Poisonous Price of Gold Mining in Indonesia

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.

Pekerja memutar puluhan tromol berisi pasir dan bebatuan yang mengandung emas di pertambangan emas rakyat Kelurahan Poboya, Palu, Sulawesi Tengah, Jumat (18/10)

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.








15 thoughts on “Poisonous Price of Gold Mining in Indonesia

  1. We have all heard that mercury is a poisonous substance and its sad to read stories of how other countries are still using this metal for industry purposes. I think that the people who are mining for gold do in fact realize that mercury is causing birth defects in their children, but I doubt they are slowing down any time soon. For the people in Indonesia, this is their way of life, they know nothing else. I don’t think a solution of removing the mercury or banning the process will slow anything down. An alternative could be to find another liquid material that can replicate the process but also minimizes the health risks. I don’t think a widespread reform will yield success but rather finding alternative methods to producing the gold people rely on.


  2. I don’t think that mercury poisoning will stop small scale gold miners from using mercury to purify their ore. This is a case of them providing for their families the best way they know how. I would guess that they understand that using mercury is harmful to their health (they might not understand the science but they understand the results), but for them there is no other option available. I think that there has to be outside pressure from consumers for the industry to change. The fair trade movement has shown that consumers are willing to pay more for a product based on socio-economic change. The same trend can be seen, maybe to a lesser degree, in the diamond market. Maybe it is time for a mercury-free gold movement.


  3. This was an interesting read. I doubt the people in Indonesia who are doing the gold mining will stop this practice anytime soon even though they are aware of the negative health effects of mercury. The way they see it is that it provides for them and their family to live. Yes, there are signs of the effects but as long as it is putting food on the table and roofs on their heads, quitting the practice altogether will be unlikely. One possible solution is if they find another way of life to make money as efficiently or better. However, since there is no regulation and as long as there are buyers, it will be hard to stop.


  4. I’m going to agree with everyone else who’s saying that these miners won’t stop using mercury because they have no other viable option. The only way it would make sense for them to stop is if there is another option that they can use to feed their families immediately the way they can with the mercury mining process. The best case scenario here is that the Indonesian government steps in and develops a way to extract gold without the mercury but that seems unlikely to happen. That role might need to be taken up by a non-profit or humanitarian aid group.


  5. Man… that is a mess. Are there any reports of the concentrations of mercury in the atmosphere and surface water? Maybe my mind is just playing the situation to extremes, but if this keeps up and grows, those places could very well become wastelands… and I think as I read, “who would be willing to go there to help them find a better way?” Undoubtedly, whoever goes would not come back unscathed. Those people are being permanently damaged. Just thinking about that fact alone for more than 20 seconds is enough to build a pressure in my chest. They need to know that mercury is destroying their people and their homes, but yeah, don’t they already see it? How can others help them understand the severity of the substance?


  6. It’s such a terrible situation. On the one hand I wish they would stop using Mercury but for many this is likely their only source of income. It’s easy for me to say they shouldn’t use it when I’m not stuck in tough situation they find themselves in. Many similar issues occurred in the west during the Industrial revolution and no one really knew how bad it was back then. Hopefully today we can provide these people with better education so they can learn from our mistakes and adapt quicker than we did.


  7. The only way I see change happening in this situation is through government regulation. The people who are needing to provide for their homes and families will most likely not care about the dangers their jobs present, making it the government’s duty to protect their citizens for their own good. The problem with this, of course, is the corruption seen in this government. No real change can be made if those in charge care more about money than the health and safety of those around them.


  8. This is one of those cases where stopping the incident at its source will only harm the civilization socially and economically. In order to get the environmental damage under control, we must first ask: what pieces are they missing? Education and training are the key elements that will help reduce the use of mercury and its effect. We cannot look at this in a Westernized view, though. A lot of the problems within Indonesia need to be handled by Indonesians, especially when it comes to infrastructure.


  9. This is a common theme in the developing world – people doing work in environmentally toxic industries, but still choosing to do because it may be one of their only sources of income options. Or doing work that is not toxic to themselves, but enhancing environmental issues (such as the use of plastic in developing countries). I would love to do more research on industries/business/economic systems that may defy this because this often seems the case!


  10. Even though these families probably do know the true consequences of using mercury without safety precautions, I find it difficult to blame them completely for their children’s poor health. These families honestly have no other options in terms of providing for themselves and their families. This is just a factor that is almost always seen from these corruption and less regulated developing countries.


  11. This was a very interesting post. Many don’t really think about mercury poisoning because this isn’t an issue that we here in the United States have to deal with. But this is a very important issue that doesn’t need to be ignored, if something isn’t done countries like the ones talked about in this post will have a significant population decrease as the older generations die out. With many of the children becoming sick and dying at a young age, countries like the ones mentioned in this post will be effected significantly.


  12. This is so wrong on so many levels. It really disturbs me that their best (only) choice of even surviving is to sacrifice their health. In international development, you have to talk about “decent” employment. It is not acceptable to say that we can’t do anything simply because it helps them, at a cost. How about finding a different way for people to earn a living, that won’t hurt them and the environment as much? I wonder if consolidation of operations (versus small scale farming) could improve safety standards and let regulations actually make an impact.


  13. This is a very sad article to read as it puts into perspective how fortunate we are to live in the United States. Without foreign assistance, I don’t see this changing in the near or distance future. Hopefully the economy there will take a different direction and reduce the number of those affected by Mercury.


  14. I’m curious not only on the acute effects of the mercury, but the long term effects. In class I asked about “Mad Hatter Disease”, poisoning from the same process described in this post. However, the symptom and its causes were documented in England in the 1800’s…Clearly, the world is more concerned about its own citizens’ health with tight regulation within the US, UK, and Europe, yet we aren’t concerned enough about the health of other global citizens from an 1800’s preventable mental malady. We like to pride ourselves on how much good we’ve done with diamonds in the world, but the amount of minerals and manufactured goods produced unethically is staggering. We read about the fashion industry and avocadoes last month, and now this. When did the first world get so good at ignoring human rights for cheap stuff?


  15. Wow. This is both fascinating and really sad. I had not heard that this was an issue in Indonesia before I read your post. From a policy perspective, I wonder how much tightening environmental regulations in the United States coupled with an increased demand for gold influenced the rise in mining in Indonesia… We live in such an interconnected world with such an inherently global economy. Sometimes it seems like plugging a hole in a dam only to have water start to spill out of another place further down the wall.


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