Mercury Poisoning & Gold Mining in South Kalimantan / Banjarmasin (Borneo)

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A gold miner of Sungai Luar.

In Indonesia (and India) fools gold was once called rupa (derived from Mongolian). This is the root word for ‘merupakan,’ meaning ‘similar’ – of the same appearance. Rupiah, the local currency of Indonesia (and like the Indian Rupee), still uses this same root word. Because gold is similar to money and money is similar to fools gold.

In the village of Sungai Luar, South Kalimantan, a miner defends local gold fever as tradition, passed down from generation to generation.

In the village of Rantau Balai, a miner says he has been handling mercury since childhood – to separate gold from other minerals. He says the important thing is faith that there are no lasting side effects. He adds that, in Tanah Bumbu men often drink mercury as there is – and I have heard the story from a few sources – a belief that it will make them invulnerable to knife attacks.

In the twelve villages above the dam of Riam Kanan there are ten thousand people: rice farmers, rubber farmers, fish farmers, and miners. When the dam was built in the 70’s the streams rose, submerging villages – rivers became broad waterways. The catchment is now stagnant and either green with algae or brown with mud – run off from mining operations.

Fish farms gather like water spiders in bays where the gurame and nila fish spawn in the run off and the mercury. From the port of Tiwingan Lama these fish are then transported around the province – by night to keep them fresh. The meat passes through morning markets and on to the tables of millions – in Martapura, Banjar Baru, Kota Baru, Amuntai, and Banjarmasin.

In the Forest Park of Sultan Adem, rangers routinely collapse narrow tunnels – canals that often only teenage boys can squeeze through. Other rangers are more sympathetic, resorting only to corruption: opening their hands for a nugget – this according to the miners of Sungai Luar.

Trauma & Gold in Tanah Bumbu

In the village of Apuai I pay a Javanese shop owner for a story about trauma and gold in Tanah Bumbu. Workers were around seventy five meters down when the landslide came; on the surface alone there were people with broken bones, severe head wounds. Though uncertain of numbers at least fifteen people died, he says – when the eroded cliff behind them gave way. They had no way of excavating to those depths. Other miners expressed no shock when this story was repeated, and these events always go unreported. Because the gold attracts desperate men by the hundreds violent murder is supposedly a daily spectacle.

New Traditions? Or Oxymoron?

The Minangkabau tribe of Sumatra is both matriarchal and Muslim; women live together in large houses and newly-weds only briefly allowed to share a room. After conceiving children the men go out into the world to forge a living perhaps never to return again. This tradition is known as merantau, a word that many Indonesians are taking up to describe their desperate pilgrimages to new islands.

The people of Kalimantan once lived in fear of spreading viruses down the rivers scribbled across their island. Traditionally a rise of tens of meters would necessitate segregation of upper and lower communities – to avoid illnesses. Entire rivers were blocked for fear of disease, and to this day people wear dust masks even when travelling in pristine locations – a habit stemming from this old belief of masuk angin.

But nowadays money is prioritized over healthy food, clean water, and illness.

A father and son from Bunglai travelled thousands of kilometers to find gold in West Papua where they both have contracted malaria. Now only the father remains, in critical condition and without money to come return home to Kalimantan.

The head of the village of Rantau Bujur creates a new definition for the village’s name to reflect the new tradition. Rantau, meant to describe a troublesome river, could instead be thought of as an abbreviation of merantau: to journey abroad and make a living. Nowadays this is what many men of the village do, after all. Rantau Bujur (Bujur meaning ‘truly’) comes into new meaning: A truly arduous trip abroad to find more Rupiah. And what is Rupiah for most people but something resembling gold – therefore resembling food, water, and shelter?

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Going down 40 meters – sitting on a stick of ulin wood…


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