Miners tempt fate in Indonesian gold rush

Miners tempt fate in Indonesian gold rush

Miners tempt fate in Indonesian gold rush

Updated 6 December 2012, 12:57 AEDT

Thousands of illegal miners are risking their lives and flouting the law to cash in on a gold rush in Indonesia.

This week police clashed with illegal miners in the Maluku province in the country’s east, with reports of injuries and two deaths.

But in West Java about 1,500 or more miners tempt fate in dodgy mineshafts to chip out gold from the jungle hills.

The government knows about the operations, but the miners say they bribe police to turn a blind eye.

Perched on the jungle clad hillside in a restricted part of Pongkor, the miners huddle under a tarpaulin to shelter from the rain.

They have just returned from a tiny mineshaft that tunnels into the side of a hill so steep it is practically a cliff.

At the entrance there has already been a landslide, but the miners know it's a reality of the job.

Chicco, who says he is 19 but looks younger, lights a cigarette off the butt of his last.

When asked if he worries about tunnels collapsing and being trapped under ground, Chicco simply says "it's part of the risk".

Of course we are worried. I think all are worried imagining the disaster happened to us, but what else we can do for living?

Uci Sanusi

Uci Sanusi has been mining here since Chicco was four years old.

"Of course we are worried. I think all are worried imagining the disaster happened to us, but what else can we do for living?" he said.

"It is part of the risk we take for the job. Hopefully it won't happen to us."

The miners took the ABC's waterproof camera into the damp burrow.

The footage shows the cramped conditions they work in as they chain-smoke and chip away at the rock.

Unlike a traditional mine, there are no support beams to support the roof. A small tremor, which are common in Indonesia, or a shock wave from blasting at the nearby ASX-listed mine, could easily cause the shaft to collapse.

"Last time a landslide happened, 42 people lost their lives trapped inside the tunnel," Mr Sanusi said.

From rocks to gold

The miners use sacks to transport the rocks, some of which weigh up to 80 kilograms each.

The miners, or local men they employ, lug the sacks for kilometres along the slippery and muddy jungle paths.

Their destination is an entire valley filled with processing plants.

Thousands of tumblers smash the rocks. The rattle of machines comes from hundreds of processing sheds that fill the valley.

The operation is sophisticated, with water pipes and power lines snaking through the hillside.

They burn it here to purify it from the mercury and other chemicals. Then we flatten it with a hammer for easy handling and cleaning.

Suhendar

The tumbler barrels are a micro version of the technique used by legitimate mines. Some of them are run by generators, while others use the power of the mountain rivers to turn the barrels.

Mercury and cyanide are added to extract the gold from the smashed rocks and gravel.

In the sprawling village, a fresh-faced man called Suhendar is one of the many gold buyers.

"The diggers come here to cash the gold," he said.

"They burn it here to purify it from the mercury and other chemicals. Then we flatten it with a hammer for easy handling and cleaning.

"We put it on a scale to determine the weight and the gold content and how much it worth."

He has already bought $1,000 worth of gold by lunchtime.

On the spot-gold price, he stands to make about $300 for his boss.

The figure is more than 100 times what most people in Indonesia earn in a day.

Toxic environment

In Suhendar’s workshop there are no goggles or gas masks for the miners to use.

This is a good day's work. I went in 150 metres deep and I only got four sacks of 30kgs each.

Samsudin

Instead, they apply a blowtorch and pump air to the flame to burn off the mercury residue.

Mercury fumes choke the air but the miners are undeterred. They burn away, sucking in the toxic chemicals.

Samsudin has come to get his gold valued. He worked all day and night for his loot but he is disappointed.

He says he spent 900,000 rupiah and only earned 1.1 million, a profit of about $20.

"This is a good day's work. I went in 150 metres deep and I only got four sacks of 30kgs each," he said.

"It is not good enough. Disappointing."

Environmental concern

Over the hills, the Antam Pongkor mine is drilling deep into the ground.

The mine is run by the Indonesian government, but is listed on the Australian stock market.

It is also a surprising example of Indonesian health and safety.

As the ABC crew enters, we're made to wear protective gear and go through a safety briefing before entering the mine.

That is not always commonplace in Indonesian workplaces.

Inside the mine they drill holes into the seam, lay charges and blast into the hillside.

They use hazardous chemicals and instead of doing waste treatment, they dump the waste directly into the river which will harm the people who living surrounding our mine

Dari Widjajanto

The rock is scooped into loaders and carted by trains and conveyor belts to a massive version of the illegal miners' tumbler machines.

The mine's manager, Dari Widjajanto, says he is concerned about the impact illegal mining is having on the environment.

"They are doing mining without considering safety for themselves and others," he said.

"Also when they do processing, they use hazardous chemicals and instead of doing waste treatment, they dump the waste directly into the river which will harm the people who living surrounding our mine.

"The effect on the environment has been shown with the increase in the level of cyanide and mercury affecting the clarity of the water of Cikaniki River."

The Cikaniki River is a contributor to Jakarta's water supply but it is also a life-blood for the farming communities and villages on the way to the country's capital.

"People can no longer use the water for daily usage [for] bathing, washing," Mr Widjajanto said.

Illegal but isolated

Indonesia's justice minister Amir Syamsudin says illegal mining is isolated.

"There are cases in which violations occur. It is not a common thing to happen," he said.

"It's merely a case-by-case situation and there are regulations and legal processes that are being enforced and applied to whoever violates the regulations set by the government."

The ABC has been told that over the past few years authorities have cut back the number of miners from about 5,000.

However, there are still about 1,500 or more operating in the valleys and hillsides of the Pongkor jungle.

But despite the best efforts of Antam Pongkor, the illegal mining continues.

The company has even tried to offer the illegal miners skills training so they can get a legitimate job.

"It is difficult to [directly compare] the corporate social-responsibility program and the level of illegal mining activities, because the illegal mining can result in quick gold or money," Mr Widjajanto said.

"For example, we do education on how to do and develop a goat-farming business, which the result only comes in six-months' time.

"[That's] too long for them and less attractive compared with doing illegal mining."

Bribing police

The security approach is not working either, with the illegal miners bribing police.

"The police have been doing some things to try to stop them, but it seems to be failing," Mr Widjajanto said.

Covered in mud and just having emerged from a dangerous hole on the treacherous hillside, the miners are aware they are breaking the law.

"We know illegal mining is prohibited by the government," Mr Sanusi said.

We know illegal mining is prohibited by the government ... But what else we can do for living? This is all we can do.

Uci Sanusi

"But what else we can do for living? This is all we can do."

He says police patrols stop the porters they hire to cart the rocks back for processing.

"Yes, that happens occasionally ... and they give the police money," he said.

"But it has a good side too, you see. By paying [the police] money, order and security are maintained.

"This is harsh mountain territory where many thugs and criminals are also around.

"The presence of armed security personal is good.

"They have an understanding about our life; [they’re] not merely carrying out their job to secure the legal mine. They have tolerance."