More deaths at Java gold mine

Down to Earth No 61  May 2004

Reports surrounding the deaths of 13 unauthorised miners at the Pongkor gold mine, West Java, indicate how poverty, corruption and inhumane security methods may be contributing to the high death toll.

The underground Pongkor gold mine in Nanggung district, near Bogor, is operated by state-owned mining company PT Aneka Tambang. The thirteen men, plus one company employee, died of asphyxiation after their mining tunnels were filled with smoke. Reports quote survivors as saying that security guards set fire to tyres to try to smoke out the illegal miners. One report said that fumes leaked into another tunnel where authorised miners were working, killing one employee and causing others to pass out. The company denies the allegations of deliberate burning, blaming the illegal miners themselves for the fires.

The safety record at the Pongkor mine is appalling. By the company's own admission, at least 257 illegal gold miners died in accidents at the mine over the last seven years. The worst incident was in 1997 when a landslide killed at least 141 people.

The unauthorised miners, living in nearby villages, are reported to come mostly from outside the immediate area - some of them from outside Java. According to the company, these men work in groups organised by local leaders in Nanggung.

Aneka Tambang's Iwan Irawan said the mine's presence had changed the local livelihood from farming to gold mining, commenting that the villagers had led "consumer-driven lifestyles" ever since. But other reports state that poverty, particularly since the start of the economic crisis in 1997, is driving the miners to enter the highly risky business of illegal mining.

One woman told the Jakarta Post that her husband - one of the miners killed in the March incident - had often not eaten anything for days at a time while mining. A friend of the woman's husband, described how the illegal miners dig 'rat holes' to get into the mining tunnels. The miners risked beatings from security guards, even after paying bribes to get into the mine. "They beat us if we don't pay, and even if we do pay they still beat us…But they always play dumb when accidents like this happen. To them we are nothing but a swarm of rats."

The company denies that its security guards accept bribes, and points to its community development efforts in neighbouring villages.

(Source: Jakarta Post 11, 19/Mar/04; Miningindo 10 & 24/Mar/04)