In Rush to Find Gold, Indonesians Defy Dangers


"After gold prices rose sharply in late 2007 and early 2008, the illegal gold rush began."

New York Times, Norimitsu Onishi

Women with 50-pound sacks of rocks on their heads carry the loads to a nearby village where they would be crushed by hand and by machine, mixed with water and mercury, in a search for specks of gold. At the mine itself, scores of men dig just below the surface and fill their sacks with stones.

Gold, Investing

A former farmer, Mr. Jumaah, 45, was one of the countless men seeking their fortunes. With gold prices hovering at record highs, illegal gold mines began flourishing here three years ago on the island of Lombok, better known to outsiders as a tourist destination. In impoverished corners of Lombok like Sekotong, the discovery of even a few grams of gold has allowed families to replace their thatched huts with houses made of concrete.

But with little experience in mining and with few adequate tools, hundreds are believed to have died digging in illegal mines. The authorities also worry about the long-term consequences, as the gold seekers use mercury to extract the precious metal and release the residue into the environment.

Gold, InvestingThe authorities had tried many times to shut down the illegal operations, which reopen as soon as the police leave an area. That is why it was impossible to determine how many people have died in collapsing mines and rock slides, although estimates were in the hundreds. Fearing that their mines could be closed, diggers do not report deaths.

Gold has long been mined in other corners of Indonesia, which is one of the world's top producers of the metal. After gold prices rose sharply in late 2007 and early 2008, the illegal gold rush began here. Ethnic Chinese Indonesians began hiring puzzled locals to amass rocks from the mountainsóbut did not tell them what they were seeking.

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