Destructive gold fever takes the shine off tourism

A Lombok villager cooks with mercury to extract gold from rock under a sign urging people to buy the precious metal. (Picture: Deborah Cassrels Source: Supplied)

THE Indonesian island of Lombok is yet to become Bali’s nemesis as a tourist destination, but locals have found there are other ways to make a buck.

Gold fever has gripped parts of the island, particularly the southwest peninsula of Sekotong, transforming areas prized by many Australians for their superb surfing and scenery into hotbeds of discontent and environmental disaster.

Over lunch, served poolside at Cocotinos Resort, the only luxury destination in Sekotong, there’s scant evidence all is not well.

Dubbed an eco resort, it is encircled by pristine white sand beaches, verdant rolling hills, coconut groves and development torpor. Such is life on Lombok, a paradise in waiting.

Foreign guests tuck into fresh salads, hamburgers and seafood, unaware that the produce is not from the crystal-clear waters in which they were recently diving, or from the lush vegetation or the local animals.

Resort owner T. M. Wong whispers conspiratorially: ‘We are not buying local produce, as a protection for clients. We get food and water from Mataram (Lombok’s capital) or Bali.” The coral reef, a stone’s throw away, has also faded from a rich, brilliant hue to a bleached aberration.

Of paramount concern is the threat of mercury contamination in water, soil and food as locals engage in rampant small-scale illegal goldmining using toxic processing methods. Mercury, used to extract gold from the rock, causes neurological disorders, trembling and fever, and produces shocking deformities in children.

But with no regulations, nor education on the dangers, the toxic substance is vaporised or dumped, along with other mining waste including cyanide, on to land or into rivers and then flushed into the sea.

Since 2008 the gold rush has been driving once sleepy villages in Sekotong. Government attempts to stop illegal miners have been ignored, while hundreds have died in collapsing mines and landslides. Earning up to $200 a day, the new rich earn substantially more than the few dollars they picked up as fishermen or farmers.

Clashes with police, the military and mining companies — with corrupt officials fuelling resistance — are common; this week on neighbouring Sumbawa island police shot dead two locals protesting over the Australian Arc Exploration gold mine.

In an incident on Lombok in October, violence erupted between miners and Southern Arc, the Canadian parent of Indonesian subsidiary PT Indotan, which was granted a mining permit earlier in the year. Miners blocked staff and equipment from entering the exploration site before demanding permits to continue mining. Southern Arc countered by offering to recruit 400 local miners in November. Earlier a local was killed by police, and two were arrested for burning the PT Indotan facility. In response, locals attacked the police office.

What they are fighting for is 1395 tonnes of gold in the hills of Sekotong. The spoils have attracted about 6000 illegal miners, who are digging up 12,000ha in 18 areas, much of which is protected forest and private land, according to the West Lombok Energy and Mineral Resources office.

Drive round the winding, picturesque coastline and the telltale tarpaulins dotted over Sekotong’s hills — where locals live and die digging for gold — signal the locals’ desperation to do better.

Sacks overflowing with ore are piled outside houses and processing plants, waiting to be crushed. The rock has been removed by hand and delivered by women carrying the sacks on their heads, ignorant of the gold content.

New concrete houses are replacing traditional thatched huts in the villages, and it’s de rigueur to sport multiple gold crushing machines in the front yard where water, high concentrations of mercury and tailings slosh about, frequently spilling on to soil where children play and animals wander.

When Inquirer visited the area, villagers without protective clothing were extracting ore, inhaling mercury fumes over naked flames. Despite suffering dizziness, villagers say they are OK. They might be sick five years down the track but they don’t care. “It’s no big deal; we drink coconut juice, that fixes it,” says one.

Sekotong is close to Lembar Harbour, the jumping-off point from Bali to spectacular diving and surfing spots, including the world-renowned Desert Point, so named by Australian surfers for its isolation. The town attracts foreign investors and visitors from Bali who cherish Lombok’s natural beauty. Authorities have their hopes pinned on the pristine Lombok mainland as their ticket to a booming tourist economy.

It has plenty going for it: its long-awaited international airport opened this year; beleaguered development processes in the south are finally progressing; and Bali’s overdevelopment and overpopulation, along with a recent flurry of negative publicity, mean many are seeking an alternative. But gold fever, with its toxic by-products, may kill the industry before it’s born.

The head of the West Nusa Tengarra (a region that comprises Lombok and Sumbawa) Foreign Investment Board, Lalu Bayu Windya, thumbing through a list of 87 foreign investments in Sekotong, despairs that most land is “inactive”, with tourism development flat. Much of the land was bought in 2008 in the heat of the gold rush.

“The government has a plan to build marinas for cruise ships and yachts next year,” he says. “Foreigners have bought a lot of land, but they haven’t started building yet.”

An exception, the European-owned Palm Beach Garden guesthouse in Pelangan, embraces mining as a tourist attraction. Operations manager Bukran, although he still takes eager tourists to pan for gold, has lost many friends killed in the pits.

“One year ago there were many accidents, and in 2009, 200 people died in a big hole,” he says.

“It was easy to get gold then. It paid rupiah 450,000 ($50) for one gram.” Now gold ranges in value from R425,000 for 24-carat to R280,000 for 18-carat. It’s still worth the effort in a country where the official minimum wage is $100 a month, although many earn less than that. Much of the ore is transported to Mataram, famous for its jewellery stores, where the same perilous mercury techniques are used in processing.

Perth and Bali-based developer David Pillinger was drawn into Sekotong’s environmental mining concerns a couple of years ago by a group of Australians who own land there but haven’t built. They share a love of surfing and diving, and an attachment to the spectacular landscape. Pooling resources and know-how, they tried to facilitate a sustainable plan, but Pillinger says corruption stymied it.

“It’s like the wild west gold rush,” he says of the charged atmosphere. “Literally, it’s like walking into a saloon.” Their idea was to form a co-operative operating under its own licence with security of tenure, with the local government receiving royalty payments. “It didn’t seem to be what the government wanted. Everyone had their little gold assay plant,” Pillinger says of the villagers’ archaic processing methods. “They were crushing the gold down to a superfine slurry, then (panning) it. They were burning mercury over an open Bunsen burner. Then they get their wives to do it. They sit there with a wok, burning this mercury.

“Some of the best snorkelling is in these beautiful reefs,” he says. “There used to be farming and fishing: it’s gone. The big prawn farms are empty; no one wants to do it. They get paid more for risking their lives doing goldmining. It’s really dangerous and the by-product is killing and deforming everything of the future of that area.”

Pillinger became involved with the regent of southwest Lombok, Zainy Arony, who has advocated a zoning plan for Sekotong with designated community mining.

Consultations between the provincial government and the national Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources are in flux. Meanwhile, the government overturned Lombok’s tourism zoning last year to allow 1500ha of traditional small-scale mining.

Despite health and environmental alarms, local government lethargy appears solid. “There are no reports of environmental monitoring carried out stating that the goldmining activities have shown a significant adverse and large impact,” investment board head Bayu says. That is no surprise, given the government’s aversion to funding studies, a lack of initiative to monitor effects of chemical use and an entrenched culture of corruption.

A study undertaken last year by the head of the physics department at Mataram University, S. Hiden, found unsafe levels of mercury in Sekotong soil, but that “it’s normal, according to the city council”. Government research funding was a paltry R5 million ($500). “We wanted to measure the water,” Hiden says, “but there is no more funding.”

Contradicting this, the head of the government-run Environment Agency, Tadjuddin Erfandy, claims no independent study has been undertaken. He cites a government study on mercury and cyanide contamination about two years ago that “found the quality of water in Sekotong — in sea, rivers and creeks — was safe, with no indication of mercury contamination in the fish”.

Although annual checks are scheduled, they are irregular because of funding shortages.

Environmental engineer Yuyun Ismawati, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009, is completing a master’s degree at Oxford University on mercury in artisanal small-scale mining in Indonesia. She cites evidence that mercury levels in Sekotong’s water and fish far exceed the World Health Organisation’s safe standard of 0.001 parts per million. Mercury in river sediment is 600 to 3500 times higher than the WHO standard, according to a 2010 study conducted by Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta.

Mercury in fish in Glodok, a downstream area of West Lombok where several rivers flow to the southern coast, was up to 2000 times higher. Hair samples of local children also showed unsafe mercury levels.

“Sadly, in hair samples from children aged 0 to 4 years mercury concentration was up to 20.07ppm,” says Ismawati, who featured in Time magazine’s 2009 list of environmental heroes. “In the next two to three years I believe there will be many children with congenital diseases as the mother eats mercury-contaminated fish.”

Compounding the problem is the sale of illegal mercury brought into Lombok and Bali.

“One of the big mercury illegal importers told me he imported mercury under the table, paying off customs and police officials to import 200 tonnes of mercury,” Ismawati says. “While the official figure of mercury importation from the Ministry of Trade in 2010 and 2011 is only two tonnes: that is the total amount used by manufacturing companies to make compact fluorescent lamps and sphygmomanometers (blood pressure meters).”

To make matters worse, in Indonesia there are no laws banning the use of mercury or cyanide, which are sold openly in shops and on websites. Ismawati sees Sekotong as a looming tragedy similar to that of Minamata in Japan, which claimed nearly 2000 lives after a mercury poisoning outbreak 55 years ago.

Among the 900 hot spots in Indonesia, miners suffering tremors and fever indicative of mercury poisoning have been misdiagnosed as having dengue fever, malaria or stomach cancer. Reports have not been released.

Regional autonomy, a legal quagmire, also hampers the regulation of small miners who slip through myriad gaps into unprotected territory. “It’s cowboy country. There’s cheating at every stage, with no records of gold trade or of gold produced at hot spots,” says Ismawati, adding that child labour is common. “Many shaft openings are so narrow only a child could get in. Some have died in landslides.”

When Pillinger opted out he was pushing for the banning of mercury: “I thought I could bring some expertise from Western Australia. I took some geologists and a couple of people from public mining companies who were willing to do something.”

He suggested a community processing plant with sealed units that recycled waste and water, but “you can’t stop them mining, it’s like their god-given right. Indonesia could have safe, Australian environmentally approved processes, but it’s too hard. You put your money in and they steal it.”

Author: Deborah Casserls
Source: The Australian



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