Dossier Tin mining

What is the problem?

What is the problem?

May 19, 2014

A smartphone contains about 2 grams of tin, a tablet has about 4 grams. Not much? It is if you consider that Apple and Samsung sell between 70 and 90 million smartphones per year and that 118 million tablets are sold annually. A large percentage of this tin is mined in Indonesia on the islands of Bangka and Bilitung. This tin mining brings serious consequences for farmers and fisher families. ‘I fear that my children and grandchildren will have no future on Bangka’, said Alim from the village of Denian. ‘Tin mining is destroying the entire island.’

How is tin mined?

Tin can be found in a thin layer throughout the entire island of Bangka. Forests and fields are ploughed up to mine the tin. Excavators dig up a few metres of the fertile ground and rinse it with water to remove the tin and sand. The seabed surrounding the island also contains much tin. Dredging ships dig up the seabed and then separate the tin from the sand.

The steady loss of paradise

In the rivers and the sea, fish are disappearing. The tourism sector is languishing because the blue sea has turned grey, and farmers are losing their agricultural land. Young people are leaving in search of a better future in the city and fishers are also going elsewhere to earn their living. Working in the tin mines is the only choice for the families that remain: but it’s dirty, dangerous work that pays only starvation wages.

‘When you’re deep in the mine, the work is very dangerous,’ says Ijal. ‘We have to be very careful, because you could end up in a landslide. Then you’ll be buried under the sand. The miners can be killed, buried alive under the debris.’

Tropical forest turning into a white desert

Tin mining threatens half of the forests on Bangka. Fertile land is lost through large-scale clearing of the forest and tin mining excavation. When the forests have disappeared, the tropical sun and rainstorms leave the bare land exposed – a white desert. The only plants that can grow there resemble those that grow on the Dutch dunes. After the tin has been mined, it takes dozens of years before the land can recover.

Tin mining poisons agricultural lands

When tin is mined, minerals deep below the earth are brought up to the surface. The deep craters that are left fill up with acidic water. Farming families can no longer grow crops on this land, made unfertile by the acidic water. Drinking water is also polluted.

Coral reefs dying

Dredging for tin in the sea releases a great deal of mud into the water, causing the once so beautiful blue sea surrounding Bangka to turn as grey as the sea in the Netherlands. As a result, the coral reef no longer receives sufficient light and dies off. Tropical fish and turtles dislike the murky water too; because the coral reefs where most of the fish live and reproduce are buried under sand, the sea life seeks other habitats.

Fishing collapsing

The fishers on the island of Bangka see more and more dredgers and fewer and fewer fish. Tropical fish, sea turtles, shrimp and crabs have fled the area. To find fish, the fishers must venture increasingly further out to sea. WALHI, Milieudefensie’s Indonesian partner organisation, has reported that the income of the fishers in a number of villages has dropped by 80 per cent.

‘In the past, we simply fished here, nearby the coast. Now we have to go far out to sea,’ says Parang, a fisherman on Bangka. ‘We are very concerned. The fish no longer have anywhere to live; their home has been destroyed. All the coral is gone. The costs of fishing are becoming higher and higher. In the past, in the time before the big dredgers, the water was transparent and blue, completely clear. Then you could fish. Not any more.’

There is a solution for Bangka

Milieudefensie wants to end the human rights violations and child labour in tin mining and for nature to be spared. Nature, agriculture and fishing can be saved if manufacturers, in cooperation with tin companies and the government on Bangka, address the problems on the island.

Since Milieudefensie has been conducting a campaign with Friends of the Earth Indonesia and England, many companies have promised to do better. They are willing to take responsibility for the abuses in the tin mines on Bangka. But not all the companies are yet doing so.