More than a million small-scale miners in this island nation are poisoned, which is leaving children with crippling birth defects.
SEKOTONG, INDONESIA – Ipan is 16 months old and suffering his third seizure of the morning. His head is too large for his body, and his legs are as thin as sticks. He arches his back, and his limbs stiffen. He cries out in pain.
His mother, Fatimah, tries to comfort Ipan, but there’s not much she can do. A dukun, or shaman, says his soul was invaded by the spirits of the monkey, bat, and octopus. On his advice, Fatimah and her husband, Nursah, changed the boy’s name from Iqbal to Ipan and fed him tiny rice balls mixed with octopus.
“The dukun says this is why Ipan’s legs look like a monkey’s legs,” Nursah says. “Actually, I don’t believe that, but I will try anything.” Doctors say the real culprit is more down-to-earth: mercury poisoning. His parents are small-scale miners who used the heavy metal to process gold for years before Ipan was born, including while Fatimah was pregnant.
Millions of people in 70 countries across Asia, Africa, and South America have been exposed to high levels of mercury as small-scale mining has proliferated over the past decade. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that at least 10 million miners, including at least four million women and children, are working in small “artisanal” gold mines, which produce as much as 15 percent of the world’s gold.
More than a million miners scratch out an illegal living digging for gold in at least 850 hot spots, says Yuyun Ismawati, a 2009 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize who has conducted extensive research on small-scale mining. Many of them fall prey to corrupt authorities who take a share of the gold rather than enforcing a law that bans mercury use.
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