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 per cent 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.
Nestled on the floor of a valley and surrounded by terraced rice fields, at a glance it’s idyllic. But air and food samples tell another story.
The average mercury concentration in the air is close to 10 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines, according to 2012 samples taken by BaliFokus.
In some sample areas, mercury concentration is more than 50 times higher.
Stored rice — the staple food in the village —was found to have methyl-mercury levels up to 10 times higher than WHO recommendations.
“It’s not only that they pollute the environment in general, they consume the environment,” says Dr. Stephen Bose-O’Reilly, a German expert on the health impacts of mercury, who has visited the area multiple times. “They pollute the fishponds and rice fields.”
In October last year, 18 villagers from Cisitu were assessed by a medical team led by Dr. Jossep Frederick William of the Medicuss Foundation.
All but three were judged to be intoxicated with mercury, showing typical symptoms such as involuntary trembling and shaking of limbs, coordination problems and ataxia.
Hair and urine samples also showed elevated mercury levels, a recently released report says.
Despite a relatively small sample size, the results are enough to warrant a more comprehensive testing and immediate health care, say Bose-O’Reilly and Ismawati.
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