Keisyah Aprilia (BenarNews) – Risna recounted scrambling to save herself when dirt and rocks came tumbling into a 49-foot deep pit where she and other residents were mining for gold in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province on Feb. 24.
Seven people were killed and dozens more survived that landslide at the illegal mining site in Buranga, a village in Parigi Moutong regency, rescue officials had said.
"We the panners scrambled. Some managed to climb to the top but some were buried," Risna, a 36-year-old woman who goes by one name, told BenarNews.
The deadly accident underscores the dangers of small-scale mining activities for gold and other metals at more than 8,600 sites across the Indonesian archipelago, where dozens of people die every year, mostly during landslides, according to officials.
The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed residents to pan and mine for gold because they don't have jobs, observers said.
Moh Taufik, coordinator of the Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam) in Central Sulawesi, said there were five unlicensed gold mines sites in the province, but authorities had done little to stop the operations.
"After the incident in Buranga, everyone was shocked by the number of deaths," he told BenarNews.
The government does not release data on deaths at illegal gold mining sites because it does not want to draw public attention to the fatal accidents, Taufik said.
"We seriously urge the police to take action, because this is clearly a criminal act under the mining law," he said.
Mining without a permit is punishable by up to five years in prison, or a fine of up to 100 billion rupiah (U.S. $7 million).
Last year, a court in Aceh province sentenced six people to 10 months in prison and a fine of 2 million rupiah ($139) each for mining gold illegally.
Jatam urged the government to develop agriculture in areas where illegal mining operations exist to lure locals away from resorting to the dangerous work.
Taufik said any decision by the government to legalize artisanal mining operations should be based on studies on their social and environmental impact.
"Mining activities are often damaging to the environment and cause more harm than benefit," he said.
Indonesia is home to the Grasberg mine, the world's largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine, which is operated by mining giant Freeport McMoRan.
Of the country's more than 8,600 illegal mining sites, about 25 percent are gold mines, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. About 84 percent of those mines were active, while 16 percent were being restored.
Last year, the government closed 26 illegal gold mines in the Mount Halimun Salak National Park in Banten province after flash floods submerged rice fields and residential areas there.
At the time, Vice President Ma'ruf Amin said the government planned to close more than 8,000 sites and provide alternative job opportunities for local people.
Officials at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources could not be reached for comment.
Medical authorities said small-scale miners face risks associated with the use of mercury and cyanide in their operations.
People exposed to mercury and cyanide could experience health problems including damage to the kidneys, liver, lungs and digestive system, said Komang Adi Sujendra, head of the Central Sulawesi health department.
"It happens over the long term and could be fatal. The risk should not be underestimated," Adi told BenarNews.
The sale and import of mercury is illegal in Indonesia, but the chemical is used to separate gold from soil.
Eknas Sawung, a campaigner for the NGO Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), said illegal gold mining could not be separated from the use of dangerous chemicals.
"[M]ercury is poisonous and can cause illness, for example minamata," he said, referring to a neurological disease whose symptoms include numbness in the hands and feet and weakening of muscles.
Eknas said higher rates of birth defects have been found in areas where illegal gold mines operate.
Despite the ban on mercury and cyanide, they are relatively easy to obtain, said Taufik of Jatam.
"The fact that right now cyanide and mercury are sold freely, means there are suppliers, sellers and buyers. Law enforcers must take action against this," he said.
Illegal mining activities in Indonesia usually spike during an economic crisis, said Hanan Nugroho, an expert at the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas).
The coronavirus pandemic may have led to an increase in artisanal mining activities, Hanan wrote in "The Indonesian Journal of Development Planning," published last June.
"During the COVID-19 outbreak, monitoring of illegal mining activities is still being carried out. However, in some places, such as in Central Sulawesi, illegal gold mining has become more rampant," Hanan wrote.
He said the livelihoods of about 2 million people depend on illegal mining activities. Most of them work as gold panners.
In 2018, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry said potential state losses to illegal mining could reach nearly $3 billion (43 trillion rupiah) per year, without taking into the environmental cost.
"Illegal mining can provide a better income than other local jobs, especially when there is a gold rush or a spike in commodity prices," Hanan wrote.
He added that the government needs to review its mining policy by providing flexibility in licensing status.
Formalizing these activities, he said, must take into account economic, social and environmental impacts.
Aryanto Nugroho, coordinator of Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Indonesia, a civilian coalition for transparency in the management of extractive resources, urged the government to provide alternative work for people to lure them away from illegal mining.
"There are rarely alternative job opportunities in the mining areas," Aryanto said.
Taufik said that not all small-scale illegal mining operations are run purely by local communities.
Large investors often use the guise of community mining to operate illegally, he said.
"Many of these illegal mines are owned by investors under the pretense of community mining. In some locations we found a lot of heavy equipment, which is prohibited from being used in community mining," Taufik said.
"There's no way local people could afford renting a mechanical excavator," he said.
Central Sulawesi Gov.-elect Rusdi Mastura, meanwhile, has vowed to crack down on illegal mining activities when he takes office in June.
"I have received many complaints about it. God willing, after I take office, controlling illegal mining will be a priority," Rusdi told BenarNews.
"All forms of mining need a permit. We will collect all the data and then take action."
Outgoing Gov. Longki Djanggola said that he had responded to complaints about mining operations and that it was up to the police to take action.
"We have reported this to the provincial police," Longki said.
"We really regret what happened. It's impossible for the communities to dig holes like that if there is no heavy equipment that is funded by investors," he said, referring to the Feb. 24 accident.
Inspector Gen. Abdul Rakhman Baso, the provincial police chief, said action would be taken against businesses involved in illegal gold mining activities in Central Sulawesi.
"Especially for Buranga, we are still conducting an investigation," he told journalists, referring to last month's accident.
Risna, who survived the landslide in Buranga, said she made about 2 million rupiah ($140) per month from panning gold.
"I know it is dangerous here and the mine has no permit, but what can we do? Only here can we work and get a decent income. I tried selling fish in the market, I didn't make any profit," she said
"So if they say it's dangerous, I don't care. I think all my friends here also think the same."
– Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta contributed to this report.