New Zealand Embassy Jakarta, Indonesia

From the Ambassador's Blog: Mercury poisoning: Kiwi-Indo-China cooperation offers hope

New Zealand Embassy staff visit degraded land (an ex-illegal mining site) in West Kalimantan province.

From the Ambassador's blog:

As usual, I read the 29 July edition of Tempo magazine (a cracker of a weekly investigative reporting magazine focusing on developments in Indonesia) with great interest.  A story on “The Scourge of Mercury”, addressing the contamination of river systems through illegal gold mining, grabbed my attention.

As the article stated, mercury has ruinous effects on the environment.  In terms of humans, even small amounts can disturb the nervous, digestive, immunity and respiratory systems, as well as kidney function, skin and eyes, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  Mercury in an organic form “methyl mercury“ can easily enter the human body through consumption of fish or oyster from contaminated waters.  There has been no reporting yet of mercury poisoning in the area that was the focus of the article, but it’s clearly a real risk given contamination levels detected in the nearby river systems.

The problem of illegal gold mining is not confined to one regency.  The problems highlighted by Tempo could arise in a number of provinces.  I’ve seen illegal gold mining on my travels in Indonesia, and it’s clear that a toxic stew is leaking into the soil and streams nearby mining operations.

Gold mining is a venture that needs real care.  One website I read said that creating enough gold for one 18 karat ring generates about 20 tons of waste.

But there is some good news about dealing with toxic chemicals that get into the land as a result of gold mining.

Dr Chris Anderson from New Zealand’s Massey University Institute of Natural Resources has been doing some ground-breaking work that offers real hope.  Working with colleagues from Brawijaya and Mataram Universities and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he has been developing the science of phytomining to get rid of toxic waste chemicals.

Basically this involves using plants to draw in toxic chemicals and residual metals from discarded mine tailings.  At a certain point, the plants are burned, safely getting rid of the nasty elements and leaving small amounts of metals for collection.

The initial research programme was funded by a New Zealand aid programme grant.

Last year I was pleased to attend an event with the Vice Chancellor of Massey University, Dr Steve Maharey, and Dr Anderson to open the International Research Centre for the Management of Degraded and Mining Lands (IRC-MEDMIND) in Malang.  This is supported by the two Indonesian Universities, and the Indonesian Ministries of Energy and Mineral Resources, Ministry of Forestry and Ministry of Agriculture.

The Centre pools the talent from New Zealand, Indonesia and China and will make a positive impact.   It will help minimise the impact of mining and ensuring land is used in a sustainable way.  It should also benefit economic livelihoods in communities through improving mining practice and land usage.

This is important in the overall context of Indonesia’s role as a major gold producing country.  In 2012 it ranked 8th producing 95,000 metric tonnes of gold (New Zealand was 25th with 10,600 metric tonnes).

Hopefully phytomining will become standard operating practice before long in Indonesia and in other countries too.

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