Indonesia tackles illegal gold rush

An illegal gold mine on the banks of the Tabir river in Indonesia's Sumatra island. With no regulation in the early days of the boom, miners became bolder and started openly using excavators.
An illegal gold mine on the banks of the Tabir river in Indonesia's Sumatra island. With no regulation in the early days of the boom, miners became bolder and started openly using excavators.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WEST TABIR (Sumatra) • Hulking excavators claw at riverbanks on Indonesia's Sumatra island in the hunt for gold, transforming what was once a rural idyll into a scarred, pitted moonscape.

It is one of a huge number of illegal gold mines that have sprung up across the resource-rich archipelago as the price of the precious metal has soared.

Now the authorities in Jambi province, which has one of the biggest concentrations of illegal mining sites in Indonesia, have started a fightback, combining a crackdown with attempts at regulation.

Declines in the price of rubber, which provided a livelihood for many in the area, has driven many locals to the more lucrative - and dangerous - gold mining.

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Mr Iwan, a 43-year-old who works at an illegal site by the Tabir river, left his job on a rubber plantation two years ago. "This year has been tough because there are days when we don't find any gold," he said. "But it's still better than being a rubber farmer because rubber is very cheap nowadays."

The illicit industry in Jambi started off in a handful of places with small-time prospectors panning for gold, but has exploded to about 100 sites in recent years.

Miners also became bolder and began openly using excavators. Mining in the province is usually carried out at open sites next to rivers, where workers dig shallow pits in the hunt for gold deposits that build up next to waterways.

TAPPING A DIFFERENT VEIN

This year has been tough because there are days when we don't find any gold. But it's still better than being a rubber farmer because rubber is very cheap nowadays.

MR IWAN, a 43-year-old who works at an illegal site by the Tabir river. He left his job on a rubber plantation two years ago.

The work is risky. Burning mercury mixed with raw ore to extract gold is common, but can cause serious neurological damage. Miners sometimes develop problems such as tremors and persistent coughs.

Police have raided mines, and the authorities have initiated programmes to offer training in farming techniques in a bid to lure workers away from prospecting.

But officials realise that cracking down alone is not the solution. They are also starting to regulate the industry by offering would-be miners a route to working legally.

Under a new plan, miners and small groups can apply to open up a pit in a "People's Mining Area". This way, the authorities can oversee the work, thus limiting environmental damage, and local government coffers will get a boost as miners would have to pay tax on the gold they find.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'Indonesia tackles illegal gold rush'. Print Edition | Subscribe