Indonesian Tropical Island Torn Apart by Tin Mining
SUNGHIN, Indonesia -- The coconut palms on the tropical beaches of the Indonesian island of Bangka open up to reveal a landscape so devastated by mining that it bears an eerie resemblance to the surface of the moon.
Deep craters as big as football fields pockmark the land. Smaller craters filled with turquoise water glitter deceptively in the tropical sun. The water is highly acidic.
Welcome to the tin mines of Bangka where miners dig deep into the earth in search of tin ore -- the raw material for the metal used in coating soft drink cans and solders for computer chips.
Battling with malaria and constantly facing the risks of accidents such as drowning and landslides, dozens of miners have set up camps in Sunghin village in the jungles of Indonesia as they forage for tin deposits in disused mines.
Tight global supplies have propelled the price of the silvery and malleable metal to a record high above $14,000 a tonne on the London Metal Exchange where it is traded.
Yet, the miners of Bangka see little of the riches as they eke out a living on their tropical paradise.
Many locals have taken up mining after abandoning pepper farming due to low prices for the spice on the world market.
"I don't have money to start a business. I didn't even finish school," said Suhandri as he puffed a cigarette under a makeshift shelter after spending hours partially submerged in one of the small craters in Sunghin in search of ore.
The heavy machinery digging new mine shafts are a grim reminder of the devastation the rampant mining is taking on the landscape of Bangka, east of the island of Sumatra.
"Tell me what else I can do?" asked Suhandri, a 49-year-old father of five.
Indonesia is the world's second-largest tin producer after China, accounting for some 40 percent of global tin supplies.
The world's largest integrated tin miner, PT Timah Tbk, once owned the mines at Sunghin. The company refilled the craters with earth and planted acacia and cashew nut trees when it wrapped up operations in the early 1990s.
But locals began digging up the old mines in 1998 at the height of the economic crisis in Indonesia.
MINERS MISS OUT ON PROFITS
Using pans and a constant flow of water, miners search for the grey-black tin ore which they filter out of the sand taken from the craters. The water becomes highly acidic when it is mixed with the grey-black tin ore extracted from the earth.
"Poor people like us just don't have a choice," said 25-year-old Andy. "I will still mine but the number of buyers have declined. I am not sure what the future is going to be."
Many miners lament last year's closure of dozens of small smelters, which have been accused of damaging the environment and operating without licences.
The government crackdown against these smelters last year helped fuel tin's meteoric rise in the global market but the leap in prices has not made its way down to the miners.
Andy, who works near the provincial capital Pangkalpinang, was startled when told the price of tin had gone through the roof.
"It looks like the reality is rather different," he said.
The International Tin Research Institute (ITRI) has forecast a market deficit of 30,000 tonnes in 2007 because of supply constraints for the metal, also used in electronics and packaging.
ITRI, largely funded by major tin producers and smelters, supports the tin industry and encourages tin use. It says global consumption grew by 8.6 percent in 2006.
Ironically, the closure of the small smelters in Bangka set up to get around an Indonesian government ban on exports of tin ore in 2002 put downward pressure on local prices of the ore.
Before the crackdown aimed at preventing environmental destruction on the island, a kilogram of tin could fetch 41,000 rupiah a kg ($4.49) in Pangkalpinang.
But the price has since fallen to 27,500 a kilogram simply because the small smelters, which used to buy ore from miners, are not active anymore. These days the buyers of tin ore on Bangka are able to set prices as they wish.
The miners have no recourse.
PT Timah does buy ore from local miners but only from selected middlemen, while the island's second-largest refiner, Koba Tin, has suspended shipments after police detained three company directors on suspicion of illegally obtaining tin ore and operating outside its mining area.
Indonesia has issued new guidelines aimed at curbing illegal mining but authorities in Bangka are keen to see locals shift to other sectors such as trade and fishing.
"People have to be prosperous without tin," Bangka-Belitung governor Hudarni Rani told Reuters after casting a ballot at a recent gubernatorial election.
"Tin will definitely run out one day. The next governor should know what to do next. Mining is definitely disruptive," he said.
Rani lost the election. The next governor will be inaugurated later in April.