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“We are the petani kecil (small farmers),” Bang Adam said as we stood talking on top of a flow of dry tailings in a gold mining pit in western Kalimantan. It was only 9 am, but an excruciatingly hot equatorial sun shone down on us. The gnashing sound of dredges sucking up mud and sand in other parts of the pit caused him to talk more loudly than usual.

Bang Adam (not his real name) is a self-made man–not rich, but a small businessman who is proud that small-scale gold mining allowed him to escape poverty. He was orphaned at age nine. His mother died of cancer and his father left Adam and his eight brothers and sisters for another wife and family.

Today, Bang Adam has worked his way up from labouring in others’ mining pits to the status of ‘mine boss’. He runs three dredge sets, each with a nine-man crew of gold workers, all related to him. Over the past 10 years, he has provided work and training in the art of small-scale gold mining to many of his younger siblings and nephews. Having started from nothing, he was today contributing substantial income to the 27 families attached to those men. He regards the mining site as where he works, not as his home. His village, on the other hand, does not offer much remunerative work, though he and his family have access to several hectares of farm land. Moreover, the village in which he lives managed to keep oil palm companies from buying up their land. The costs of everyday living are just too high without off-farm work.

The crews’ three-month verbal contracts were almost up. They had found little gold this time, like most of the other crews in this sprawling mining complex some 600km from their home villages. Like other bosses this contract period, Bang Adam would forgive the advances loaned to workers’ families before the miners left for the mine site and absorb the costs of feeding the crews and running the operation. He was resigned to the losses but was optimistic that they would find more gold soon. He felt this 200 km2 site, mined intensively over the last 20 years, had not yet given up all that it contained.

An economic opportunity

Smallholder gold mining has exploded across Indonesia over the last 20 years. Each site has its own history and manners of working; each pit or shaft within the broader mining sites experiences trajectories of boom and bust. Both the mining activities and the gold produced in these sites compete with those from the gigantic corporate miners known around the world: Freeport, Newmont, and Aurora. Though ‘small-scale’–in the sense that crews work at the direction of a mining boss/small businessman who runs the operations with his or her own money or others’ investments–its effects generate as much shock and awe to the uninitiated observer as do those of their corporate counterparts.

Yet despite the size, depth, and impacts of the behemoths, small-scale mining touches on many more Indonesian lives, environments, and livelihoods. Miners in the sites pictured in the photo essay above hail from nearby villages, or migrate from other parts of West Kalimantan or Java. Through the labour of small-scale miners and mine workers, gold mining provides a major source of income to rural families. This income is particularly important as rural families suffer from the declines in agricultural commodity prices. Most miners we spoke to described the organisation of work and the sharing of the finds as more acceptable and profitable than offered by plantation work or other labouring opportunities in their home areas.

Three main economic reasons–the decline in agroforestry commodity prices, the high potential returns from participation in gold mining, and the organisation of work among small-scale mining crews–are what keep interest in mining alive even when gold sources seem to be running thin.

No easy work

Most mining takes place in pits carved out in swamp or drier lowlands. After an initial hole in the ground is opened by inserting high-powered hoses into the ground, the miners spray water against the walls to make it deeper. Some pits give up gold at depths as shallow as 2 or 3 metres. Many run more dangerously deep–to 18 or 20 metres. Mine pits at that depth cannot be worked by the usual dredge sets (popularly called dompeng, after a brand name of a dredge imported from China). The smaller, 20-30 horsepower dredges can’t boost the gold-bearing mud out of such a deep mine pit; four to six cylinder automobile engines (mesin auto) are deployed for this task. Whether medium-sized dompeng or larger mesin auto, the engines send the mud up through long flexible hoses onto and over a wooden sluice structure.

In the morning, mine crews lay out carpet pieces on the downward sloping surface of the sluice to catch the heavier-than-mud gold flakes and (they hope!) gold chunks as the water propels them down it. A cone-shaped pile of tailings forms at the bottom edge of sluice. Someone may choose to rework these tailings at a later date, as they are likely to contain several grams of gold that were not captured on the first filtering. At the end of the day, miners remove the carpets from the sluice and shake the dust they contain into homemade panning pools of blue tarpaulin. The crew boss who works for the mining boss is entrusted with panning in that pool for the gold. Pools are not shared with other mining crews.

Mercury is used to consolidate the flakes in the pan and detergent is added to rid the gold flakes of the mud and sand that have stuck to them. A ball of gold, appearing encased in silvery mercury, is produced at the end of the panning exercise. The mercury is then burned off using small torches and home made ‘ovens’. This is one of the most dangerous parts of the process–vaporised mercury is more available to be taken up by both human bodies and the environment. Moreover, clouds of mercury are thought to remain over a site for many days, increasing the time of exposure to humans in the area.

Shaft mining involves different labour processes. Shafts are dug into a hillside by hand, members of a mining crew taking turns with the hoe (cangkul), seeking an underground vein of gold-inflected rocks. Every man in the crew is required to take part in the digging, descending into the pit to pull up rocks, and cooking. The gold comes out embedded in rocks, not as swamp mud, and is generally found in conjunction with pyrite or what is known in American and Australian mines as ‘fool’s gold’. There is no ‘boss’; the gold, and money, are divided equally among the crew members after 10 per cent is given to the tuan tanah or land claimant, and either a percentage or a flat fee is paid to the gelondong, the owner of the gold mill.

The main shafts may be dug as deep as 30 metres. No canaries in these mines: diggers wear compressors (air tanks) to enable them to breathe at that depth. Many more perch air blowers on the shaft’s edges to literally blow air into its depths, sometimes directing the air through hoses or pipes. If they find a vein, they dig horizontally, following the vein as far as the available air will take them.

Deadly mistakes

This is not work for the squeamish or the timid. Small-scale gold mining, like large scale gold mining, entails serious risks. Miners know they are putting their lives on the line to do the work; they justify the risk by chalking it up to ‘luck’ and ‘fate’. In pits, the threat of landslides and burial alive is ever present. Indeed, when or whether a wall might collapse is partially a matter of chance–and carelessness.

One boss within the last year was distracted by the work in the pit when he walked up to an unstable edge thereof. It collapsed under him, and the sandy particles comprising the soil moved so fast that he could not claw his way back up to avoid burial. Four miners in the pit were buried with him. In other cases of pit mining, inexperienced miners can endanger their entire crew by spraying too far into the base of the wall, literally undermining it and causing it to collapse. Hillside shafts are also liable to collapse inward if miners do not bolster the walls with boards.

Some mining goes on under rivers, lakes, or in very wet swamps. In these liminal spaces where land and water mix unstably, miners dive, using compressors to provide their oxygen while they dig tunnels through the swampy soils under the river or lake. The danger in these environments is unknowingly digging into an old tunnel or breaking through the upper wall of soil that tenuously separates miners from the water body. Rupturing the wall takes away their buffer, leading to the water rushing into the tunnel and causing many to drown. The uncertainties in all these risk scenarios are, again, regarded as fate. They are well known among miners– as are the specific cases in which five, eight, 10, 18 and more deaths have occurred in mere instants.

Part of the landscape

Why does this activity persist despite its criminalisation and the severe risks entailed in participation? Many miners we interviewed are not interested in the slow and low returns of smallholder agriculture, and are even less attracted by the low pay, conflicts, and poor conditions of labouring on the expanding plantations taking over West Kalimantan’s landscapes. At all levels of work–as diggers, crew bosses, or mine bosses–many have come to regard themselves as professional miners. Those who stopped school after ninth, sixth, or even third grade explained that participation in gold mining is perhaps their only chance to work for more than a subsistence wage. These labour opportunities provided by the sector for the masses are not recognised or appreciated by the government. “Where else”, as one man said to us, “do people put their lives on the line for a job?” They are not forced to stay. They can opt to work in less risky, if lower- paying, locations.

Small-scale mining was made illegal by the Mining Law of 2009, requiring a formal permit from Jakarta’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM). But Jakarta is a long way from these mining sites. Moreover, the numerous police, military, and other government officials using the informal power of their office/positions to extort miners, shopkeepers, and other business people serving the mining community have effectively created underground governing and taxation structures that illegally benefit them. Regulation and formal taxation would benefit the government if small scale mining were decriminalised. As individuals, however, these government actors are not interested in seeing this happen. As a result of these complex relationships, mining sites and miners such as those depicted here are likely to remain part of Indonesia’s rural landscapes.

Though they ‘busted’ in this last contract period, Bang Adam was optimistic that in the next contract period or sooner they would find more gold–before encroaching oil palm companies fill in the massive swamp pits with their industrial-scale ‘excavator’ shovels. They have already begun doing so, putting piles of tailings back into the pits and hiding these 20 years of gold mining under thousands of oil palm trees. The trees thrive, but it is unclear whether the palm fruits will absorb mercury, diesel oil, and gasoline from the soils that now support them. No one, in any case, is asking.

Five years from now, your favourite bananas fried in palm oil might be glowing more brightly.

Nancy Lee Peluso is the Henry J Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. This article and accompanying photo essay (in the player above) are part of a current book project focusing on agrarian transformations and small scale gold mining in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province.

She will give the keynote speech at the Australian National University’s 2015 Indonesia Update Conference, Land and Development in Indonesia: Searching for the People’s Sovereignty.