November 05. 2009 -->
December 11. 2009
A scooter comes rushing down the dusty road surrounded by the empty rice fields. The sound from the scooter seems out of place in the silent surroundings. There’s two men on the scooter, and the distal male has a large wok on the back and a hoe and a shovel in his right hand, the two men on the scooter dance from side to side to avoid the many holes in the damaged road. They are heading towards one of the eight mining sites in the Bombana district.
The island of Sulawesi in Indonesia lies between Banda Sea and Flores sea and the strange shape is remeniscant of a Japanese character. At the most south-east end of the island, 250 kilometers from the provincial capital of Kendari, behind the gentle mountains, lies Bombana district. It used to be the province's larder and supplier of vast quantities of rice to the region, now it’s a dry mausoleum. The rice that was planted earlier this year, looks inedible. In August 2008, huge quantities of gold were found, and now the region has been emptied of hard-working hands - everyone wants a part of the wealth that lies beneath their feet. The quest for gold has vast consequences for the people living close to the mines.
Tuk tuk tuktuk - the noise from the many pumps in the area emits a deafening noise, and the black smoke from the engine rises lazily against a cloudless sky. The heat lies scorching as a hot blanket over the area, and those who aren’t digging for gold, seek refuge in the shade of the trees that have yet to be chopped down to make room for the mines. At the bottom of one of the major mine craters, there is still a bit of water, but the monsoonrain has yet to hit the area. The last drops are wrung out of Langkowala river. Everything in the area is hungry for water, but the mines have the greatest thirst. For every gram of gold you use 100 liters of water. According to Nur Alam, who is Governor of the South-East Sulawesi, there is one million tons of gold in the Bombana district. It doesn’t leave much water for what was formerly an agricultural area with many hectares of rice fields.
With mud all over his face, one of the men down at the bottom of the hole is hard at work. He is hosing the soil off the sides of the ever-growing crater in the landscape. Work is progressing at high speed, and the scars that are in the countryside, gets bigger and bigger. Since the discovery of gold in Bombana, in August 2008, the transformation has been enormous. Some of the workers come from the local area, but most of them come from far away. Java, Kalimantan and Bali are some of the places the workers come from. They all hope, to get a part in the wealth. Not everyone can find work in the mines, so some may find other ways to earn their money. Recently, police caught eight robbers armed with guns, and police estimate that there are about 300 robbers in the area.
It is midday and the sun is as high in the sky, as it can go. The shadows are short, a few people are still working out in the relentless sun, but most seek shelter under the endless blue tarpaulins. In the shadow of the sun the workers take a nap, some are preparing lunch in the makeshift kitchen.
University in Kendari have made preliminary studies of the water in the Langkowala river - the river flowing through the mining area. Their measurements show a large excess amount of mercury in the water. The amount is in some places about 500 times higher than the permissible limit. The water in the river is used for everything from drinking to bathing and to keep agriculture alive. Mercury is a heavy metal, and it can poison humans by direct contact, by ingestion, for example, fish, and the vapors from mercury is also toxic and can travel far away through the air. Superintendent at the hospital in Bombana, Abdul Wahab, will not make any direct conclusions yet, but he is experiencing an increase in patients with skin diseases and hypertension, both can be symptoms of contact with mercury. Besides these symptoms, mercury affects the pregnant woman and her fetus, it inhibits the development of the brain and can lead to deformed children. Symptoms in children may be loss of hair, teeth and nails. In the worst cases of mercury poisoning it can be devastating for the brain, liver and lungs. Minamata disease is a disorder caused by mercury poisoning. A dangerous illness that in extreme cases can cause insanity, paralysis, coma and death.
The river is drained away and waiting for monsoon rain to begin. "When the rain comes, it will get the wheels going again, and people will be happy, but I am afraid of what the river will take with it from the mines and down to the farmers and fishermen," says Dean of Haluoleo University in Kendari, Muhammad Aslan continues: "It will be good and get things running again, but all that mercury, which is buried in the ground will be pulled from the water and sent to all the wrong places." The toxic water is already being used for drinking water in the mines. The men stand in water to their ankles, operating the pump on the raft in the water. From there, the men are pumping water up into large containers and then selling the water to the people in the mining camps. "People are not afraid of the mercury, they can not see the immediate effect, so it doesn’t scare them," says Muhammad Aslan. The short term advantages overshadow the far-reaching implications of gold mining. It is the hallmark of a people who are desperate for a better life.
Rarongkey is an area close to the sea, and much of the area covered by fish farms. It is here the Langkowalafloden flows through before the water ends up in Tiworo bay. The smell of stagnant salt water is the first, which hit the senses, and the smell of ammonia is everywhere. The water for the fish farms is channeled in from the sea. One of the families who run one of these farms, the Tayeb family, live in a very simple house on stilts in the middle of all the black lakes, which lie side by side, as far as the eye can see. The trees are long since dead and are left as white tombstones. The men and the oldest of the boys are running around and catching the fish. Men on scooters drive back and forth between the fish farm and the nearby town, here the fish are distributed to the city of Bombana and to the city Kendari. The water isn’t flowing in the Langkowala river yet, but the rains are coming, says the locals. Soon the water will flow into fish farms, and take the water containing the mercury with it. The mercury will be absorbed by the fish, and then it will work it’s way up through the food chain. The Langkowala river travel from the top of the mountain and ends in the Tiworo bay on the other side of the fish farms.
The children in the village of Watu Watu runs down the dusty road. "We have no power at night, so sometimes we get bored at night," Asman laughs and nods his head in the direction of the many children. Asman belongs to the Moronene tribe, and he has just been down to the river to wash his scooter. The small village exudes life and this despite the fact that they are preparing Tadirs funeral. Tadir had been ill for three months with cancer of the stomach, and he leaves behind a wife and three children. Tadir is lying on the floor inside his house, wrapped in a white sheet, a devout silence inside the house. The Imam is praying while Tadirs brother sits with head bowed and hands on the white sheet, Tadirs sunken cheeks and pale skin speaks a clear language about a slow death. But it is not death that is most noticable in the small village, it is the many children who are all over. A little boy with the name Ronaldo written on the back is the goalkeeper, eight or nine other boys, with what seems as inexhaustible amounts of energy, are chasing the ball around the courtyard.
At the bottom of the small revine the sound of laughter and splashing can be heard, a sound that is amplified and sent up towards the dam. The dam seems pointless, since there is no water in the river and the canal system from the dam that is suppose to send water down to the farmers, is equally dry. There is a bit of water below the dam. This was where the University of Kendari took water samples a few months ago that showed a very high content of mercury. Two boys are swimming around in the water, at the water's edge two women are washing clothes, one of the women have a little boy on her lap. The two boys are showing of, doing daring flips into the shallow water. This is where people from the Moronene tribe take their daily bath, they are hoping for rain, so the water can flow in the river again.
On the floor in the little house in Kendari sits Mansour Lababa, he is head of the Moronene tribe. Lababa sips the glass with the overly sweet ice tea, and water beads on the outside of the cold glass. "My main task at this time is to protect my people's rights against the mining company,"the Moronene tribe was formerly a nomadic people, but now they have settled in the area and they cultivate the soil. They are threatened by people from the mine, who want their land. "I do not think we should stop people from going to the mines, I would like to cooperate, but I think my people have the right to get something out of this situation." Says Lababa. He has tried to get the government into action, "Right now the miners are doing what ever they feel like, and the government does nothing, and things just get worse and worse, because nothing is done to defend my people." Lababas voice rose in volume and speed, and he waves his right hand back and forth as if he were about to lead an orchestra. Lababa is also concerned about the situation with water in the area around Langkowala river. "Some of those who live by the river are beginning to understand the risks of the poisoned water, but they can not see the damage right away, so they do as they always have." Lababas outrage is replaved by discouragement and anxiety is beeming out of the man.
The Abas family, is a farmer family, and like so many others in the area they are without water. They live in the area called Rarongkey. The 16 family members do not know how they will survive as farmers if this continues, and they can not understand why there is no water. Nor do they know anything about what is happening in the mines, the miners use most of the water before it reaches the lowlands, where the farmers live. The head of the Abas family think that there are two sides to what is going on. "I think it's good that people have the opportunity to work and earn money, but there are too many problems with all these outsiders comming to the area, and I think it hurts agriculture."
Ketut Alik has some very beautiful features, she does not protrude much into the landscape, and in the dusk she's out tending to her cows. "Last year I had a good rice harvest, but there is no water in the river any more," says Ketut Alik. The soil should be wet and lush, but since the river has been curbed by the mines, the water does not reach the farmers any more. Ketut Alik is just one of many in the area who may have to find something else to do. She has to support seven people, and her husband is sick on the seventh year, so she has to manage with the few cows she has.
Ashari Usman is sitting in front of his old PC and the small mixing console, which represents the studio in his radio station. Ashari is a journalist sitting in the electoral committee in Bombana. He has seen with his own eyes the changes that the mines have taken with it. "Everything has become expensive for the citizens of Bombana, since the city has been invaded, things such as food and gasoline are much more expensive now. The biggest problem is the price of a piece of land, it is impossible for a local farmer to purchase land for farming, as prices have rocketed. "Ashari leans back in the sofa, and continues, "I do not think the mines should be shut down, I just think there should be a more equal distribution of wealth, and of course there is also problems with the environmental policy in the mines, there is none!" he says and laughs loudly. Inside the studio the sound of some generic western pop song can be heard. "Another problem is the government in Bombana, they throw permits to dig for gold left and right. They admit that they have no track of how many licenses they have given. "Ashari believes there should be more control over the things that are happening in the mines, and he does not like the many who come to the area to dig for gold illegally.
Five hundred meters from one of the mines the school Rabowatu Utara is located, Aloysius is a teacher at the school. "The mines are getting closer and closer to the city. In the beginning I was happy like everybody else about the gold we have in the area. People from my community had an oppertunity to make money, but now I'm starting to see fewer students in classes, and it worries me. "Aloysius is not very tall and he has a friendly face, all around him the children are standing, listening to him speak, he continues. "I am also afraid of what happens when the rain comes, elsewhere in the country, there have been mudslides, and nobody knows what will happen here."
It is gradually thinned out a little in the kids and the big boys are out in front of the house where the excited shouts can be heard, the football sometimes appears in the window. "People in this area have been afraid to eat fish, they heard about the pollution, but fish it is an important part of our diet, and it is cheap, so it is difficult to avoid to eat it." Aloysius eyes wander around on the people listening to him talk. He tells more about the other problems, the mining has taken with it, the prostitutes, thieves, and how people do not feel safe in the same way as before gold was found.
Dean Muhammad Aslan from the University of Kendari sits at the end of the big table, his hawaii shirt a little bit too big for him. "I started these studies, to draw attention to the dangerous situation that is developing in the Bombana district." Muhammad Aslan continues, "this will have devastating consequences for the environment and the people who live nearby. The impact will not only hit the people in Bombana district, but also areas along the coast in the Tiworo bay, they will feel the consequences of this disaster. "According to Muhammad Aslan drastic actions need to be taken, the excavation should be stopped and a thorough investigation needs to be done, based on an environmental, social and economic angle. He also believes that the government is forced to close the mine temporarily, pending a satisfactory solution to the environmental issues.