Birth Defects in Lombok, Indonesia Linked to Gold Mining | Economy News


Sekotong, Indonesia – Sukma watches her friends descend 30 meters (98 feet) into the ground in one of Sekotong’s many illegal mines on Lombok Island.

Unauthorized mining is an open secret here; mines have littered the hills of western Lombok for decades.

“Six of my friends have entered the hole and my job is to stand guard. If they need a glass or bags to collect the stones, I’m there to give it to them, ”says Sukma.

The work is dangerous. But for these men, the prospect of finding just a speck of gold shining through the rocks is worth it.

“If we make a mistake, the ground can crumble,” says Sukma. “This is the risk we have to take to earn a living. “

Miners said the Al Jazeera Sekotong gold rush had subsided in recent years. But since the start of the pandemic, many have returned to the mines due to financial difficulties.

Sukma decided to become a miner a little over a year ago.

“I have nothing else to do. I usually work abroad but cannot travel due to the coronavirus. So now I’m looking for gold, ”he says.

A miner goes underground in Lombok, Indonesia [Jessica Washington/ Al Jazeera]

Most of the villages in Sekotong are equipped with makeshift machines used to extract gold from the sediments. They constantly churn, breaking up rocks and making it easier to see gold specks in the sediment. People put mercury inside machines to help mine gold. It’s cheap and easy.

Muhammad Yusuf, 24, has been involved in this process for over eight years.

“We come in from the mines, we break the rocks into small pieces, then we put them in the barrel. It turns the materials into mud, and then we add mercury, ”he says.

Muhammad is also a teacher. He was able to pay for his university studies with his income from mining and processing gold.

“I understand the dangers of mercury. I saw a video about it that said it was very dangerous. But processing gold is our way of making money, ”he says.

“I want to know what made him want to be like this”

Gold processing machines are the relentless soundtrack of life in Sekotong.

They are often right next to people’s homes. But there is a cost associated with this convenience.

In a small village of Sekotong, 5-year-old Zaim lives with his parents.

He can neither walk nor speak. He likes to drink chocolate milk, but his mother, Suparni, has to hold the small box for him.

Her brown eyes are surrounded by unusually long lashes. When he looks at his mother, he smiles warmly.

Zaim’s father was a gold miner and used to process gold at his home [Fakhrur Rozi/ Al Jazeera]

“At the provincial hospital, they told me his condition was related to his nerves and his development. I want to know what made him want to be like that, ”Suparni says.

Zaim was recently diagnosed with microcephaly – a medical condition in which a child’s head is smaller than average, which often impacts brain function.

“Before Zaim was born, his father was a minor. He was processing the gold here too, and he was using mercury to process the gold, ”his mother said, gesturing to the machine next to their house.

Researchers from a local nongovernmental organization, the Nexus3 Foundation, are investigating her case and other children they say are victims of mercury exposure.

Yune Eribowo leads the organization’s research on mercury and other dangerous chemicals.

“In this area, there are children born with fewer fingers or cleft lip… some are born without an anus,” Yune says.

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to even a small amount of mercury can cause serious threats to the development of an in utero fetus and toddler.

“Small-scale miners use mercury, which they keep in their homes. They also use it in front of their children. And for newborns, the exposure goes through their mother, ”she says. “Look over here. Only a few houses do not have processing equipment in their villages. Since the pandemic it has increased again because people are in financial trouble. “

“Without eyes”

The Yune team is performing DNA and IQ tests on local school children to see how widespread the effects of mercury can be on this community.

One of the schoolchildren participating in the research is a nine-year-old boy named Randy.

He comes from a family of minors – and knows firsthand how dangerous mercury can be after a recent accident sent him to hospital.

“I saw the liquid on the table and spilled it. It hit me in the face. I couldn’t see anything for four days, ”says Randy.

Her mother, Sa Rah, says it was a terrifying experience.

“Randy’s brother was dealing in gold and he left the mercury lying around. Then Randy spilled mercury on his face. I panicked and took him to the hospital, ”she said. “He couldn’t open his eyes for four days. Her eyes were swollen and her lips turned white.

Randy has regained his sight – but it is not known if there will be any lasting impacts from his prolonged exposure to mercury over his lifetime.

A boy takes part in an IQ test organized by the Nexus3 Foundation [Jessica Washington/ Al Jazeera]

It is difficult to know precisely how many children are affected by exposure to mercury. Some live in areas with limited connectivity, and others may have already died, never interacting with public health systems.

And even children with no direct connection to mining can suffer the consequences of Sekotong’s gold obsession.

“Mercury is in the air we breathe, so the exposure is on a massive scale,” Yune explains.

Now, the Yune research team is trying to put together the names of children who may have been affected by mercury exposure.

Baby Narendra was born without eyes [Fakhrur Rozi/ Al Jazeera]

On that list is baby Narendra. The one-and-a-half-year-old child was born without eyes.

“I never imagined that I would have a son without eyes. I don’t want this to happen to other parents. It is very painful,” says his mother Ni Made Sukermi.

“The doctor asked me if my husband was a gold digger and I said no. There are gold diggers around here, but not my husband. I wondered why the doctor asked for this.

Neither Made said she doesn’t know what the future holds for Narendra. She said her family is unlikely to be able to send Narendra to a school for children with disabilities as they cannot afford it.

“Once he can talk he can ask me, why is everything dark?” How can I respond to this? ” she said.

“And if he asks, why can’t I go to school?” That’s what I think. I pray for him.

Lombok Island is neighboring Bali, but unlike its neighbor, its tourism industry is largely underdeveloped.

The government hopes this will change soon and has invested in several large-scale tourism infrastructure projects on the island.

With the aspiration to make Lombok a global tourism hub, West Nusa Tenggara Governor Zulkieflimansyah says the use of dangerous chemicals in illegal mining activities should not be tolerated.

“It’s easy to find gold in Lombok. But the land is so beautiful. We have to make a choice between tourism and mining, ”he said.

“Step by step, I hope people will understand… you can make money in the short term but in the long term it can be dangerous for our environment and for future generations.”

He says it takes time to educate the public.

“It is a challenge for government and educational institutions to educate people in rural areas,” he says.

“We can’t change their mindset in a minute. They are familiar with this habit. But we are optimistic that they will change for new behaviors.

While the governor hopes for a change, Zaim’s mother has her own dreams for her son.

“I hope one day he will walk and talk. It would make me so happy, ”Suparni says.

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