Sun, 14 Jan 2001

Putting their life on the line for gold

By Ali Budiman

SANGON HAMLET, Yogyakarta (JP): Ever since gold was discovered here in 1995, the village has been bustling with mining activities.

For 24 hours a day, the buzzing sound of electrical dynamos never ceases in the hamlet at the foot of the Menoreh mountain range, some 49 km to the west of Yogyakarta.

"That's the sound of the dynamo working during the gold extraction process," said Anwar Ashari, 40, a miner at the unlicensed gold mining site.

Locals will take a big slab of stone and then break it into pieces. Then with a ratio of 4 pails of stone, 2 pails of water and 3 grams of mercury, the stone, water and mercury are put into an iron tube in which there is a cylinder used to crush the stone into powder. The tube will then be rotated by the dynamo.

The mercury will later separate the gold from the stone powder. This process usually lasts between four and five hours. Once it is completed, the tube will be refilled with the same materials and the whole process starts all over again.

The outcome of the process -- gold liquid -- will be burned at 1,000 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes until it turns into silvery crystals ready to be sold. This process takes place in the houses of these gold miners not far from the mining site.

The presence of gold was first discovered by gold miners from Tasikmalaya, West Java. The discovery changed the pattern of life of the locals. The locals previously earned a living as farmers and sugar palm tappers, but today some 40 percent of them, or about 150 locals, earn a living from mining gold. They do this after working on the farm or tapping sugar palms, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.


Mining is done by digging into hills, using simple implements, such as hoes, hammers and picks. In a day, a mining group of six to eight people, can collect about 10 pails of excavated stone. After the extraction process, for every four pails of stone, they can get an average of 500 milligrams up to 1 gram of gold.

"However, the quantity of stone cannot be used as a standard because the gold content varies. It is frequently the case that after the process is completed, no gold is found. Our job depends on luck. In a day we can get 2 grams, 5 grams, or even 10 grams of gold. Very often, however, we get no gold at all for days on end. On average, we get 1 gram of gold a day," said Amar, 46.

Saefudin, another gold miner, has the same story. He said that he could earn quite handsomely, after deducting 10 percent for the owner of the land on which the gold mining is conducted. Very often, the miners use other people's plot of land. Then he must set aside 20 percent of the gross income for the iron tubing and another 2.4 percent for social funds. In a day he can earn between Rp 10,000 and Rp 15,000. For the equipment, he has to spend some Rp 4 million.

"If you are lucky, you can get back your Rp 4 million overnight. However, if not, it will take months to break even," he said. Other gold miners like Wawan, Tugiyo, Karjo, Anwar Anshari, all having a break, concurred.

"I don't think we need more capital because our income is uncertain. We are afraid that we cannot return the loan. One thing for sure, gold miners like us have never been known to go bankrupt. The capital is small and we don't borrow from others," Anwar added.

They are very patient people. They will spend days on end in search of gold, using their simple implements.

"We are sure as long we work hard, good fortune will eventually come. This is our conviction because our income depends on luck," said Saefudin, philosophizing about his job.

The risks

They are not insured against accidents. The gold they collect is their own. No levies nor taxes are imposed on them. The only payment they have to make is the portion to be given to the owner of the land on which they conduct gold mining, or to the owner of the implements. The amount is negotiable.

"We are responsible for our own safety. In case of an accident, we cannot make any claim to anyone. We collect the gold, earn the income and spend it ourselves," said Amar, who seemed concerned about the safety risks.

Aware of the absence of insurance, they dig small cave-like tunnels, only big enough to squat inside, for fear that if the hole is bigger it may easily cave in. They provide piles in the places where the tunnels have collapsed to ensure that there will be no more digging there.

The villagers began to use electricity in 1996. They use a 10 watt lamp to illuminate the excavation area and also use an electric pump to suck out water in the dug-out area. This way they feel secure to conduct the excavation in the tunnel. They believe each tunnel, about 15m to 50m deep, will be strong enough for two years mining operation.

No license

The young and old local gold miners said they did gold mining without a license. To them, obtaining a license is not feasible considering the amount of income.

"I've heard the procedure to obtain a license is complicated and we even have to go to Jakarta. The income from the mining will not be big enough to cover the cost," said Anwar.

He said that his earnings from gold mining were only enough to keep body and soul together. They cannot get rich yet from this activity. So they are reluctant to apply for a license.

"We do gold mining only to be able to buy rice every day. Only that," said Amar flatly.

They do not expect much from the regional administration: just to allow them to carry on mining. They do not need financial aid because they are afraid they cannot repay it.