Gold mining in Indonesia has employed hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country. However it has also poisoned them. Small-scale gold miners have been using mercury, a highly toxic metal, to extract the gold from ore. In the process, they have contaminated their air, water, food, and homes.
These extraction operations can be performed right at home, in the backyards of Indonesian residents. Rather archaic machines called ball mills, shown below, grind the ore to make amalgam, which is essentially a mixture of the mercury and gold.
Waste products are discharged directly into the soil and bodies of water surrounding the site. The mercury is then essentially “cooked” from the amalgam, producing purified gold, releasing mercury vapors into the air. During these steps, no protective masks, gloves, or goggles are worn. Some residents don’t even realize that mercury is harmful. A man living in Cisitu, a small gold mining village, says,
“I have friends that say don’t use it [mercury], but I honestly don’t know exactly what the dangers are.”
The prolonged exposure of high levels of mercury has left adults with impaired hearing, walking, and speech; tremors, muscle weakness, lack of coordination, and numbness in limbs. Unborn and developing children are among those that suffer the worst side affects. Mercury exposure in the womb can halt brain and nervous system development.
In Cisitu, The child pictured below was born healthy, but once he reached three months, he began to show signs of impaired motor function that has only gotten worse.
In another mining village called Sulawesi, similar health issues were seen in children. They were seemingly healthy until about age three, when walking and speaking became challenging. Then symptoms worsened with seizures and eventually limbs began to stiffen. Doctors have blamed mercury for the events.
Mercury is known to be toxic in the U.S. and several regulations on uses and emissions of the metal have been put in place. However, the president of Indonesia has just recently but a ban on the use of mercury for small scale mining in the past few years. This has not slowed down the mining as the ban has not been enforced. In fact, corrupt public officers turn a blind eye to mercury use if they are given a portion of the purified gold.
Not only are the people of these small mining villages being put at risk for mercury exposure, but also every other citizen that drinks or eats fish from the water supply where the miners are dumping their waste products. Even if all mining is halted today, it would take years to clean up the mercury. Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry is trying to address the problem but the lack of funding is making it difficult.
Because this mining method is so familiar to many small-scale mining villages and has provided quick cash to families, it will be hard to abolish without widespread reform.