At the end of a muddy track through plantations of oil-palm and cocoa on the Indonesian island of Bangka, three dozen men on wooden rafts off the beach are dredging black sand from the shallow bay.
The workers, near the village of Sungai Liat, are among hundreds of illegal tin miners on the island, the first link in a chain of trucks, smelters and fishing boats that smuggles the metal out of the country. Backed by a complex web of corruption and international payments, the dark sediment is transformed into the solder that ultimately ends up binding the electronics in everything from smartphones to cars.
The trail begins on two islands off the coast of Sumatra in a sea channel that connects Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, to Singapore and Malaysia. These islands, called Bangka and Belitung, produce more than 90 percent of the tin in Indonesia, which is the world’s biggest exporter of the metal.
Most of that production comes from mining companies such as PT Timah, the world’s third-largest producer. Pits those operators abandoned and more marginal deposits are worked illegally by men and children using diesel-powered equipment on floating platforms off remote stretches of coast, or with high-pressure hoses on land. Unlicensed and unregulated, the work is dangerous and deaths from collapsed mines are common.
The illegal operators attracted the attention of President Joko Widodo, who vowed to put an end to the practice days after visiting Bangka on June 21.
Failure to do so is harming the government’s ability to effectively tax one of its major export industries and is undermining the global tin price, which has been hit hard by falling demand from China and increased supplies from mines in Myanmar. The price of tin, also used in packaging, has fallen by more than a third in the past year and has lost more than half its value since its peak in 2011.
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