To find their own El Dorado, Indonesian gold miners risk mercury exposure, mud slides

Indonesia is home to some of the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, according to a 2007 report by Reuters, ranking third, after the United States and China, with approximately 3.4 billion tons. A long history of deforestation and repeat fires have helped contribute to this. But illegal gold mining has also played a significant factor, as water is contaminated by high levels of mercury when gold is extracted.

In 2009, the country’s government pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent unilaterally.

In November 2014, photojournalist Luca Catalano Gonzaga began documenting the workers of these gold mining shafts in Borneo for his series “The Artisanal gold mining”, which is part of a bigger story called “Child survival in a changing climate” promoted by Witness Image Association and funded by the Nando Peretti Foundation.

Throughout the villages of Tumbang Tariak and Tumbang Miwan, on the Indonesian island of Borneo, many workers risk their health while simultaneously challenging the law by mining for gold, considered an illegal activity in this region. The miners lack proper access to sophisticated technology and mining equipment, let alone proper attire. In the Gulung district alone, there are 10,000 gold searchers, each hoping to discover his own gold streak and earn what may suffice to leave years of hard service in the mud behind, buy a home and start a new life there.

In the gold mines, mercury is used to extract gold by mixing ore that contains gold with water in order to form an amalgam. The mixture is then heated to remove traces of mercury through the process of evaporation, while the contaminated water is then discarded into the Kahayan River that crosses the surrounding villages. Through this process, water inevitably becomes contaminated, which often is used by people to drink or irrigate the cultivated fields.

In this region of Borneo that used to be lush with greenery, trees are uprooted and permits for land clearing have been doled out (although in an interest to reduce the countries’ greenhouse emissions the Indonesian government has extended its moratorium on the number of forest clearing permits it will allow). A type of muddy swamp has been created by a steady stream of water that is being pumped by the miners to bring waste and debris to the surface, and has been the most risky stage of the extracting process for them. In 2014 alone, 24 people lost their lives to the mud because the walls did not hold and suddenly collapsed.