Two decades of illegal gold mining in Jambi has led to the destruction of thousands of rice fields and mercury contamination in its rivers.

Muhammad Syafar appeared upset. He wasn’t able to sleep soundly the previous night. The water of the river that runs in front of his wooden house has turned murky. Loud, pounding sound coming from heavy machinery digging the bed and banks of the Batangasai river that splits through Raden Anom, a village in the Batangasai sub-district in Sarolangun, Jambi.

Datuk Syafar, as he is known, live in one of Raden Anom’s hamlets, Muaro Seluro. He has been persistently fighting the encroachment of illegal gold mining operations in his hamlet. While his adversaries seem tireless in their wait for Syafar to drop his guard.

As soon as Syafar dropped his guard, they immediately began working the land near his home. The miners have already dug on what were once productive rice fields and entered the Talun Sakti customary forest to dig for gold.

“As long as I am still here, I will give my life to protect this area. They will never be able to enter,” Syafar, who also heads the Talun Sakti Customary Forest Community, said at his home in October 2022.

One evening in October that same year, the boss of an illegal gold mining operation paid him a visit and offered him Rp35 million and a share of the revenue from the illegal operation on a five kilometer stretch of the river. In return, Syafar was asked to turn on a blind eye on the operation targeting his hamlet.

Syafar immediately rejected the offer and threw out the unwanted guest but the boss’ men still attempted to come with heavy machinery. Residents of Muaro Seluro, including women, blocked the operators from crossing a hanging bridge leading  to the hamlet and a conflict almost erupted.

“The women brought with them torches. If they refuse to back down, they (women) would set those machines on fire. Until today, we stand firm in defending the Seluro hamlet from the illegal gold miners,” says Syafar who is also a farmer.

Syafar’s steadfastness in protecting the forest has earned him an award from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs last year and his group was also granted a carbon trading fee of Rp 50 million.

The Talun Sakti customary forest is now the last water reserve for the local people and if the 641hectare forest is damaged, the source may dry up and so would rice fields in the area and with that, the people;s source of food.

Before the arrival of the gold miners, the yield from a single harvest could last villagers up to one year of supply. But with rice fields increasingly being turned into gold mining site, the yield would only last between two to three months.

As a local tradition, a part of the rice yield would be distributed to orphans and widows but with the dwindling harvest, that tradition waned. The same fate befell the Selimbai song, a tradition of collective planting.

Syafar said in the Selimbai tradition, the men would work the soil while the women plant the seeds and both groups would take turn singing.

“But if only a few rice fields left, there will no longer be any need for the Selimbai singing tradition,” he said.

Ecological disaster  

Ardito (34), a farmer from Gerabak village in the same sub-district was in a rush working his rice field as the rainy season descended. He was worried that his rice field might get flooded soon. The irrigation channel around his field has been damaged by the gold mining operation and as a result, it’s now easily flooded during the rainy season.

“Floods these days are different than what they used to be. Water rises very fast to cover rice fields and inundate homes. I once suffered from a harvest failure,” says Ardito, annoyed.

Every time floods strike, houses along Batangsai river are inundated and hundreds of hectares of rice fields submerged, resulting in harvest failure. Ardito suspects that the massive flooding they face every year is because the river has become shallow due to illegal gold mining.

KKI-Warsi Communication Manager Rudi Syaf said gold mining activities were eroding the channel and banks of the river and destroying the trees, creating a grave ecological threat.

Areas that never experienced serious floods before, are now extremely vulnerable due to the sedimentation from gold mining.

“It is not only causing regular floods, the activities of the gold mining also made the Batangasai and Limun sub-districts prone to flash floods. This is the scariest thing because they can cause fatalities,” Syaf told at his office on November 16, 2022.

In 2021, KKI-Warsi recorded 20 floods in Jambi City, the Batanghari, Muarojambi, Sarolangun and Kerinci districts that left two people dead, and inundated 6,265 homes and 635 hectares of land.

Khairul Asrori, the director of the Food Crop and Horticulture Section at the Jambi Province Office for Food Crop, Horticulture and Animal Husbandry, said the floods are threatening the people’s economy.

In 2021, 3,529 hectares of rice fields experienced harvest failures following floods in Jambi City, Sungai Penuh town, as well as Batanghari, Bungo, Tebo, Sarolangun, Merangin and Muarojambi districts.

Shattered food resilience

Another tradition plowed into extinction is the Sawah Pusako (heirloom rice field), the passing down of a large rice field plot from one generation to another within a single family. This plot was not to be sold.

But Syafar said the offers made by the illegal miners were too tempting for some and as a result parts of land under the Sawah Pusako were sold or turned into gold mines, breaking many family ties. 

As though cursed with the decision to break tradition: the gold mining not only destroyed their rice field and the irrigation channels, but they also suffer huge financial loss due to very little earning from the promises of gold diggers.

Some tried to restore their land but that would require hundreds of million rupiah and at least two years before they can replant, leaving many of the Sawah Pusako neglected, as heirs refuse to maintain their land.

Since 2019, Syafar said, illegal gold miners have been operating in his village. Since then, at least 100 hectares of rice fields have turned into barren rock hills. Now the only remaining rice fields are in Muaro Seluro Hamlet, which is less than 50 hectares..

A mapping carried out by KKI-Warsi based on analysis of satellite images showed that gold mining operations in Raden Anom village, expanded each year. 

The organization that focuses on empowering communities around forests, recorded that in 2017 the mining covered 150 hectares. The figure reached 256 hectares in 2019, increased to 283 hectares in 2020 and 269 hectares in 2021.

Syaf said that each decade brought new technology in gold mining and the damage inflicted by these mining operations were increasingly massive.

In earlier days, gold mining was done traditionally, by panning in rivers but since the 2000s they started using suction machine.

The suction machine, includes long pipes and diesel-fueled generators that can run pumps which sucks sediments on the river bed that are then filtered and the gold extracted with the help of mercury, leaving sand, small stones and mud that is thrown back into the river.

There are currently hundreds of suction machines operating along the Batanghari river, turning the water murkier every day.

When gold is no longer found in the river, miners would move to its tributaries. “They keep expanding and not only in the river but also in rice fields, rubber plantations, agricultural fields, even protected forest,” said Syafar.

The women brought with them torches. If they (gold miners) refuse to back down, they (women) would set those machines on fire. Until today, we stand firm in defending the Seluro hamlet from the illegal gold miners.

Muhammad Syafar

KKI-Warsi data shows illegal gold mining operation in Sarolangun and Merangin districts covered a total area of 10,926 hectares in 2016 but the following year, the total coverage shot to 27,535 hectares and had spread to Bungo district.

The mining areas further expanded and by 2021 it reached 42,362 hectares in four districts, or a 288 percent growth between 2016 and 2021.

Most of the land that were converted into gold mines are within the Areas for Other Purposes (APL) said Syaf, referring to land that are outside of forest areas and includes land for other use such as rice field, plantations, and other agricultural purposes.

“The precise figures for the rice fields that have become gold mines have not yet been calculated but gold mining has caused damage to thousands of hectares of agricultural land,” Syaf said.

Data by KKI-Warsi for the last twelve months showed that gold mining in Jambi covered 32,565 hectares of APL, 6,099 hectares of production forests, 2,972 hectares of protected forests, 154 hectares of limited production forests and 572 hectares within a national conservation park.

 “Somewhere in Merangin district, even a house of worship was destroyed for illegal gold mining,” Syaf said.

Merangin District Chief Mashuri revealed during a district leadership communication forum on July 14, 2022, that damage on agricultural land caused by illegal gold mining operation reached 3,920 hectares in 12 sub-districts.

The destruction of agricultural land because of the conversion is threatening food resilience. Former gold mines become idle agricultural land and reclaiming former mining lands in Jambi is impossible given the condition of farmers, who lack capital and are economically challenged.

The destruction of agricultural land due to land conversion threatens food security. Former gold mines turned unto idle land. Under the current condition — lacking in capital and already economically struggling — farmers in Jambi have no means to reclaim these barren land.

To survive, farmers either become labors at these illegal operations or resort to doing odd jobs. Another alternative is to return to cultivating rubber plantations but the selling price is low that it’s no longer attractive.

Rudi gave an example of hundreds of hectares of former gold mine in Pangkalan Jambu sub-district in Merangin district, which can only be planted with rice after almost three years of being idle land. Rudi added reclaiming former mines requires a lot of money.

Rudi gave an example of hundreds of hectares of former gold mine in Pangkalan Jambu subdistrict, which can only be planted with rice after almost three years left idle. Rudi underlined that reclaiming former mines requires a lot of money.

“Only the government can do it.” 

Mercury poisoning 

After two decades of gold mining, the amount of mercury, a chemical used in the process of gold extraction, that has been release into rivers is no longer calculable. 

Ngatijo, a lecturer at Universitas Jambi, said in his research on mercury found in the Batanghari river that the content of this toxic chemical had already exceeded the safe threshold.

The level fluctuates between <0.0005-0.0645 mg/L in the water and 0.01-0.42 mg/kg in the river’s sediment.  “This is really dangerous for any living being,” Ngatijo said.

Regulation Number 51 of 2004 of the Minister of the Environment puts the safe threshold for mercury in water and in the sea at 0.001 ppm while the Indonesian National Standard (SNI) sets the maximum allowable mercury content in fresh fishes at 0.5 mg/kg.

As mercury cannot disintegrate, the chemical will accumulate in the tissues of living being. It would be consumed by small fishes that would be eaten by bigger fishes that could end up at dining tables, making residents in the region as the last stop for mercury from the Batanghari, Sumatra’s longest river.

Mercury that pollutes the rivers threatens the life of millions in Jambi, including fishermen, consumers of water from the state water utility company, farmers who depends on the river to irrigate their fields and the final consumers of the fish and food crops.

Ngatijo is calling on the government not to be careless in reclaiming land that were formerly mined for gold. 

Even though most of the mercury that fell to the ground during the mining process are usually already washed away by rains but his 2018 research in Sungai Jering village, in Merangin district’s sub-district of Pangkalan Jambu found the soil to still contain 0.00154-0.00501 ppm of mercury, higher than safe levels.

Rice naturally has a high capacity to absorb mercury. Ngatijo proved this by planting rice which later he found contained mercury content that was higher that the safe level.

He advised people against eating rice from former gold mining because it could make people disabled and can also be transmitted genetically to their offspring.

Before replanting a former gold mining plot, he said, there was a need to first absorb as much of the remaining mercury using an absorbent composed of rice husks. His research showed that this absorbent can extract up to 43.6 percent of the mercury in former mining plots.

Threatening food resilience

The head of the Jambi Province Office for Agriculture and Animal Husbandry’s food crop and horticulture department, Khairul Asrori said that in one decade, Jambi had lost almost 80 percent of its agricultural land. The conversions were now into illegal gold mines while previously it was mostly for oil palm plantations.

Land conversions carry serious impacts. Jambi has always experience a rice deficit of more than 40 percent.  Jambi’s 3,677,678 people annually consume 89.7 kilogram/capita or some 329,888 tons. Production of dry unhusked rice stood only at 298.14 tons last year, or 193,797 tons of rice.

He said that rice production continued to decline in line with the reduction in agricultural land. Rice production in 2019 that stood at 309,933 tons rose in the following year to 386,413 tons but slid down to 298,149 tons in 2021 and 289,277 tons in 2022.

To anticipate loss of land for food crops, the government has issued a regional regulation that sets sustainable agricultural land (LP2B), followed by the making of a map of protected rice fields (LSD) because it turned out that some of the LP2B field were converted into gold mines in Sarolangun, Merangin , Bungo and Tebo districts.

After the mapping by the Ministry of Agrarian and Zoning Affairs/the National Land Agency, the LSD can be maintained to meet some of the demand in the province and help ensure national food availability.

“So, these potential rice fields will then be protected, just like with protected forest. They cannot be converted, be that for plantation, settlement or gold mining,” Asrori said.

He said that the condition of agriculture in Jambi was worrying. Besides of the threat of land conversion, the discontinued regeneration of farmers and their weakening rights as well as the prevailing stigma of farmers being old fashioned and poor, is making the younger generation reluctant to become farmers.

 “We all know, everyone needs to eat. Delicious food would not appear on the table if there are no working farmer, but the rights of these farmers are ignored,” Asrori said.

So far, to encourage farmers to stay in agriculture, the government is handing out assistance in the form of seeds, subsidized fertilizers and pest handling. As a commodity with regulated sales, rice farmers do not make much profit and therefore many are leaving this profession for more profitable jobs.

 “Of course, economically, rice is really low (in profit) compared to oil palm and rubber. More recently the popular thing is converting paddy field for gold mining because the price of gold is higher, much higher than the price of rice. This has become a serious problem for farmers and food resilience,” he said.

Alternative economy

The government is aware that the disappearance of rice fields because of the gold mines is threatening food resilience. The government is therefore maximizing the productivity of the rice in areas that have no gold content. 

Recently, they used the development of natural microorganism technology so that farmers can reduce their dependence on fertilizers and pesticides. Production cost could therefore be reduced while revenues increased.

“We are encouraging farmers’ groups now, to produce organic rice without using fertilizer and pesticide. So, prices in the market can be high. The big difference between production costs and selling price allows farmers to make some savings,” explained Asrori said.

Besides trying to improve the productivity of rice field, the government is also preparing a partnership scheme between farmers and enterprises that could provide financial help as part of their CSR or other specific programs linked to food resilience and farmers.

“There are already enterprises, private or state owned which want to join in providing support for the farmers. They hope that this can be applied widely across Indonesia so that we can safeguard our food resilience,” Asrori said.

Another solution that is provided to help farmers around illegal gold mining is the development of other commodities. Rudi said that if farmers could grow something else besides rice, they would not be easily convinced by illegal gold mining bosses.

At the root of problems faced by farmers is the damage suffered by the Batanghari river that has been taking place in the past 40 years. The damage started with the logging of forests in Jambi, aided by the existing regulations. Forests in Jambi initially covered 3.8 million hectares but had now been reduced to just 2.1 million hectares.

The remaining forests also, according to satellite imaging analysis, only had 900,000 hectares left with good forest cover, or just 18 percent of the surface of Jambi province. The dwindling forest area is contributing to the high speed of water flow in the surface during rains.

 “This, of course contribute to the very high level of sedimentation in the Batanghari which then lead to the river becoming more shallow. This condition also made it easy for the river to flood during the rainy season, and cause it to dry up during the dry season because the number of the river’s water sources is dwindling in line with the logging of the forests,” Syafar said.

The damage to the ecosystem in Jambi continue to progress because of the uncontrolled activities of illegal gold mining in the river and its banks, including upstream.

To restore the Batanghari river, there is a need for a recovery of the ecology at its water catchment areas and along its banks. Illegal gold mining should be prohibited and most importantly, also providing a source of livelihood for the affected people.

Initially, the illegal gold mining was not an activity of the local people but they finally got enticed by fund owners who promised them alluring profit sharing figures.

 “This happened when the price of the main commodity of the people of Jambi fell very low, the price of rubber was very low so that many took the shortcut in improving their economy, by accepting the illegal offers,’ he said. 

The local communities themselves would not be able to do the gold mining by themselves as it was a capital-intensive work. The daily rental of a heavy machinery was already Rp 100 million and one still had to add the daily fuel cost for 300 liters. 

The purchase of chemicals such as mercury, cyanide, borax and caustic soda also needed tens of millions.

One of the activities of KKI Warsi which works on community-based forest management is to build up the common awareness of the need to sustainably manage regions and to develop new economic resources.

One of them is being developed at the Bukit Bulan landscape in Sarolangun’s Limun sub-district. This area had recently seen encroachment by illegal gold miners who had even entered forest areas and the upstream of rivers in the region, including the Limun river.

 “We tried to analyze what causes community to be easily enticed, and it turned out that it was a matter of economic resources not being met when the price of rubber which was the main commodity, dropped,” Syafar said.

Following intensive discussions with the people, they identified a need to find a new economic resource that was more reliable. They decided on cacao, which some had already begun to plant but had not yet well managed.

The community in Bukit Bulan was invited to visit an innovative farmers’ group in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra. A total of 20 people took part in the tour.

 “Because of this, people became interested to plant cacao, as can be seen from the fact that the people themselves bought cacao seed from this innovative group. They also dropped their work as gold miners,” Syafar said.

By cultivating cacao, the lives of these former illegal gold miners became much calmer, there was no longer any concerns of raid and family conflicts. They could harvest the fruit four times a year.

The cacao commodity has a number of advantage, besides a more stable price, demand was high. Cacao was also a crop that can be planted with other crops.

“This plant needs a protecting plant and its humus can be planted with crops of other commodities. As protecting plants the choice usually falls to Jengkol (Archidendron pauciflorum) or banana trees while as plants on the soil are bird eye chilies and rain fed rice,” Syafar explained.

He said that the area has started with local spot campaigns against illegal activities and expressed hopes that other regions could follow suit. “So that efforts to clean the Batanghari river can be conducted and the ecology restored,” he said.

Datuk Syafar is also trying to encourage alternative sources of economic revenues, Beside of working on rice and rubber plantations, people in Muaro Selura are now planting tengkawang, or shorea and kepayang,or pangium. Their fruits can be processed and sold

“Each month we produce 100 bamboos (containers) of tengkawang priced at Rp 50,000 per unit. The production of oil from the Kepayang fruit, reaches around 80 kilograms per year can be sold at Rp 50,000 to for 70,000 for 500 milliliter,” he said. 

By making use of forest products to support the economy requires efforts to protect the forests from encroachments. If the local people have alternative sources of revenue, they will not be easily fall prey to the offers from the gold mining bosses and thus will be able to safeguard their areas from environmental destruction.

Syafar’s dream of being able to leave his descendants with a water source is getting closer if only the law enforcers can bring a halt to the illegal mining activities. By having an alternative source of revenue, people would tend to protect forest more and thus improve the fate of the farmers.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network through the Clean Air Catalyst (Catalyst), a flagship program launched by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and led by a global partnership of organizations including World Resources Institute and Environmental Defense Fund and InternewsThis story was first published in KOMPAS (Bahasa Indonesia) on 12 December 2022.

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