemicals.
Technically illegal but practiced openly, small-scale mining activity is everywhere. This region once hosted large gold mining operations which exploited the rivers and clear-cut hundreds of thousands of acres in search of promising deposits after securing the necessary permits from the Indonesian government. Today, large-scale gold projects still operate in regions across Borneo. However, constant rumors of rich deposits in the rivers and in the tailings left in remote areas by abandoned large-scale sites are incentive for thousands of small-scale miners to set up illegal operations.
In vogue these days are dredge-mining operations that are some of the most damaging to the environment.
Chugging north against the current, I was told we would begin to see the dredging operations about six miles upriver. These consist of crude bamboo platforms anchored along the banks or in the middle of the smaller tributaries. Diesel-powered pumps suck gold-bearing silt from the river bottom. The silt is filtered with a sluice box to trap tiny particles of elemental gold in large pieces of remnant carpeting. This is a simple and effective means of extracting gold from silt. But the miners, eager for the best return on their labor, further process the syrupy mud by hand using large wooden panning bowls. During this process, mercury is introduced to the ore slurry. The mercury attracts and binds the tiny gold particles. The gold-mercury mix is finally forced through a fine nylon sieve, leaving behind a small pea-sized amalgam of gold and mercury. The mercury forced through the sieve is returned to a container for reuse. Since much of this labor is performed directly on the river, and often by miners panning in the shallows near their dredging rigs, mercury spillage is common. Mercury spilled into the rivers is essentially directly injected into the watershed and eventually enters the food chain by poisoning marine life. Inhabitants who rely on the rivers for fish as a food staple have little notion they are being exposed to mercury.
A 2004 study of mercury contamination organized by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) found that biological and geographical conditions in Central Kalimantan led to a higher rate of mobility of mercury spilled at mining sites. The net effect is that mercury spilled in this region is broken down into smaller particles that become more susceptible for ingestion by fish.
The UNIDO study concluded that levels of mercury measured in sampled in fish in the area, and especially from fish living in flooded open pits in mining site areas, were significantly higher than World Health Organization (WHO) baseline levels for unsafe exposure. WHO sets their safe exposure level for airborne mercury at 1000 nano grams per cubic meter. Exposures from directly handling mercury, eating contaminated fish or working around gold processing facilities can skyrocket to 55,000 nano grams per cubic meter.
Dr. Julie Hall, a WHO physician and representative to the Philippines, cautioned that mercury is one of the top 10 chemicals in the world that have significant public health effects. “It can be absorbed by inhaling or eating. It’s a heavy metal that our bodies can’t process very well, so it can stay in the human body for many, many years. Mercury often concentrates in the brain and causes neurological effects. For a growing fetus in the womb, this can be very damaging and can cause the baby’s brain not to grow properly and the baby to be born with severe mental retardation,” she explained.
You can hear the dredges at work long before you see them. Their diesel engines drive large pumps that suck a tremendous amounts of silt from the river. The fine mud is funneled over a network of carpet tacked to an inclined structure 15 feet high. As the silt runs through the carpet, the heavier particles of gold are trapped by the fibers while the lighter silica particles slide past and back into the river. The carpet is scraped and the rich ore is stored for processing later.
As we pulled up along a dredging operation about seven miles from our launch point, a group of five men and boys were jumping to and fro, managing the mouth of the dredge pump that probed the river bottom eight feet below. The man in charge welcomed us aboard and explained that the crew works in several shifts when the deposits are good. They move on, day by day, slowly exploring different areas of the river.
We pushed on and shortly passed five more dredging operations. Clearly this part of the Ringan was producing a lot of gold. As we made our way back downstream at day’s end, I thought about how damaging these machines must be to the delicate ecosystem and water grasses that inhabit the bottom of the river.
Early the next morning I headed west toward the vast gold mining region an hour’s drive west of Palangkaraya. As we explored the little town of Hampalit, I noticed shop after shop selling mining equipment and others advertising the best prices for gold. Asking how far the mines were from the town, the owner of one of the hardware stores gestured and said I would see it soon. The field was just a bit further he explained and told me not to worry, that you’ll know it when you see it.
The shop owner was right. A bit further on, the jungle trees abruptly gave way to a surreal white landscape stripped of most vegetation. Every tree and shrub had been clearcut and only barren white sand and millions of tons of mine tailings remained. This expansive area, once lush jungle growth stretching for miles, was now a desert. Here and there, vast lagoons had formed—the product of years of contaminated runoff from the large mining operations that used to operate here. An occasional shanty or settlement gave shelter to some of the illegal miners and their families who came to this region to try their hand at reprocessing the tailings left by the large operators who had moved on.
I spent some time with a family who had come to the area the year before. As I made photos, the woman gently washed her baby boy in the polluted water of a holding pond outside the little shack they had reclaimed.
Driving only a few miles down the two-lane highway we again heard the engines. Turning off the main highway and following a dirt track, the sound grew louder and then we saw the dredgers at work again. Working sand and silt just inches above the shallow water table, men were at work hacking at the jungle trees on the edge of this vast region. The dredge operators welcomed me with smiles and a handshake and motioned for me to make photographs. I watched the same rhythms unfold as the boys moved the suction hose. Others manned the sluice containment box high on a scaffold or tended the engines. At day’s end, the engines stopped and off the boys went on their scooters. Later, back at another large lake by a small stream, the boys stripped to their underwear, bathed in the water and began systematically panning pounds of the rich ore they collected from their dredge.
One boy pulled out a soda bottle of mercury and added it to the pan. When the process was finished, the boy would wrap the mercury/gold mix in a piece of plastic wrap. This pellet would be burned, the mercury evaporated, and a tiny nugget of pure gold would be the reward.
A few days later I traveled to Cisitu, a high-mountain village on the Island of Java a short flight southern Borneo. Cisitu is a study of a mining crisis unfolding and was a visual paradox.
The tidy, brightly-colored masonry and plaster homes with traditional Indonesian-styled pitched roofs looked idyllic among the fish ponds and terraced rice fields that surrounded the little village. About 15,000 indigenous Indonesians live in the town. Cisitu is an agricultural powerhouse in the region, and for hundreds of years the village economy has depended on the seasonal cycles of the rice crops.
Village elders told us that rice was a sacred commodity here. So much so, that only a few at the highest levels of authority make decisions about planting and harvest schedules, or which seeds to use in a given season. All around the village, delicate 15-foot high huts with distinctive roof lines store shocks of harvested rice for both consumption and seed. Elders have kept careful records of seasonal crops and some rice stored in the huts dates back more than 75 years.
Today, the villagers of Cisitu, eager for the promise of new wealth, are looking toward another source of income that far outstrips the seasonal payout from the rice crops. Cisitu sits above a major rift of gold-bearing rocks that stretches through this part of southwestern Java. These days, those with the enterprise and connections to pull together small-scale mining operations have taken to the hills and valleys around the city to dig for gold.
This new emphasis is paying off for some, no doubt. Large, beautiful, spare-no-expense homes are under construction.
If one listens to the night sounds of Cisitu, it’s evident the ball mills—the large, belt-driven iron casks that pulverize ore onto a thick slurry—operate around the clock. Throughout the town, families have built backyard gold-processing mills and simply buy sacks of ore, process it, burn the mercury and walk down the street to one of the many gold merchants to sell the fruits of their labor for quick cash. Gold merchants will also burn mercury for patrons on the spot and miners can purchase plastic bottles of mercury for processing and panning.
Selling mercury is illegal but the black market trade is acknowledged and open. In one shop, Ibu Umeri proudly displays a huge inventory of prepackaged mercury. She has a supplier who keeps her in stock and she marks up her investment when selling to the miners.
The darker side of these cottage industries moving more mainstream is the alarming uptick in chemical contamination and the health concerns of officials who see so many people living and working around such highly concentrated gold operations.
Yuyun Ismawati, an environmental engineer, and cofounder of the Bali, Indonesia-based BaliFokus, an environmental NGO with the objective of educating and protecting humans from the effects of mercury. Yuyun and a small group of technician zeroed in on Cisitu two years ago after hearing of reports of illnesses and the increased production of gold within the village.
Air quality tests taken then indicate extremely high readings or airborne mercury in the middle of town. Yuyun said readings were approaching 50,000 nano grams per cubic meter just outside one gold shop at the village center. Yuyun says she’s frustrated by the lack of awareness of the dangers of mercury poisoning. “Every home has a small ball mill operation. They will buy two sacks or tree sack or four sacks for household purposes. They process it in the backyard which is sometimes next to the rice field or their fish pond and they use mercury. They have no knowledge or awareness of the harmful effects. They call it 'quick' and they think quick is very good,” she said.
This week, the mission is to do further testing to determine if the levels are increasing. Meanwhile, a series of meetings between BaliFokus officials and the local tribal council has, for now, proved promising. Yuyun explains that there is finally a growing concern about mercury pollution in Cisitu and officials are taking steps to educate the populace and advocate for safer methods to process gold without using dangerous chemicals. “The local leader wants to have a sustainable approach to gold processing and if the village wants to mine the gold, he would like to have a safer way to do it,” she says.
One thing is obvious to Yuyun. Mercury and people don’t mix. For now, until villagers understand and embrace safer practices, the immediate concern is to move the ball mill operations away from homes and food sources and relocate them in more remote locations where mercury contamination is easier to contain.
And the children of Cisitu have the most to lose. In this region, established gold mines supply the ore that finds its way to the village processors. But other dangers lurk in the small-scale mining camps just outside town. Deep wet pits operate day and night, and owners, anxious for maximum production, sometimes turn their backs as child workers, valued for their small stature and agility in the tight pits, are allowed to work alongside older miners.
Riski Rodiansyah, 16, works 11 hours everyday in a mine a few miles outside Cisitu. He has the blessings of his family and came to the region with his older brother from nearby Ciawi.
I asked Riski why he’s doing the work of an adult and he answered without hesitation. “Because there’s gold here…the mining, It’s good,” he said. I asked him about his shift and the hard work. “Yes, it’s hard. When I have to lift the weight, it’s heavy. But I don’t miss school. I don’t want to go home because I’m making money. I do miss my mother. I text her a lot.”
When asked about child labor and Yuyun says this is the other side of the equation. “Children are more sensitive to chemical exposure,” she said. “Our best estimate is that 20 percent of the labor force in artisanal gold mining are children. Directly or indirectly, the children here will be exposed and it will have a long-term impact.”
Riski takes a small break after emerging from the dark opening that leads to a tarp shelter that shields him from the rain. Muddy from head to toe, he catches his breath and wanders outside, excited that the tarp has caught an abundance of runoff. As I made photographs, Riski smiled. “At least this is clean rainwater,” I thought. After a few minutes, Riski would head back under the mountain to begin toiling again, breathe contaminated air, and struggle with his hammer and pick.