Not only is tin mining harmful to the environment, but it also threatens children in Bangka Belitung. Their education and health hang in the balance.

AT THE CRACK OF DAWN, Sumarto’s 15-year-old son, his eldest, joined his friends. They set out to a tin mining area operated by PT Putra Tongga Samudra (PTS) behind their house. Armed with a hoe and bucket, Adit dug into the sand pile to look for tin ore remnants. He did not realize that the sand and rocks above him had collapsed. His body was buried five meters deep.

Sumarto, who was still asleep when his son left, woke up in the morning to a loud knock on the door. He immediately opened the house door. His eyes fell on his son’s lifeless body. Shaken and unconscious, the 38-year-old father had no recollection of what happened next.

“I haven’t looked at the mine since the incident. Traumatized,” he said, recalling the tragic day in June 2020.

Sumarto’s family lives in Gudem Utara, Pemali Subdistrict, Bangka. The tin mining area operated by PTS is open. Anyone can enter the mining area and mine, except when patrols are present.

Melimbang (collecting) is a popular term used by residents of the Bangka Belitung (Babel) Islands or Babel for the activity of finding the remaining tin ore from the waste and industrial waste piles (tailings) of tin excavation. Tin ores are collected into buckets and handed over to collectors.

The number of people involved in this activity will increase rapidly when tin prices skyrocket. At the time the incident happened to school children like Adit, tin prices reached Rp200,000 ($13) per kilogram.

A large number of the members of the community, including women and children, are involved in this dangerous daily routine.

On a rainy afternoon in late December 2022, melimbang were seen in Kedimpal Hamlet, Baskara Bakti Village. This is about an hour’s drive from Pemali. There were 50 or so people in the area. Some chose to shelter in a hut, while others continued working by wrapping their bodies in raincoats.

Residents squat near the sakan, as the locals call the tin washing equipment made of a wooden structure. Using plates, scrapers, and buckets, they scoop tin ore from the waste that drifts from the sakan, shaking the plates to sift out the tin ore, while their feet submerged in the tin sand waste for hours.

Coming from various regions, they collected at least 1-3 kg of tin ore that day, which was valued at Rp100,000 ($6.5) per kilogram

“Jampang!” A woman called out from near the sakan. Her voice was almost muffled by the makeshift washing machine.

From a distance, the 11-year-old boy and several other children of the same age ran around near a passing excavator. Jampang’s mother panicked.

Not far from the sakan, Rian sat on a pile of sand tailings, watching his grandmother sift the sand for tin ore. The 11-year-old boy’s energy would be needed for his grandmother to lift buckets of tin she collected.

The pile of tailing where Rian sat was quite high and could collapse at any time. The tailings have to be moved occasionally with an excavator so that they do not accumulate near the sakan and block water flow.

That day the tin washing at the sakan finished earlier than usual because of the rain.

Rian is only in grade 5, but every day after reciting class, he heads to the tin mining area only 300 meters from home. He helps his grandmother until late afternoon or even at night. He only studies at night.

The next day, Rian had to wake up at 5 a.m. and go to school around 6 a.m. Rian often falls asleep in class.

Kampung Pasir, surrounded by tine mines

The sakan surrounded by collectors belongs to Dirgantara Sejahtera, one of PT Timah’s partners. It has operated since November 17, 2022. The company dredges tin in a reclaimed former mining area on Kedimpal Beach, a few meters from Kampung Pasir. The village is inhabited by many young families and their children, most of whom are still in elementary school, including Rian.

Before being occupied by residents in 2009, Kampung Pasir was an acacia forest that grew on reclaimed sand from PT Timah’s former mining site. Until today, the village area is still part of PT Timah’s mining business license area.

Around 2010, village officials provided land in Kampung Pasir for young families who had long settled in Kedimpal Hamlet and did not have a house. As of January 2023, 54 families lived there.

Kampung Pasir residents have repeatedly applied for land or building ownership documents. It was only in 2022, through the National Land Agency program, that Kampung Pasir residents could apply for a certificate of ownership and legalize their house.

Kampung Pasir is located on Central Bangka’s east coast. Many residents earn their living as fishermen, who work depending on the season. During high tides or strong winds, for example, residents switch professions to become tin miners.

The majority of men in this area are illegal miners or TI. They mined an area 160 meters from their settlement.

In the Babel Islands, tin mining does not require heavy equipment. With 12 liters of gasoline, a suction pump, a water spray hose, and a board to wash the tin, anyone can mine tin wherever there is potential for tin.

In the book Three Centuries Serving the World, released by the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), TI emerged due to an agreement between PT Timah and PT Koba Tin during the New Order era. TI uses simple equipment in PT Timah’s mining areas that were considered unproductive. Tin ores from TI are handed over to PT Timah’s local partners with Timah as the end off-taker.

“PT Timah was the first to compromise in a way that benefited the corporation. If they cannot mine in their area, the area should be returned to the government. Why can’t they mine? Because it’s not economical. So in the context of being uneconomical, it is cheaper to receive from artisanal miners,” said Siti Maemunah, a mining researcher and co-author of the book.

During the reform era, mining activities previously monopolized by PT Timah and PT Koba Tin were decentralized. This rapidly increased the number of TI miners, uncontrolled, and mined outside the mining area. PT Timah suspended the policy due to an overstock of tin reserves.

However, that did not stop unlicensed tin miners from looking for other sales alternatives until today.

In Kampung Pasir alone, in the last three months of 2022, there have been three large mining partners of PT Timah. These partners have started mining the ex-tin mining pits, including CV Dirgantara Sejahtera.

In this village, a line of men walking on foot carrying tin suction pump machines – called robins – and 12-liter jerry cans of gasoline, has become a familiar sight. These TI miners diligently search for areas with tin reserves. Even if there is no guarantee they can earn from the day’s arduous work.

Bathing in ex-mining pits

In an unconventional tin mining location, one can see an ex-mining pit that has been left open for a long time. This opening collects rainwater and resembles a lake. The locals call it kolong and it has become a communal bathing and washing site.

Unlike a river, pits do not flow. The discharge may increase depending on rainfall, but it is not enough to purify the water. The slight increase in water volume from mining areas into the pit will also increase harmful mining substances, including heavy metals that threaten health.

Unfortunately, many residents in Kampung Pasir depend on kolong as their primary sanitation.

As of 2018, there are at least more than 12 thousand pits covering 15 thousand hectares throughout Babel. It is unclear how old the ex-mining pits in Kampung Pasir are, but the aquatic biota present indicates they have been around for quite some time.

According to Babel environment and forestry office, in ex-mining pits, it is likely that the content of heavy metals used in tin mining such as lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, copper, iron, and manganese have decreased and the water acidity has been neutralized over time.

However, a study by Andri Kurniawan, a lecturer in aquaculture at the University of Bangka Belitung, found that the age of the pit doesn’t always translate to lower heavy metal content. It also depends on the sediments at the bottom of the pit. Muddy soil absorbs heavy metals. But sand on the other hand doesn’t absorb or hold heavy metals down.

“This is why heavy metals tend to remain high in tin mining pits even though they have been abandoned or neglected for a long time,” Andri said in an interview with us.

On a late afternoon in December 2022, Citra had just returned from a collecting shift at CV Dirgantara Sejahtera. She immediately took a bath in a kolong just a few steps from her house. Citra was one of the first residents to occupy Kampung Pasir. Since moving to Kampung Pasir, she said, the kolong has already existed. However, as Kampung Pasir became crowded with residents and mining activities, water quality declined considerably.

“Now the water stinks. After bathing, it’s itchy, my hair is slimy and sticky,” said Citra.

We surveyed 34 out of 54 families in Kampung Pasir regarding the water sources they use and the health problems they complain about the most. We found that the majority of families in Kampung Pasir use kolong water for bathing and washing.

For some houses that are far from an ex-mining pit, residents draw water from wells — both private and public wells dug out by local administration. Residents access at least seven wells of varying depths.

However, well water is no cleaner than ex-mining pits. As Kampung Pasir was built on tin mine reclamation land and is close to the coast, the well water there is acidic, brown, and rusty.

Irma (31), has difficulty getting clean water even though she has lived in Kampung Pasir for eleven years. She used kolong water for the first seven years. Then, she switched to well water behind her house following a rural independent community empowerment program. The well is approximately 10 meters deep.

Irma needs to let the water sit overnight so that the red rust crust settles at the bottom of the tub and the water becomes clear enough to be used. Even after all that, the water still smelled.

“The smell is strong, like rust. If we use it to brush our teeth, we feel nauseous. Can’t stand the smell,” he said.

Skin disease

Irma complains of itching. Her teeth were blackened and porous. She also had frequent vaginal discharges. In 2015, the doctor diagnosed her with ovarian cysts.

In our survey, many Kampung Pasir residents complained of itching and tooth decay, just like Irma. At least 20 families complained of itching.

Ambar (29), complains of itching. too Ambar suspects it is caused by the kolong water she uses to bathe in. Her youngest child, 2-year-old Salsa, often scratches red spots on her hands and feet.

Ambar suspects Salsa has some kind of sand allergy. Red spots started appearing when her daughter played in the sand in front of her house. The rancid smell of itchy wounds permeated from Salsa’s head. When she can’t stand the itching, Salsa cries.

Data from the Namang Community Health Center (puskesmas), whose working area includes Kampung Pasir, shows skin disease, namely allergies or infections, are among the ten most common diseases over the past four years reported by residents.

“Most patients who come to the health center complain of skin diseases. If we look into it, the source is indeed from the kolong,” said Ninda Astasri, the head of the Namang puskesmas.

The local administration built waterworks twice between 2017 and 2021. Water pumps and pipes were installed in Kampung Pasir. However, the water machine only lasted two weeks, before breaking down. The head of Kedimpal Hamlet, Asmawati, believes the water machine broke down because the acid content in the water caused rust and damaged the machine.

Residents of Kampung Pasir were forced to continue relying on water from ex-mining pits contaminated with heavy metals or wells with rusty water.

In the long term, many diseases infect residents living in the mining area and using water from ex-mining pits. Their risk of exposure increases if residents go to mining areas or work there.

Various scientific studies mentioned that continuous exposure to heavy metals such as lead and arsenic with high intensity can potentially harm health such as digestive, excretory, and respiratory system disorders (including lung cancer and lower respiratory disorders), chronic neoplasms, and fetal abnormalities, bone disease, nervous system and brain disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Note: Marked in yellow are health issues we found during our survey in Kampung Pasir.

Not a priority

To better understand the health impact of tin mining on children in other districts in Babel, we interviewed Tafwid, head of Baturusa puskesmas in Merawang Sub-district, Bangka.

Tafwid said itching and diarrhea were the most common diseases for children during the dry season, likely due to poor water consumption. This occurs in areas that still use ex-mining pits as their main sanitation.

“But, unfortunately, the community and individual groups are less concerned about their own health. Maybe because they think this skin disease is common,” said Tafwid.

As for the potential for long-term diseases that harm human’s internal organs, Tafwid said there had never been any research or incidents in his area that showed a connection between certain diseases and tin mining activities.

“We don’t dare (to do it). The cost is big,” he said.

The provincial health office has not had any special programs, studies, or surveys related to the impact of tin mining on public health.

The head of the Babel health office, Andri Nurtito, admitted that some of the ex-mining pits used by the district water company contain heavy metals that he believes are still below drinking water quality standards.

But health problems arising from heavy metal exposure have not been a priority for the Babel health office.

“In addition, we do not have enough resources to encourage further studies. To do so, it is necessary to involve related authorities that should be on top of this discussion: The Energy and Mineral Resources Agency and the Environment and Forestry Agency,” he said.

Destroying the environment

In February 2023, the head of Kedimpal Hamlet, Asmawati, was sitting in a simple hut behind her newly built house, far from mining noise. Together with members of the women farmers group, Asmawati cares for the garden around her village.

Asmawati was elected as hamlet head in August 2022. Her priority is to “fight for” Kampung Pasir. One idea: She wants this village to explore long-term tourism potential rather than mining which has environmental impacts. She believes Kampung Pasir is the future for children in Kedimpal.

“We prepare Kampung Pasir for future generations. But, on the other hand, we let people destroy it,” he said.

Not only on the coast, Kampung Pasir is directly adjacent to the Benuang River downstream. In 2016, the Kedimpal bridge collapsed during the rainy season due to rising river flows. This was exacerbated by unconventional mining activities near the river, causing siltation and cutting off river flow.

In 2017, the Babel public works and housing office built new bridges in several places affected by flooding in Central Bangka, including Kedimpal. They also paved a new, wider river channel.

However, around 2019, tailing from mining activities caused the river to be shallow and changed the direction of the flow. Parts of the bridge cracked and residents installed supporting poles. To repair it, Asmawati said, each miner contributed IDR100,000 to rent an excavator to dredge mine tailings that blocked the river.

In 2022, a report by the Bangka Belitung Environment and Forestry office named “unsustainable mining” activities as the top priority environmental issue in Babel, as well as river basin destruction and coastal damage.

The same report mentioned that mining activities around river basins increase pollution concentration, especially sediments containing heavy metals that settle in downstream areas.

CV Dirgantara Sejahtera is adjacent to the coast and the Benuang River. When it began mining in 2022, Asmawati asked that mine tailing should not be disposed of in waterways.

“You can work, but please don’t block the river flow because if it gets blocked, it will flood,” she said.

However, in a drone image captured in February 2023, CV Dirgantara Sejahtera’s tin-washing waste clearly flows into the river, causing blockage to the flow and leaving sediments on the river bed.

“But now the river flow has been torn apart. Whether this is the correct river flow, I don’t know anymore,” said Asmawati.

Meanwhile, Kampung Pasir village head Bahtiar Effendi said that mining waste in Kedimpal was not problematic and mining operations were monitored by the village administration.

“Tailing do not run into the river. They dig and close the hole. We see no problem with miners’ waste here,” Bahtiar claimed.

In addition to damaging and polluting the river, mining activities also cleared beach casuarina trees (Casuarina equisetifolia), or known as ruk by the locals. CV Dirgantara Sejahtera is allegedly responsible for this.

Beach casuarinas are useful in preventing erosion and breaking waves and tsunamis, in addition to improving nutrients in the surrounding sand. Villagers also planted mangroves.

CV Dirgantara Sejahtera proposed two options for their activities: the area near the river, and the mangrove area on the south side near Kampung Pasir.

Asmawati and her husband rejected the proposal as they knew that the tin suction pipes would damage beach casuarinas, mangroves, and the coastline.

“If they take down the ruk,” Asmawati said, “we will both be shields.”

The 2022 report from the Bangka Belitung environmental office also revealed that among primary forest types, mangrove forests in West Bangka District were the most degraded between 2015 and 2021. Mud and sediment from mining covered the mangrove seedlings, causing them to deteriorate and die.

At the end of March 2023, we received news from residents that three PT Timah partners in Kampung Pasir, including CV Dirgantara Sejahtera, had stopped their activities. This was because tin ore production fell short of operational targets.

Asmawati doubts that the Kampung Pasir environment can recover quickly after being damaged by mining activities. And, even if residents get compensation, it’s useless.

“Can the village environment be returned exactly the same as before the mining company dredged? It can’t be, right? It leaves a hole,” he said. “Why, for example, should the community be given (compensation) fishing nets if the marine ecosystem has been damaged?”

Until this report was published, neither PT Timah, which oversees the work of its partners, nor the Babel environmental office, which oversees the environment and mining in Kampung Pasir, responded to our requests for confirmation.

High dropout rate

Despite the damage caused by tin mining in Babel, policymakers have made little effort to reinforce the so-called “legal mining” or regulate “unsustainable mining.”

Babel is a major contributor to Indonesia’s tin exports, making the country the second-largest exporter. In 2021, Indonesia produced at least 34,000 tons of tin, with state-owned PT Timah producing at least 26,000 tons of tin, equivalent to 76% of Indonesia’s total tin production in the same year.

Like a vicious circle, Babel residents continue to depend on the tin sector by working as unconventional tin miners. Meanwhile, PT Timah continues to try to secure tin reserve assets mined without permission, by encouraging unconventional miners to partner. On the other hand, the local government has ‘established’ a task force to handle illegal tin mining.

Blaming unconventional miners, acting governor of Babel, Ridwan Djamaluddin, advocates that “illegal mines” be stopped, as recommended by the 2022 Environment and Forestry Agency report. Ridwan is a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, and former Director General of Mineral and Coal.

The government has never prioritized artisanal miners, says Siti Maemunah, a mining researcher. “They serve large-scale mining. Bangka Belitung is treated as a commodity island and unconventional mining is just another branch of extraction that has been carried out for a long time.”

“The problem is, is legal mining not destructive? The government calls for unconventional mining to be stopped, even though the results will also go to large companies,” he added.

In villages affected by tin mining, the situation threatens children’s future.

Defrizal, a teacher at Pangkalpinang 10 Junior High School (SMPN), studied the learning behavior of students at his school who worked as unconventional tin miners. He found students were often falling asleep, skipping school, and not doing their homework. He believes this is a similar trend in other schools located close to mining areas across Babel.

Defrizal, who has been a teacher at the same school for 23 years, was moved to conduct the study following two students who were killed by an avalanche of tin mining sand while collecting tin.

Another teacher at Namang 2 Junior High Scool in Central Bangka, Nurwati, wrote an article about the connection between the high dropout rate in Bangka Belitung and the price of tin. In her school, at least 10 students dropped out in 2020.

Sri Purwanti, principal of Namang 8 Primary School, said at least seven of her students dropped out of school in 2022. During the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Purwanti received reports of many students skipping school, even leaving early without permission, to help their parents work in the mines.

From conversations with these three school teachers, all believe that the dropout rate in Bangka Belitung is related to tin prices.

For example, in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dropout rate rose because tin prices reached Rp200,000/kilogram. Assuming a child gets 1 kilogram of tin every day, in just two months, the child can buy his own motorcycle and mobile phone.

A sociology lecturer at the University of Bangka Belitung, Putra Pratama Saputra, explained that many parents in Babel work and depend on the tin sector. As a result, children tend to help their parents. Despite the high risk they face in mining areas.

“Many children work long and intense working hours, causing loss of opportunities to enjoy education and play with peers in their social environment,” he said.

“The risk of work accidents in the form of injuries and even death, to health problems that cause physical decline. On the other hand, there are concerns that children who work tend to drop out of school easily,” said Putra, who conducted a study on tin miners’ children.

The head of the Babel education office, Ervawi, confirms that one of the causes of the high dropout rate in Babel is the tin miningsector, perceived to be more promising for the future albeit short-lived.

“Children in Bangka Belitung are swayed and lured by the cradle of tin mining. That is actually what makes them drop out of school. Then, those who have not entered school may not want to go to school,” he said.

Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics shows the dropout rate in Babel exceeds the national dropout rate. In 2022, the province had the highest dropout rate for high school/equivalent in Indonesia.

The Babel’s school participation rate is below the national level. This affects the human development index (HDI), which already is low at the provincial level. In the last five years, Bangka Belitung’s HDI has been below the national HDI.

“We calculate 2,000 drop-out students, times Rp200,000 a day. The result is Rp400 million in one day!” Ervawi explained.

“Just imagine if you multiply it by 30 days, the result is Rp12 billion in one month from the children who contribute to the Ba provincial income. That’s just from drop-out children who work in the tin mining sector.”

Siti Maemunah believes children in the mining circle are not only affected mentally and physically but also emotionally, and their connection to nature, including the feeling that at an early age, children are forced to destroy the surrounding environment to survive.

“This small island is treated as a pile of mining materials where mining is the commander, while the living space of the people is on what’s left. What kind of future do you want to promise the children?” she said.

In its sustainability report, PT Timah guarantees minors are not employed. But, on the other hand, this state company “understands” that mining partners may violate the law.

Until this article was published, PT Timah did not respond to our request for assurance that the tin produced and exported by the company does not come from child miners.

Hanging on to ambitions

Rian and Jampang are both 11-year-olds who attend 8 Namang Primary School. One afternoon, they sat on an abandoned fishing boat on Kedimpal Beach. On normal days, their activities include getting to school, reciting the Quran, and helping their families collect tin.

Rian never complained, even though he was tired and his eyes hurt from collecting tin. He still helps his grandmother and mother work. Since he was little, Rian has watched his mother work as a single mother. Rian prefers to work rather than play like his peers.

Rian dreams of becoming a firefighter to help others. Every time he comes to the Thursday night market in the village, he sets aside money to give to the street people he meets there.

Jampang, meanwhile, wants to be Ultraman. Rian laughed at that. Jampang hadn’t thought about what he wanted to be, but he was saving money. The money he earns is put into a piggy bank to pay for his boarding school entrance fee next year.

On an evening in early February 2023, we noticed Zika pulling out a small sheet of monochrome photo of her brother Adit, in his junior high school uniform.

“My brother is handsome,” said Zika, a second grader. She kisses the photo a few times, then puts it back in her small red purse.

Zika is sitting next to her father, Sumarto, on the front porch of their house in Gudem Utara. Sumarto gazed sadly at the photo. He occasionally laughs bitterly as he recalls the incident of his son dying while collecting tun, unbeknownst to him who was asleep, at dawn in 2020.

Adit was a student at 2 Pemali Junior High School. His neighbors knew him as a friendly and hard worker. Adit’s mother was also disciplined about schooling.

However, Adit was not one to talk about his thoughts. Sumarto didn’t even know what Adit’s dreams were. He only knew Adit loved the automotive world. Sumarto sighs when he remembers Adit will soon enter sailing vocational school. He bought his son an uniform and bag.

He will never see his son go to school in his new uniform.

This report was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network through the Environmental Justice Reporting Story Grants for Asia-Pacific Youth Year 2022 program and was first published in Bahasa Indonesia by Project Multatuli on June 26, 2020. Ekuatorial republished this report under Creative Commons licensing.
About the writer

Indah Suci Safitri

Indah Suci Saftiri started her journalism career as a freelance journalist in 2023. She covers indigenous culture, environmental issues, and marginal communities. She has experience in photojournalism...

Leoni Susanto

Leoni Susanto is a young Indonesian freelance journalist. She completed her journalism studies at Universitas Multimedia Nusantara in 2022. Leoni has a great interest in data visualization, both interactive...

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