Indonesian Miners Risk Lives for Tin

Forty-year-old Mahdi stands on a floating wooden platform and turns on his ‘diving machine.’ It’s a compressor that is normally used to inflate car tires, not supply air to a diver 10 meters deep.

“There are no air regulators,” he says, pausing to examine the rudimentary equipment, “so the bigger the airflow the better.”

Mahdi is one of 30,000 illegal underwater miners who risk their lives using primitive equipment and diving gear to vacuum sand off the ocean floor to find tin around the small island complex of Bangka and Beligung. He is a huge problem for Indonesia and one that appears almost unstoppable. Located in western Indonesia, just off Sumatra, the islands are rich in tin – and infested with mobs of people like Mahdi.

Indonesia has been trying to clamp down on illegal mining, which has left a landscape pocked with craters and hundreds of highly acidic, toxic lakes. The Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s set off a tin boom, with thousands of small-scale traditional and often illegal mining operations becoming an alternative as other jobs in Indonesia’s economy disappeared.

The country is now the second largest tin producer after China. It is a country rich in minerals including gold, bauxite, phosphates and iron sand. The industry, legal and illegal, accounted for an estimated 10.9 percent of Indonesia's GDP in 2010, with minerals and related products contributing about a fifth of the country's total exports. It is an industry set to grow by 10.9 percent in real terms -- most of it built on coal -- in 2011 to reach US$85 billion, a slight slowdown from 13.1 percent growth in 2010.

Legitimate tin operators, many of them giant companies, have made fortunes from the white mineral substance. They include the state-owned PT Timah, the world’s largest integrated tin mining company and the Bangka region’s biggest operator. It is followed by PT Koba Tin, in which Timah has a 35 percent stake.

But for Madhi and his 30,000 colleagues, it is a precarious existence. The government has been struggling to improve the government’s regulatory framework and crack down on the illegal miners. But the seascape off Bangka shows how difficult that is. Every two meters there are platforms with miners doing the same thing that Mahdi does. One man dives using the compressor for air and a vacuum machine to suck up sand from the ocean floor and channel it to a bucket on the platform. Another man then sifts through the sand for tin.

From above, the water close to the beach looks murky and grey, with a sharp line just before the shore where it becomes clear turquoise. The murk arises from the sandy floor being dug up by the illegal miners, explained Berry Nahdian Forqan, director of the environmental lobby group WAHLI.

“The particles in the water affect the marine life. Just by looking at how murky the water is,” he says, pointing to the grey patch of water. “We can see that it will be difficult for fish to breathe. It will take a very long time for the water and the whole environment to be normal again.”

It pays little attention to the environment and is often a sentence of disability or even possible death for the illegal miners. The air from the compressor is carbon monoxide, not oxygen. Local residents say that a deep sea illegal tin miner dies almost every day.

The makeshift compressor that Madhi uses for his dives has no dial so the miners control the incoming airflow by pulling the hose to and from their mouths.

“We put on the compressor hose and the air comes from there,” he says. “It’s not like the diving equipment like soldiers have. If all of that is ok, then we dive.” Madhi says divers can still stay in the water for hours.

“Up to or three or four hours, it depends on the person. If they can stand the cold they stay there for a long time, but if not, they can only stand it for two and then they take a break,” he says, acknowledging that some miners suffer physical side effects.

“New miners can experience earaches. It feels like something is pressuring it and it really hurts. If that happens, they swallow their saliva and breathe out from their nose. If they have a flu, cold, or feel sick they should not force themselves to dive because blood can come out of their nose,” he says.

Hendra Kusumajaya, the head of the local government health office says the illegal mining is a dangerous activity.

“There have been a few cases where the workers were buried because there was a landslide,” he said. “ They were busy spraying the bottom and suddenly the top part collapsed and they were buried. So they were burying their own graves. They were really harming themselves,” says Hendra.

Mahdi knows what he is doing is illegal, but says he needs the money for his wife and two children.

“Mining tin from this boat is like nikah siri (registered marriage). According to religion it is all right, but the government says it is illegal. According to religion the money that we make here is legal, but the government says it isn’t. We’re working here, we’re not stealing,” he says.

In the Bangka office, local WAHLI head Ranto Uday acknowledges that the campaign to stop mining is not going well.

“On one side we have to educate and raise the awareness of the people who live on the coast, but on the other hand, the people also mine. We hope to make people aware before all the tin and fish are gone. What will they do when that day comes?” he asks.

As dusk nears, Madhi and his crew head back to shore with 5 kilograms of sand filled with tin. They sell their catch to a middleman who then sells it to PT Timah, which, despite its state ownership, shows no qualms about buying illegal tin. They earn US$7 dollars a kilo. Tin on the London Metal Exchange was selling on Oct. 4 for US$9 per pound, or about US$19.80 per kg.

In a small bamboo coffee house on the beach, tin miner Samsiar says illegal tin mining might be risky but it’s a good job.

“It’s better for me to be a miner compared to the job I had before. If I work as a driver, how much money would I get? I would probably make around three dollars a day. Would that be enough to buy food in Bangka?” he asks.

Samsiar has been mining for eight years and says he is not about to stop.

“Ever since I became a tin sand miner, my life has changed. Before, my house was made out of wood, but now it’s made out of concrete,” he says.

(A version of this appeared on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia.)