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The Straits Times (Singapore)
Monday, March 19, 2007

Mercury rising in Indonesia

By John McBeth, Senior Writer

NORTH-WEST of Central Kalimantan's provincial capital of
Palangkaraya lies a 240 sq km moonscape left by illegal gold
miners that seems to have escaped the attention of Indonesia's
normally vigilant environmental groups.

But as bad as the environmental damage is, it is only secondary
to a far greater menace: the rampant use of liquid mercury and
the long-term health implications for an entire community, not
only in Kalimantan but also in other parts of Indonesia.

Worldwide, the uncontrolled use of mercury, which separates gold
into a ball of amalgam, puts at risk about 50 million people,
most of them small-scale miners. Besides its toxic effects,
particularly on the human foetus, new evidence suggests it may
also lead to heart disease.

Indonesia is one of five countries targeted five years ago by
the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation's (Unido)
Global Mercury Project in a bid to either do away with or at
least cut the use of mercury among miners.

In Brazil, Sudan, Tanzania and Laos, the project appears to have
achieved little success. But in Central Kalimantan's Galangan
region, it has begun to make significant progress, particularly
with the local government coming on board over the past 12
months. That is the good news.

The bad news is the money has dried up and there are no new
donors. 'After all this good work, they now want to bring it to
an end,' says project coordinator Rini Sulaiman, pointing to the
180 tonnes of mercury released into the environment each year in
just five provinces.

Her only hope for financing may rest with well-heeled Freeport
Indonesia, whose giant copper and gold mine in Papua's Central
Highlands has become a magnet for a staggering 10,000 illegal
miners and their families - all in the space of just three years.

Although the tribal and ethnic Bugis prospectors working in the
company's waste rock are not using mercury yet, increasingly
desperate Freeport executives fear it will only be a matter of
time before they do. 'And if that happens,' one points out,
'guess who will get the blame?'

Figures for the number of illegal miners across resource- rich
Indonesia vary from 250,000 to over a million.

Galangan, located 80km outside Palangkaraya, is a one-time
mining concession in the late 1980s which was subsequently
inundated by mostly outside prospectors from Java and
neighbouring South Kalimantan.

At least 1,000 miners remained in this area last year, even
though as many as 1,000 more have moved to a new gold rush area
known as Kelaruh Lake to the south in the heart of Central
Kalimantan's swamplands.

Loosely organised under a network of location bosses, who hold
only a tenuous claim to the land, about 500 five- man work gangs
each produce about 10g of gold a day, or one tonne a year. Three
smaller adjacent fields are believed to contribute another tonne.

After fuel, food and transport costs are deducted, half of the
remaining gold goes to the workers, who earn an average of
90,000 rupiah (S$15) each for a long day of back-breaking work
fraught with the danger of rock falls and cave-ins.

Digging excavation pits up to 10m deep and 50m across, the
miners have been widening the circle of destruction at the rate
of 8 sq km a year. That is now rising in tempo because of a
long-delayed crackdown on logging in Kalimantan's once-pristine
forests.

Further afield, more than 8,000 small suction dredges - each
manned by indigenous Dayaks and equipped with cheap Chinese-made
pumps and high-pressure hoses - are eating away at the banks on
long stretches of the nearby Kahayan River.

The Kahayan and other major rivers like the Katingan and the
Berito serve as conduits for large quantities of alluvial gold
swept down from Borneo's long-dormant central volcanic chain in
an erosion process that has gone on for 32 million years.

Little scientific study seems to have been carried out on the
health of the miners, but it is known that mercury attacks the
central nervous system and kidneys and often causes learning
impairments and respiratory problems among newborn babies. Its
effect is cumulative and there is no cure.

An even bigger problem emerges later when biotransformation
through fish and other marine life converts it into methyl
mercury - the deadly compound which had such a devastating
impact on the Japanese town of Minamata back in the 1950s and
1960s.

Mercury usage became widespread in Galangan in the early 1990s,
when immigrants from the East Java island of Madura took control
of gold production. But after the Dayaks went on a
blood-curdling rampage during civil unrest in 2000, the Madurese
were forced to evacuate.

Unido and local non-governmental organisation Yaya-san Tambuhak
Sinta are having some success in getting miners to avoid
handling the mercury, to cut down on the quantity used and to
work in enclosed ponds. They also offer advice on the best
methods of sluicing and give tips on personal hygiene.

Immigrant miners tend to use large amounts of mercury, yet they
make careful efforts to reclaim the excess. The Dayak miners
manning the dredges tend to use less mercury in the process, but
often discharge what is left directly into the same river
systems where they traditionally fish.

But unlike the miners, the people in the 14,000-strong gold-rush
town of Kereng Pangi may be at graver risk from their exposure
to concentrations of odourless vapour given off when their 34
gold shops melt their amalgam.

Collectively, the shops emit an estimated 1,500kg of mercury a
year. This drifts through the heart of the clapboard settlement.
Researchers say that figure rises to between 3,000kg and 4,000kg
when you add the mercury burned in the goldfields or released
into mounds of waste rock, known as tailings.

However, aid workers are encouraged by the fact that new miners
seem more aware of the dangers now.

'We are trying to find ways to improve their lot,' Ms Rini
explains. 'You will never get rid of mercury, so the whole
approach is to try and reduce its use and put more emphasis on
handling it safely.'

feerjkt@pacific.net.id