In Indonesia’s illegal mines, the poor risk it all for fortune
Lampang has been a miner at a community gold mine in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan for more than 30 years. Even still, he does not like to talk openly about his work.
Indonesia’s earth is known for its rich gold deposits, drawing fortune seekers from across the country, especially poorer areas with few employment options. But while illegal gold mining – mining for gold without a permit – may be lucrative for some, for others it can be deadly.
On April 28, a cliff collapsed at an illegal mine in Mandailing Natal, North Sumatra Province, fatally trapping 12 female workers in a two-metre deep pit. The victims, who were aged between 30 and 55, were found after two other women who had also been looking for gold raised the alarm.
Landslides around mines in Indonesia are a common occurrence, usually resulting from a combination of heavy rains and unstable land according to environmental activists, although the government does not keep official figures on the number of deaths at illegal sites each year.
Last year, six miners died at an illegal gold mine in Central Sulawesi, while 11 miners died at an unlicensed coal mine in a similar incident in South Sumatra in 2020.
“The biggest risk at a mine is indeed a landslide,” said Lampang. “Fortunately, that has never happened to me, but it happens a lot when people chase their fortune instead of focusing on safety first.”
To guard against landslides, Lampang said the miners at his community mine use a blower to dry out the earth underground in an effort to make it more stable.
While hard data is difficult to come by due to the secretive nature of the industry, the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry has estimated there to be almost 9,000 illegal mines operating across Indonesia, of which about one quarter are gold mines.
As well as gold, Indonesia is rich in minerals including silver, copper, tin, platinum and bauxite – a sedimentary rock with a high aluminium content. The country is also home to the officially sanctioned Grasberg mine located in Papua, the world’s largest gold mine.