Artisanal gold mining

by Luca Catalano Gonzaga

Indonesia is highly vulnerable to climate change but is also the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, when taking into consideration the deforestation of Borneo’s rainforest. (UK Unicef Report 2015 The land, which gold hunters rip open today in search of one of the most precious metals, was once covered by a luxuriant forest. In the villages of Tumbang Tariak and Tumbang Miwan, in the Indonesian Island of Borneo, many people defy the Law – the extraction of gold is an illegal activity -, and endanger their own health. The Government’s legislation gets circumvented by corrupting its public officials, who turn a blind eye to it. The search for a little Eldorado of their own is the purpose of many families around here: a few years of hard work suffice to earn as much as needed to be able to leave this desolate place, full of mud and poisons, and to buy a house in town and start a new life there. In the Gulung district alone, there are 10.000 gold searchers. That is, if possible. The informal miners – as they are known – do not have access to sophisticated technologies and they use mercury to extract gold, mixing the ore that contains gold with water, in order to form an amalgam. Immediately afterwards, the mix is heated to remove mercury by evaporation, while the contaminated water is thrown into the Kahayan River that crosses the surrounding villages. The whole water table becomes contaminated. People drink water polluted with mercury, the same that is used to irrigate the cultivated fields thus poisoning the whole food chain. Mercury kills. And yet the search for gold does not stop before the wounds inflicted upon nature, which here seems to be only a distant memory. There are no trees, long ago uprooted to dig without mercy a land that has become a permanent swamp caused by the jet of the water pumps used by the miners to bring all detritus to the surface. And this is the most delicate and risky stage of the extracting process. This year alone 24 people have lost their lives submerged by the mud, because the walls could not hold any longer and then suddenly collapsed. After the selection of the detritus and the overuse of mercury, gold is separated out, weighed and priced. (text by Luca Catalano Gonzaga)