Indonesia | Tin Men

Uncontrolled mining is devastating the environment on Bangka

Illegal tin miners at work off the coast of the Indonesian island of Bangka. By one estimate, on average, one miner dies on the island every week. Matilde Gattoni
01 June, 2014

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.

At the platforms, the men, all illegal miners, started working feverishly. Three of them dived into a patch of muddy water, encircled by several pontoons, that contrasted starkly with the turquoise sea all around. Every thirty minutes, the trio emerged for a ten-minute break, before diving eight meters below the surface again. The divers sucked tin ore up from the seabed through large plastic pipes connected to diesel-driven pumps, which also channelled air from the surface down to them through hoses. Other men operated suction pipes directly from the decks, and constantly pounded the seabed with bamboo poles to stir the sand and expose the ore. The heat was unbearable, and the pumps released blasts of acrid exhaust, but the men, some as young as fourteen, did not seem bothered by the conditions. Once pumped up to the pontoons, the ore settled at the bottom of special wooden platforms, while sand and residual waste—described in the industry as “tailing”—was washed back into the sea. At the end of the day, the miners told me, each pontoon can collect about fifteen kilograms of ore, worth roughly $100. Each miner earns around $15 per day—double the average pay of a farm labourer on the island.

But this bonanza comes at a hefty price. “Divers are the ones who risk most,” thirty-one-year-old Huwei Liong yelled over the deafening pumps. Drawing ore from the seabed creates deep pits that can easily collapse, burying divers under meters of sand. Liong, now a pontoon owner, survived several near-fatal collapses when he was a diver. “There’s no way to prevent it,” he said. “Sometimes it takes thirty minutes or one hour for your mates to bring you to the surface.” Many are not as lucky as Liong: according to Walhi, a local environmental association, on average, one miner dies in Bangka every week.

The mining has also taken an environmental toll. Hundreds of illegal pontoons work alongside a fleet of fifty-two licensed dredgers and sucking ships operated by PT Timah and other companies, constantly drawing ore off the seabed and throwing tailing back into the water. “Bangka has changed a lot since I was a kid,” Liong told me. Once entirely open to the sea, the eastern coastline is now a series of small gulfs created by tailing, locals said. A recent study by Bangka Belitung University found that tailing has killed between 30 and 60 percent of the local coral reef, forcing marine life farther from the coast and depleting vital alternative sources of income, such as tourism and fishing. Ismed Inonu, vice-rector of the university and an expert on agriculture and the environment, said it would take at least twenty years for the coral to reconstitute itself, provided it is not further harmed. But there is little chance of that happening. The local government has no provisions for minimising or repairing the environmental damage, even as companies increasingly exploit offshore concessions.

Local fishermen are the ones suffering most from this. Sitting on the porch of his two-storey house in Rebo, Tsung Ling Xiao told me that just fourteen years ago he could fish within four miles of the coast. “Now, I have to throw my nets as far as seventeen miles out,” the forty-one-year-old said. Xiao has additional reason to dislike mining: six years ago, his younger brother, Tsung Ling Fang, died under a pile of rubble after a mining pit he had opened just three hundred metres from Xiao’s house collapsed.

In addition to such physical risks, illegal miners also play hide-and-seek with the police, who do occasionally raid unauthorised mines. One morning, I visited the bare home of thirty-three-year-old Malasari Amirudin and her teenage daughter in the village of Batako. The previous evening, police had shut down the onshore mine they worked in. Amirudin, who has been mining tin since she was ten years old, told me they were waiting for a new mine to open nearby. “It generally doesn’t take more than one week,” she said.

Amirudin described how onshore miners work. First they excavate a pit, often using only shovels and pickaxes, before showering the ground with water. The resulting mud is pumped up washing lines—series of wooden basins in which the ore settles and the dirt is flushed out. Amirudin and her daughter used to collect scraps of ore washed out from the lines, earning around $20 a day between them. Like most miners, they had no idea what tin is used for. When I showed them my iPhone, they reacted with awe. “Those things are expensive. We should definitely ask for more money for our tin,” Amirudin joked.

The environmental damage on land is no less severe than at sea. Authorities require licensed companies to reclaim mining sites after depleting them of tin, by covering up holes and planting new vegetation. However, no such rules are enforced at illegal mines, and, according to PT Timah, informal miners often re-enter areas reclaimed by the company. But even legal miners are believed to shun their responsibilities, and the island is covered with enormous swathes of abandoned, open mines.

In an attempt to rein in the market, the Indonesian government has implemented new regulations to stabilise prices and stop the export of tin of uncertified origin. Since August, smelting companies are banned from selling directly to clients abroad, and instead must route their business through the centralised Indonesian Tin Exchange in the capital, Jakarta. But the move has been fiercely contested by independent companies, which accuse the government and PT Timah of trying to monopolise the market. The new rules might also increase the smuggling of tin to neighbouring countries—a practice, PT Timah claims, that already deprives Indonesia of revenue from tens of thousands of tons of tin every year.

On Bangka, regulation is made more difficult by authorities allegedly profiteering from the trade. In Rebo, police and navy officers are frequent visitors at the weighing area where miners bring the day’s haul at sundown. Many miners told me the officers were there to collect bribes. Asram Somat, a middleman who buys ore from informal miners through an array of private collectors, told me he pays one million rupiah (around $100) to the police every month to avoid problems, even though his own operation is licensed.

Attempts to address the problem on an international level are also yet to create meaningful change. In 2012, the international environmental group Friends of the Earth launched a campaign to make leading electronics manufacturers take responsibility for the environmental situation in Bangka and improve transparency in the tin supply chain. Seven companies have signed on, including Samsung and Apple, the world’s top smartphone producers. A working group has been convened, but it is still only studying the situation. What impact such initiatives can have remains to be seen. In response to my emailed queries, a Nokia spokesperson stated that companies “are usually 4 to 8 supply chain actor layers removed from any mining activities. This makes traceability efforts very challenging, and the farther away you are from the source, the tougher it is to exert influence.”

At sundown, the pontoon workers returned to Rebo, exhausted but satisfied. They carried small buckets full of grainy grey ore, which was weighed and quickly bought by a collector. As the miners dispersed, Liong watched with a worried look. “Unlike most of the other guys here, I am concerned about the environment,” he said after a long silence. “But I will have to mine for the rest of my life. I don’t have any other skill.”