Profitable, Illegal and Deadly: Tin Diving in Bangka-Belitung

Dozens of rafts used by illegal tin miners surround a vessel owned by state-owned tin miner PT Timah in the Bangka Strait on Thursday. Illegal tin mining is widespread in Bangka-Belitung, one of the world’s most abundant sources of the metal. (JG Photo/Reva Sasistiya)

For the residents of the resource-rich Bangka-Belitung Islands province, unlicensed undersea tin mining may be illicit and often deadly, but it is a way of life.

“You say illegal, we say legal,” said Jahoi, a 25-year-old illicit miner, who has spent the past eight years diving for tin sands in the waters off Permis, on the island of Bangka, east of Sumatra.

He believes every citizen of Indonesia should have the right to harvest the nation’s natural resources. “Tin was a gift from God. It is not only for PT Timah [the state-owned tin miner].”

Bangka-Belitung is Indonesia’s biggest supplier of tin and one of the world’s major sources of the metal, which is used to make solder and piping.

The world’s second-biggest tin miner, Timah dominates the lawful mining industry in the province, yet it complains that it loses as much as Rp 50 billion to Rp 100 billion ($5.3 million to $10.7 million) a month as a result of the profusion of illegal mining.

Illicit mining, carried out under water by men equipped with little more than a small raft and a primitive breathing tube, is a dangerous business. The local administration estimates that about 700 people have died in pursuit of tin over the last three or four years.

Jahoi knew one miner who was killed by a landslide while trying to dig for tin sands at a depth of 30 meters. But the perilous nature of the work has not put off Jahoi or the scores of other illegal miners. “It is a good job. I make enough money,” he said.

When the Jakarta Globe met Jahoi and four friends last week, they had just returned from the Bangka Strait, 35 miles from Permis. Each of them carried sacks containing about 10 kilograms of tin sands, from which the metal is later extracted.

The men work from a small raft, supported only by an air compressor and two pipes. With no seismological equipment to detect the location of tin under the sea, they usually follow the mining vessels owned by Timah, hoping to piggyback off their technology and perhaps pick up some of the leakage from the big ships.

Once they think they’ve found a good spot they drop the two pipes connected to the compressor into the water. One is used as a breathing tube by the miners, while the other is used to suck up the tin sands from anywhere between 15 meters to 40 meters under the sea.

Jahoi, together with Umar, his 29-year-old business partner, dives without a mask, oxygen tank, wet suit or fins. Without the proper gear, they risk acute decompression illness, which can lead to permanent damage to their ears and sinuses. They also face the risk of landslide and running out of oxygen.

At the depths at which they dive, there is not even enough light for them to see without flashlights. “We just use our instincts and senses when we enter that level, because everything is so dark,” Jahoi said.

They know the risks. But they cannot resist the lure of income totaling at least Rp 3 million a month, more than enough to pay rent of Rp 100,000 and living costs of around Rp 1 million.

While Jahoi and Umar usually dive down to direct the suction pipe, the other crew members control the raft and begin separating the tin sands. Sometimes they find dozens of kilograms of tin sands in a day, but on others they come back to port empty-handed. On the good days, they sell their sands to a middleman who will then supply private smelters in the area.

There are about 20 such tin collectors in Permis, says Rojali, another member of Jahoi’s crew.

Jahoi and his men sell their tin sands to Oong, an Indonesian of Chinese descent, who also owns a nearby smelter. Oong provides them with a boat, a mining raft and all the equipment they need — worth a total of about Rp 25 million — in return for a guarantee that they sell him what they find.

When the Jakarta Globe went to Permis, there were hundreds of miners carrying out similar activities without a proper permit. Like Jahoi, most of them were operating near the cranny vessel owned by Timah. There were a number of soldiers around the port but they did not take any action against the illicit miners. The police have previously tried to curb the illegal activity but with more than 60 percent of Bangka-Belitung residents dependent on the trade, they face an uphill struggle.

“We will never tolerate the activity but as long as demand exists, the illegal mining won’t be able to stop,” said Brig. Gen. Suhardi Alius, the head of the special crimes directorate.

In August, the police arrested nine people in a crackdown on illegal tin mining in Bangka-Belitung and Ketapang, West Kalimantan, and seized tin ore worth about Rp 760 million from a local market. The operation resulted in the temporary closure of at least seven smelters whose supplies of tin ore dried up.

A crackdown on illegal tin mining was also conducted in 2006, when dozens of small smelters were forced to close. A year after that, the government released a rigid tin-export regulation that required smelters to produce a minimum purity of 99.85 percent using ore from legal miners if they want to export their output.

A report released earlier this month by the Commission VII of the House of Representatives, which oversees energy issues, claimed that Timah was involved in illegal mining activity.

The report alleged that Alan Sastra, who has been arrested on suspicion of trading illegal tin, is a partner of local state-owned company PT Bangun Basel, which works with PT Tambang Timah, a subsidiary of Timah.

The allegation that Timah was involved in the purchase of illegal mining products was rejected by Wachid Usman, Timah’s chief executive, when he was questioned by Commission VII.

But Abrun Abubakar, Timah’s spokesman, said that in a move to reduce the company’s losses from illicit mining activities, Timah will try to accommodate those illegal onshore miners that are operating within its concessions. “Together with our partners, we try to cooperate with unconventional miners and guide them using principles of good mining practices,” he said.

Timah is not yet working with illegal offshore miners but it is cooperating with dozens of traders. “But we do not know if our selected collectors purchase ore from offshore illegal miners,” he said.

According to export data from the Bangka-Belitung regional administration, although Timah owns 473,800 hectares of concession areas, it exported only 8,899 tons of tin last year. Meanwhile privately owned smelters, which operate concession areas of only 16,884 hectares, exported 13,867 tons. Wachid said the ever-growing illegal mining trade was backed by local tin refiners who are happy to buy the illicit ore at low prices.

Although it is cooperating with some illegal miners, Timah is still trying to deter them. In 2008, the company began digging 2.5 meter trenches around its onshore concessions in an attempt to better demarcate them.

The company has dug these trenches at 67 mining blocks and plans to increase this to 200 blocks, at a cost Rp 50 million a block.

However, despite all of these efforts, it will not be possible to eradicate illegal mining without causing public turmoil as over 60 percent of Bangka-Belitung’s people depend on the trade, according to Noor Nedi, head of the mining and energy department at the local government.

“We try to stop illegal mining but people need unconventional mining to support their life.”

As Yosi, Jahoi’s wife said: “Honestly, I never agree with my husband’s job. But we need it in order to survive. All I can do is pray that my husband will return alive and well every day.”


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