At The Mercy Of Mercury, Indonesian Miners Risk It All

Small-scale miners on the island of Lombok and elsewhere in Indonesia are playing a dangerous game by using mercury, a toxic heavy metal, to extract gold.

Gold miner in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Nicole Curby

SEKOTONG â€" Lombok's spectacular volcanic hills are lined with picturesque beaches, coconut palms, and bright green rice paddy fields. In a number of places, though, the Indonesian island's lush landscape is pockmarked by brown spots â€" clearings where people have razed the vegetation in search for gold.

There, in clouds of dust, small-scale miners scratch the earth for whatever little bit of wealth they can extract. In doing so, they put more than just the environment at risk: The miners also gamble with their lives.

Working with limited resources, they organize into small groups and often opt for the cheapest and fastest mining methods. Often that means setting up operations in front of their homes â€" quite literally on their doorsteps. And while less harmful methods are slowly being adopted, many miners still use mercury, which presents a serious health risk.

Dr. Ardiana Ekawanti, a medical researcher at the University of Mataram, has been studying the mining community of Sekotong, in the southwest of the island, for more than five years.

"When we go out into the filed, we see that almost every house has mining operations right there. And they're carrying out the amalgamation process (using mercury to extract gold) right there in their homes," she says.

Dr. Ekawanti's biggest concern is the involvement of children in the operations. "It's a home industry, so children help their parents to do some of the work," she says. The researcher suspects that in some cases, children even handle mercury directly.

Photo: Nicole Curby

Others are at risk too. Dr. Ekawanti explains that some miners extract gold by burning mercury in their kitchens. From there, the heavy metal seeps directly into their water supplies and the food chain, impacting the entire community.

"It's not just the miners who are affected. Its all the people around them â€" children, pregnant women, the elderly. We know that this community is susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury," she says.

All about the money

In Sekotong, Dr. Ekawanti's assertion is visibly evident. Arriving there, I'm greeted by an excited group of children. When I ask them their ages, I'm amazed to learn that most are older than they look.

A government survey of the village revealed that 47% of school-age children here showed signs of stunted growth, compared to 17% in the surrounding area of West Nusa Tenggara.

Photo: Nicole Curby

It's unclear if there is a direct link between this stunting and the use of mercury. But studies by two NGOs, BaliFokus and the Medicuss Foundation, have shown higher rates of delayed development and birth defects in areas where illegal mining is prevalent in Indonesia.

Three years ago, Indonesia signed the Minamata Convention to phase out the use of mercury. The trade and use of mercury is now illegal in Indonesia. But the ban is rarely enforced. In fact, mercury is now cheaper than ever, and easily accessible.

Even when they are aware of the risks, miners can still be lured by the promise of striking it rich, or at least of earning more than they could otherwise.

"We can't make money elsewhere," Rian, a Lombok miner, explains. "If we work in construction, we earn 50,000 rupiah ($3.80) per day. But if we work here in the mine, we earn more. Sometimes we earn 150,000 rupiah ($11.50) for one day. So we can eat and drink."

Campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of mercury have had some success. And there are some noticeable changes. Rian says that he and his wife now use potassium and carbon, rather than mercury. The method is more time consuming, but safer.

"They say it's too dangerous to use mercury, so we stopped," he says. "We are afraid. We don't want people to get sick. That's why we stopped using mercury."

Photo: Nicole Curby

One problem, though, is that gold mining operations don't stay put. When gold becomes hard to find, miners quickly move on to more lucrative areas. People involved in the awareness campaigns struggle to keep up.

"People move. New people come. And new people have to be made aware of the dangers," says Budi Susilorini, the Indonesian director of the NGO Pure Earth. "We have to make sure we don't just talk with the miners. It's also important to talk with the local people, community leaders and local government institutions."

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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