IT WAS EIGHT O’CLOCK on an October morning in Rebo, a fishing village on the eastern coast of the island of Bangka, which lies east of Sumatra. As on any other day, dozens of casually dressed young men gathered around the small harbour, equipped only with jerry cans of fuel and meagre lunches. They waited patiently for a small fishing boat that dropped them off at a series of wooden pontoons a few hundred metres out at sea. The floating platforms looked like fishing stages, but these men were after something much more precious than fish—and were willing to risk their lives to get it.
Roughly one fifth the size of Sri Lanka and home to one million people, Bangka provides around 30 percent of the world’s tin, which is among the most valuable metals in the world today. In Indonesia, the world’s second largest producer after China, Bangka accounts for 90 percent of the tin ore sourced. Though the metal is used in objects as disparate as car components and cans, 52 percent of the world’s tin is used to make solder—a vital part of the circuit boards and other components of smartphones, laptops and tablets. With the consumer electronics market booming (last year, according to the technology research firm Gartner, global smartphone and tablets shipments surpassed one billion and 184 million units respectively) the price of tin has skyrocketed, climbing from $5 to more than $23 per kg in the last ten years. In Bangka, an uncontrolled mining rush both onshore and offshore has devastated the environment.
Mining was liberalised here in 2001, when the local government started granting mining and smelting licences to local entrepreneurs. Today, more than forty smelting companies operate on the island, including PT Timah, Indonesia’s state-owned tin company and largest single producer, which also holds about 90 percent of mining concessions. Even with the lion’s share of legal ore, however, in 2012 PT Timah produced only 28,000 tons of tin, while other smelters, many without any mining concessions, produced roughly 70,000 tons. Agung Nugroho, PT Timah’s corporate secretary, told me this discrepancy proves the rampant use, among independent smelters, of illegally mined ore (an accusation also levelled at PT Timah, which the company denies). Much of the illegal ore comes from tens of thousands of “informal miners,” a category that includes everybody from pensioners to housewives, from former fishermen to young children. The local provincial government’s Mining and Energy Department estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of Bangka’s population is actively involved in mining. Some operate under private concessions, but the vast majority work illegally, often in the middle of protected forests.