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Let’s celebrate sustainable artisanal gold mining

As I write this blog I am at 39,000 feet on an AirNZ plane between Sydney and Auckland returning home after a very productive and fulfilling 10 days in Lombok and Sumbawa Islands (Province of West Nusa Tenggara Barat or NTB) and Jakarta, Indonesia.

I made this visit as part of scheduled management of the East Indonesian Innovative Farm Systems and Capability for Agribusiness Activity (IFSCA) which is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the New Zealand Government. I spent one week with my team based out of the University of Mataram on Lombok Island, assessing developments with feed budgeting and health programmes for cattle: the ownership and sale of cattle is deeply ingrained in the culture of NTB. But I took the opportunity of being in NTB to assess the current state of Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining in this province.

Let me start with the IFSCA project. This has been running for 1 year and 8 months now, of a 4 year contract. The project is building capability in farming systems in two districts of NTB (North Lombok and Dompu) with better technical capability for farming, and skills and agribusiness. We are working with the government extension staff to increase their capability to lead ongoing and sustainable development in the districts. The results to date are humbling. We have been told by one farmer in North Lombok that he is now ‘proud to be a horticultural farmer’. We were told by one cattle farmer in Dompu that the difference between before the project and after is like ‘Sun and Earth’. With the project in operation he now has time each morning to enjoy a cup of coffee. Livelihoods, opportunity, gender equality, entrepreneurship, children’s education and welfare, financial security: these are the indicators we are recording from the work already.

But was most fascinating for me on this trip was my review of where ASGM is at in NTB. Indonesia is a signatory to the Minamata Convention on Mercury. As such, the Government of Indonesia has a responsibility to phase out all use of mercury. The government has enacted a National Action Plan to comply with this convention, and key Croesus colleagues in the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the Agency for the Assessment and Implementation of Technology, and the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs are leading the relevant work plans. However, they are based in Jakarta, and to be honest, struggle to align their planning to the reality in rural Indonesia.

Meet Ibu (her real name is not given). I met Ibu in a mining area near Wawu, east of Bima on the road to Sape. She owns a ‘bank’ of about 10 rod grinders (gelondong in Bahasa Indonesia). She rents these out to artisanal miners who bring sacks of ore for mercury amalgamation. The miners keep the gold from the process, but she keeps the waste, and processes this again. She then sells the waste after her second process to buyers who leach the waste (amalgamation tailings) with cyanide. Her family owns the land, so she collects rent from other miners who have gelondong at this location. She also owns and operates a shop, selling drinks and food to the miners.

Ibu is an entrepreneur. The International Labour Office (ILO) several years ago suggested that every miner created jobs for a further 10 support workers. I suggest that Ibu is one of the entrepreneurs that ensures this actually is true.

Ibu admitted to buying 2-3kg of mercury per month, for amalgamation. This is clearly in breach of the Minimata Convention on Mercury and of the Indonesian Government National Action Plan. We asked her ‘have you heard that the Indonesian Government is trying to stamp out mercury use’. Her answer…. A blunt no. Do we believe her? Not sure…… but in these districts far removed from Jakarta, legislation is a weak instrument.

Encouraging is recent data showing that use of mercury actually decreases gold recovery from rock using cyanide. There is an opportunity here to stamp out mercury use with economic logic, rather than regulatory instruments.

Solving the problems of ASGM is a global nightmare. There are environmental, political, social and cultural agendas at play. The Indonesian Government is currently working with UNDP to prepare a submission for the Global Environment Fund. A very talented team of Indonesian consultants is driving this project, but international perspective is needed. There is no single solution to the problems of ASGM. The aspiration of Marcello Veiga’s ITCAM training model (University of British Columbia, Canada) is for artisanal miners to evolve into formal and regulated small-scale miners. This might work for some miners, but what about those that practice mining as a household activity? They are never destined to become small-scale miners.

As I see events unfold in Indonesia I am convinced that there is still a clear need for safe and regulated artisanal mining. Let them use their gelondong to crush the rock; but educate them that adding mercury leads to less gold. Let them cyanide leach the crushed product: let’s not worry about efficiency. But then let’s encourage them to put the waste in a central tailings facility. Once its full, let’s phytomine this to recover the costs of containment and long-term environment management.

Let’s drive our technological solutions based on exposure pathways and risk. If mining generates net income and the environmental consequences can be managed or mitigated, then let’s roll with these. Remember we’re talking livelihoods in what are generally very poor communities.

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