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

Ma Onah is a 60-year-old abandoned housewife with three daughters. Her husband left her five years ago after she began experiencing bizarre health problems, including whole-body tremors and screaming in pain every night. She is now cared for by her youngest daughter, Seni, a 16-year-old high school student, and lives on other people’s donations. The doctor in her rural Indonesian mountain village in Banten province, West Java, which is a well-known gold mining and processing region, diagnosed her with a stroke and a nervous system disorder and gave her generic painkillers and drugs for her nerves. Earlier this year, Onah stopped taking the drugs because she could not afford them, and because they were not regularly available in the pharmacies in the West Java beach town of Pelabuhan Ratu, a three-hour drive from her village (the name of which is being kept anonymous due to local sensitivities).

Unlike her neighbors, Onah did not process or purify gold, nor did she handle quicksilver – another term for mercury, a toxic chemical that quickly extracts gold from chunks of ore and creates an amalgam. Sadly, she is not alone in the throes of illness. In her village, at least 20 other people suffer similar symptoms or have died from strokes. The most common health problems in her village are high blood pressure; upper respiratory, heart and skin diseases; strokes; and nervous system and digestive disorders. Not coincidentally, they are also the top health problems in other prominent small-scale gold mining and production hotspots around Indonesia including Lombok Island; Bombana, Southeast Sulawesi province; and Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan province.

Rising gold prices, more temptation

In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) stated that across the planet, Europe and Asia saw the greatest increase in gold supply between 2006 and 2009. A 29 percent increase in gold prices during that period and into 2010 drove new exploration activities in the formal gold sector that targeted deposits buried in remote corners of the globe, leading to shallow mining activities. While industrial mining abandoned mercury use in the 1960s, small-scale and usually illegal gold miners still use mercury. As gold has become harder to extract, these low-level artisanal and small-scale mining activities, known as ASGM, have expanded, taking advantage of regions with lax mining regulatory regimes and low environmental and social protection.

As mines age, extracting gold gets harder and costlier. Ores must be extracted from greater depths and generally at a lower grade; average grades having fallen 30 percent since 1999. Consequently, operational costs including labor and equipment have risen. A decade ago, the average cost of extracting an ounce of gold from the ground was a little over $200, but in 2010 it hit $857, according to industry analyst GFMS (formerly known as Gold Fields Mineral Services).

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