Illegal gold mining operations in Kalimantan threaten lives and the environment

Illegal gold mining is ubiquitous in Kalimantan. It poses threats to the environment and health risks to indigenous people. It also costs the nation millions.

On Thursday May 22, around noon, Bulungan police chief adjunct commissioner Eka Wahyudianta, along with 90 officers, took a one-hour drive to Sekatak Buji village in North Kalimantan, the youngest province in Indonesia. When he arrived, he saw around 100 illegal miners working hard to extract gold from a pit.

“Some of them ran away [when they saw us] and 30 of them were arrested. After screening them, eight who possessed evidence were immediately brought to the precinct police station,” Wahyudianta told the local paper.

Police raids like the one he describes are common on Kalimantan. The largely un-policed island is known for its widespread illegal gold mining operations, which are also often referred to as ‘wildcat mining’.

“Kalimantan is one of the oldest Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM) hotspots. The operations have been practiced on the island for centuries since the Dutch colonisation era,” explains YuyunIsmawati, a Goldman Prize-winning environmental engineer and senior adviser at the local environmental NGO BaliFokus. “As a result, some abandoned gold mining sites in Kalimantan are well-known as the moon face areas, and can be seen from above using Google Maps clearly.”

ASGM refers to informal gold mining activities carried out using low technology and shoddy machinery. According to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment West Kalimantan chapter director Anton P. Widjaya, illegal mining is especially prevalent in the regencies of Bengkayang, Landak, Ketapang, Sintang, and Kapuas Hulu in West Kalimantan.

Miners mix the mercury into the water and squat all day long to extract gold in an abandoned ASGM hotspots. Photo by BaliFokus

Apart from the lack of technology, many people in Kalimantan resort to illegal gold mining because of its nearly impossible-to-obtain permits from the local government.

“In reality, these permits could only be obtained by large companies with big investments, while existing small-scale mines, including those in regions with high mineral deposits, do not have the ability to obtain the permits,” explains Widjaya.

Ismawati echoed his statement, saying that even if a small-scale miner owns the land, he or she would still be subjected to illegal mining offences, depending on the land-use plan and allocation set in place by the local government. To mine the gold, one must obtain a legal permit from the local government agencies, which in this case is the Mineral and Coal Agency at the regency level, according to Ismawati.

“And then get the environmental permit from the Environmental Agency in the forms of an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) document, environmental management and monitoring plans. The permit for small-scale gold mining, IPR (Izin Penambang Rakyat) of Community Mining Permit, should be allocated inside the WPR (Wilayah Pertambangan Rakyat) or community mining area,” says Ismawati.

Some regencies had already issued the WPR for gold mining but without supporting regulatory framework, notes Ismawati, adding that they still have a lot of homework if they want to provide a proper regulatory framework for ASGM activities.

“The illegality of the mining practices seems to be maintained by some powerful institutions and officers to their advantage. Corrupt officials, thugs, collaborate with financiers – some of them are foreign investors, some are local or Indonesian business people. Some of the miners also act as the subcontractors of large-scale mining companies,” says Ismawati.

Illegal mining activities also occur in four other provinces across Kalimantan. According to a study by the Borneo Research Bulletin in 2012, there were an estimated 43,000 small-scale gold miners in Central Kalimantan. Together, they produced 13.3 tonnes of gold in 2008, worth roughly US$292 million based on today’s currency conversion.

This money is only a fraction of the US$6.1 billion estimated to be lost annually due to illegal gold mining activities that have spread throughout the archipelago over the past few years, according to the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry. The ministry came to this conclusion after learning the volume of national gold production was 66 tonnes annually, while the estimated amount of illegally mined gold could reach as high as 130 tonnes per year.

Ismawati also points out the economic impacts of illegal gold mining in Kalimantan. According to BaliFokus, it was estimated that every miner could produce 5 to 10 grams of gold per week. The ASGM sector could produce about 65 to 130 tonnes of gold per year, bigger than the national gold production, which was 46 tonnes in 2013.

“The thing is that once the sector formalised, all gold produced from this sector should be sold to the Indonesian Central Bank. The bank should see this opportunity to increase the national gold reserves and partly sell it to the market,” says Ismawati.

Aside from the economic impact, widespread gold mining activities have also caused pollution and environmental destruction, as mercury is often used to leach gold from ores.

All artisanal and small-scale gold miners extract gold using mercury. Mercury stays behind and contaminates the environment and the food chain. Photo by BaliFokus

A joint study titled Global Mercury Project by the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations found that mercury in fish in Central Kalimantan around an ASGM site ranged from 0.09 up to 1.6 parts per million (ppm). This, along with several studies conducted throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, found high mercury concentration in the rivers, soil, and fish all across Indonesia, including Java and Sulawesi. The studies also concluded that mercury presence was indeed negatively affecting the health of the miners and the nearby communities.

A BaliFokus study in several ASGM hotspots found mercury in the air also considerably high, ranging from 20 nano-grams per cubic metre up to 55,000. It also found mercury in the food chain, namely in rice and fish, risking the downstream populationand nearby community’s health. Mercury in water and sediment in several ASGM sites ranged from 0.6 ppm up to 4 ppm, which is 600 to 3,000 times higher than what the World Health Organisation deems safe.

Mercury can cause direct or indirect intoxication, depending on personal sensitivity and susceptibility.

Many of the diseases that occur due to mercury intoxication are neural deficient-related diseases. If mercury has been deposited into the body of a pregnant woman, the foetus is at risk of birth defects and malformation. If a child is exposed to mercury at birth, it may spawn neural deformity later in life. This deformity comes gradually and increases with the age of the child.

Neural deformity can also affect adults that have direct contact with mercury, especially those that consume food or water that’s been contaminated. One of the worst things about diseases related to mercury is that – except for some skin disorders on people that have a hypersensitivity – some can take 10 years before clinical symptoms even appear, and will inevitably worsen as time goes by. High blood pressures, upper pulmonary disease, heart disease and strokes, nervous system disorders, skin diseases, and digestive disorders are the top five mercury-related diseases.

According to Widjaya, the risk of people getting poisoned by mercury is extremely high in places where illegal gold mining is rampant. This is plainly due to irresponsible mining practices. “In land mines, illegal miners create holes and tunnels and they use mercury. The same thing happens in rivers and riverbeds.

In results [sic], all residue will flow to rivers in which people still depend on for livelihoods,” he says. It’s common to see river streams in Kalimantan bearing traces of gold mining with muddy and brownish water.

Unfortunately, local health centres often failed to associate the extreme or severe cases of these diseases with mercury exposure from gold mining and extraction activities, Ismawati says. “Health services are not available on the site, and it might take more than three hours to get to the closest health centres …

Moreover, in the case of mercury poisoning, the local health workers do not understand the symptoms, and consider the illness a strange disease and tell them to go home. On the way home, some of them die helplessly,” she explains.

Unlicensed mining also often leads to accidents and deaths. “The main problem is that these local mines are controlled by financiers and common people only serve as workers … Safety aspects gets thrown out of the window, which causes accidents,” Widjaya says.

In January, an illegal gold mine in Boma cave in the Bengkayang district of West Kalimantan collapsed, killing eight people. Another illegal gold mine collapsed in Bengkayang district in October last year, killing 18 workers.

“There is no official data on how many miners die in the mining sites but the leaders of the illegal mining groups would have known it well because they have to send the bodies [of their workers] back to the villages and send the condolence money to the victims’ families,” Ismawati speculates.

Looking ahead, Widjaya argues that cracking down on illegal mining activities would not be efficient without the Government educating its people. “So far, the approach [to tackle this problem] is only by police raids. This strategy results in resistance from miners because this is their livelihood,” he says.

Consequently, former deputy environment minister Masnellyarti Hilman proposed that regional administrations should provide technical assistance and permits to illegal miners who meet the requirements, then ban the use of mercury in gold mining. Such a ban could take effect in 2018, in line with the Minamata Convention.

“It would be better for regional administrations to legalise this activity. Besides obtaining income from gold mining, the Government will not be burdened by costs to restore former mines,” she told The Jakarta Post.

According to Ismawati, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources has already issued a National Action Plan to eliminate mercury in ASGM and improve the ASGM sector in Indonesia as mandated by the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

The Ministry of Trade has also issued a Ministry Regulation (No.75/2014) to ban mercury imports, trade, and use in gold mining activities. “Several local governments also already issued relevant regulations but enforcement is still far away,” says Ismawati.

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Heru Nainggolan is a Jakarta-based freelance writer and journalist that’s been covering a variety of issues since 2011.


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