Cisitu, Banten. Inside a dusty, cupboard-sized workshop in the remote mountains of western Java, Ateng spells out the toxic mix he uses to produce gold.
“I used 300 grams of mercury, in five ball mills, for two sacks of ore,” the 25-year-old says, flicking a blowtorch alight and taking aim at the amalgam of gold ore and mercury in front of him.
It’s a familiar calculation for Ateng, and one that in some form or another has been utilized for centuries — using mercury, a highly toxic liquid metal, to extract gold from ore. But here in Cisitu, a gold mining village deep in Gunung Halimun National Park, medical experts and environmental campaigners believe it could be the cause of a rash of illnesses among residents.
Rice fields and fishponds have been poisoned, environmental testing has found, and some residents are showing signs of severe mercury intoxication.
What’s more worrying to campaigners like Yuyun Ismawati, a Goldman Prize-winning environmental engineer and senior adviser at BaliFokus, is that a similar situation is being played out at hundreds of mining hot spots across Indonesia.
“You cannot see it now, but the cost of inaction could be huge,” says Ismawati, an Indonesian now based in the United Kingdom.
The use of mercury, which helps extract gold from chunks of ore by creating an amalgam, is widespread among artisanal gold miners in Indonesia.
The small-scale gold mining sector is now believed to employ more than one million people in hundreds of mining hotspots across the country. It also contributed about 57 percent of Indonesia’s total mercury emissions in 2012, according to researchers.
Most of the operations are illegal, backed by a cast of corrupt officials, military, police and invisible financiers, says Ismawati, who recently received a US State Department grant to study the mercury trade.
For impoverished regions, small-scale gold mining has provided quick cash, new motorbikes and modest homes, but it’s come with irreversible affects to the environment.
Gaseous mercury is released into the air during purification, and waste material leaches into soil, drains into rice paddies, fishponds and the ocean. From there it can find its way into the food chain.
Nowhere is this clearer than Cisitu, a town of about 7,000 people in Banten province, roughly eight hours’ drive from Jakarta.
To reach it from the next town with dependable cell phone reception visitors have to drive at least two hours along muddy and rutted roads, up and over a series of jungle-clad peaks.
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