SEKOTONG — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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."