Mining in the middle of nowhere

April 26, 2012

By Yusuf Ahmad

I can feel the strong sun’s sting when, for the first time, I set foot in Palu, a city on Sulawesi island. The city is growing slowly as it is still recovering from ethnic and religious conflict in the early 2000s. As I stand at the city center I can see the top of Masomba mountain wrapped in clouds with the blue sky in the background. However, traveling to the Masomba area is not easy. I go with a local gold miner on a motorcycle.

There are two ways to get to the area. You can cross several rivers or take a mountainous way. The second way is harder as the road is severely damaged.

I arrived at the mining location in two hours. I didn’t expected to see tens of thousands of people at the feet of the mountain in temporary housing and tents. Not far from the houses and tents, the hill was filled with gold miners.

I took a brief rest, studying the situation and interacting with the locals before I started to take out my camera gear. I greeted every miner I met with a smile, giving them signals so my presence could be accepted. Then I started to take pictures of their activities. I only used a Canon EOS 1D Mark IIN camera and a wide angle lens to avoid attention. I also had a small fanny bag with a telephoto lens and flash.

As I reached the top of the mining area, I saw many holes made by miners formed into tunnels. The length of the tunnels varied from 10 to 80 meters. I entered a tunnel about 15 meters in length. There was, apparently, a spacious room inside but it was suffocating with barely any air circulation. There were five miners carving stone thought to contain gold. I could only stay inside for 20 minutes. I decided to get out of the holes after taking just a few pictures.

Not all of the miners accepted my presence. A few minutes after getting out of the tunnel, some of the miners approached and forbid me to take pictures; threatening and kicking me. I apologized and steered away from them.

But not all the miners were angry with me. I met 35 year-old Rahmat Halim, one of the miners who started in 2008. He told me he could get 500 grams of gold a month, which he sold and distributed to his five co-workers. His job is very risky. One night, he was buried in the tunnel but was able to survive. It didn’t scare him as he called himself “dollar hunter.”

Halim has had experiences as a miner in Papua and Kalimantan islands and dreams that one day he can quit being a miner and start his own business. Halim now owns a car and a house. For me, it was really a dilemma, because thousands of miners earn their money in a very risky way in order to support their family.

I was also thinking about the environmental damage, which affects the future of human life because of chemicals used in the smelting process. Environmental damage in the area due to the mining has caused the local government to step in to control the area. In 2010, the mayor of Palu issued a regulation to control the mining activities, but due to pressure, the mayor revoked the regulation a year later.

The mayor of Palu, Rusdy Mastura, told Reuters that the existing mines are illegal. However, the local government couldn’t ban the mining activities as it would hurt local people’s income. “By law, those miners are illegal because they don’t have permits,” Mastura said. In the future, Mastura said, government would assert the obligation of environmental management such as reclamation and the use of dangerous chemical substances. I flew back to Makassar with that dilemma in mind; between people’s life and environmental damage there would never be a sufficient answer.


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