Sun, 08 Apr 2001

It requires a heart of stone to live on obsidian

By Kasparman

In 1987, a Bandung-based science and technology institute discovered an invaluable deposit of obsidian located close to a small village in Sumatra. Upon the publication of this discovery, businessmen flocked to the village. In 1992, the height of the obsidian "rush", seven companies were quarrying the stone in the area. Unfortunately, only one of them has survived.

PADANG LARING, West Sumatra (JP): It was very cold in Padang Laring that morning. The rain during the night had left the road wet. The villagers were still warmly ensconced in their homes, some still clad in their sarongs, sitting with their hands clasped round their knees, gulping their hot coffee or smoking cigarettes.

Far away behind the hill, at the edge of a thick forest, the brown water of a stream flowed rapidly. The night before, this stream, known as Batang Ganting, must have overflowed. It has its source on Ganting Polongan, a hill separating Damar Gadang village from Padang Laring. Damar Gadang belongs to Agam regency while Padang Laring is part of the regency of Padang Pariaman.

A young mother was squatting on the bank of the stream, scraping for something in the soil between piles of stone. "Batu Bintang (obsidian)," she said, when asked. As if oblivious to her surroundings, Yulianis (39) continued her search.

Obsidian is an essential part of the steel-making process. It is also used as an insulator and for mixing with cement. Obsidian can also be employed as an elastic earthquake-resistant building material. There is a great demand for it in Japan.

Occasionally, Yulianis wiped the perspiration from her brow. Her head was covered with a head scarf to protect her from the sun. Any stones she collected were placed in a pail that stood near to her. When the pail was full to the brim with the stones, she would bring it up the hill a little to where she had stacked the obsidian she had found earlier.

"It's bad. I've been looking for the stone for two days now but I've only found this much," she said, trying to hide her fatigue. On the nearby cliff face, a dark-skinned and muscular man called Buyung Sinar was agilely working with his crowbar. A large stone, shiny black in color, rolled down. "Watch out," he shouted, to the surprise of the people below. Then it was back to work again with his crowbar.

Occasionally, he climbed down to break up a rather large obsidian stone, while about 10 meters respectively to his right and left, Yum and Kuman were doing the same thing. They could collect quite a lot of stone from this place, over 0.5 cubic meter of stone per day.

Buyung said, though, that to be able to get that much one had to expend a lot of energy and have nerves of steel to climb the steep cliff face, which in some places rose up as high as 75 meters. If they fell, they were dead. It once happened that a number of villagers were trapped in a landslide from a former mine. Some of them died and others had bones broken.

On the other bank of the stream, some 100 meters away from where Yulianis was working, stands a factory belonging to PT Bumi Wardana. This factory started operations in 1999. Mounds of obsidian can be seen around the factory, which has closed down. "This factory is no longer running now," said Buyung, adding that he did not know why it had stopped its operations. The personnel manager of the company, Alam Sati, said that the factory had to suspend its activities because it was cash-strapped and could no longer afford to pay the some 100 laborers on its payroll. He added that the company had not exported obsidian since it first started operations. "We would welcome anybody who would like to invest here. A Japanese firm has already expressed an interest," said Alam.

Every day, a number of male and female villagers from Padang Laring, some 102 kilometers east of Padang, leave their homes for the hill to earn their fortune. The stone they collect is sold to PT Telaga Dian Perkasa, the only surviving company.

Yulianis said that a pushcart-load of obsidian paid Rp 5,000. If she was lucky, this mother of three could gather between three and five pushcart-loads of stone per day, earning her some Rp 15,000, with which she feeds her family.

She said that one must know the conditions in the area when one was searching for obsidian. After rain, for example, it was relatively easy to find obsidian as the sand that covered it was washed away by the water. Buyung, meanwhile, said that he sold the stone at Rp 90,000 per cubic meter. A cubic meter of this stone is equal to 1.2 tons. The company sells the stone at US$38 a ton.

Once, there used to be thick forests on both sides of the stream. Villagers were afraid to go into the forests because they were home to wild animals like boars, tigers, short-tailed macaques, snakes and bears. However, since the mining companies were established in the area, the eerie and scary atmosphere has vanished. And in the past year the village has become more famous thanks to its perlite stone, which is also a favorite among businessmen.

In 1992, there was keen competition among the quarry companies in this area. New companies were set up such as PT Batang Limposi, PT Arta Prima, PT Hen Prima, PT Padang Laring Sentosa, PT Onti Jaya and PT Telaga Dian Perkasa. The presence of these companies gave some hope to the villagers.

Head of Subdistrict IV Koto Aur Malintang, Bahar Kirman, said at that time there were seven quarry companies operating in the area. Each company undertook quarrying on sites measuring between 10 hectares and 25 hectares. They either bought the land outright or rented it. Obsidian deposits were found on some 2,500 hectares in the area. Of these deposits, some 300 hectares had been properly surveyed by the West Sumatra Mining Bureau.

It was PT Bumi Desantara that pioneered the quarrying of obsidium in the area. Based in Jakarta, in early 1990 it recruited some 150 workers, each of whom was paid Rp 3,500 per day at that time. The stone was exported to Japan every four months, with some 8,000 tons being shipped each time. The stone was sold at US$27 per ton, the price that the Japanese side had set.

Obsidian looks like coal and while both are black, obsidian is shinier. Looked at cursorily, it gives the impression of a piece of glass and its edges are sharp and can cut. As for perlite, it is white and shiny but is just as sharp as obsidian.

Yulianis, Buyung Sinar, Yum, Kuman and many other young people from Padang Laring rely on these minerals for their livelihoods. They spend the entire day at the quarry site, which is about 1 kilometer away from their village. They quarry and collect the stone from their communal land to be rewarded by a pittance, and can only hope that some day there will be a change for the better in their lives.