Gold, mercury and the next Minamata
April-June 2014
By: Yuyun Ismawati

Conflicts over land, in particular regarding environmental degradation and the concession areas of large-scale commercial mining companies, as well as local political and development priority issues are common points of contention between miners and local indigenous populations. Furthermore, the illegal status of ASGM practices and the associated mercury contamination have become significant obstacles to sustainable development. However, for regions where economic alternatives are extremely limited, ASGM provides a temporary source of income for miners and generates several associated short-term economic activities.

As the gold price kept rising, small-scale gold mining in Indonesia has doubled, expanding into 22 provinces and encroaching on national parks, protected areas, large forests and even small islands. Like in other countries, most ASGM operations in Indonesia are illegal and backed by corrupt government officials, police, military, politicians and invisible financiers. Figure 1 shows the distribution of ASGM hotspots in Indonesia between 2006 and 2010.

Illegal mining practices in Indonesia increased in the wake of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis and became more rampant when national decentralization devolved much government authority to local regions shortly thereafter. This created a dilemma because of unclear and inconsistent regulations and policies. Environmental nongovernmental organizations also have accused the Indonesian government of practicing a double standard of only wanting to curb illegal operations within large-scale mining concession areas.

Mining activities have been the source of various conflicts caused by regulatory uncertainties over land-use and property rights, illegal artisanal mining, pollution and environmental impacts and uncertainty surrounding the livelihoods of local residents after mines close. Resosudharmo (2004) noted that these conflicts have become more profound under the current structure of autonomous local governments, and Indonesia’s substantially freer social and political environment.

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