Sekotong, Indonesia – Sukma watches as his friends descend 30 metres (98 feet) into the ground, into one of many illegal mines in Sekotong on the island of Lombok.
Unauthorised mining is an open secret here; mines have dotted hillsides of western Lombok for decades.
“Six of my friends went into the hole and my job is to keep guard. If they need a drink or need sacks to gather the stones, I’m here to give it to them,” Sukma says.
The work is dangerous. But for these men, the prospect of finding just a speck of gold shining through the rocks makes it worth it.
“If we make a mistake the ground can collapse,” Sukma says. “This is the risk we have to take to earn a living.”
Miners told Al Jazeera Sekotong’s gold rush had died down in recent years. But since the pandemic began, many have flocked back to the mines due to financial hardship.
Sukma decided to become a miner just more than a year ago.
“I have nothing else to do. I usually work abroad but I can’t travel due to coronavirus. So now, I look for gold,” he says.
A miner goes underground in Indonesia’ Lombok [Jessica Washington/ Al Jazeera]
Most villages in Sekotong are equipped with makeshift machines used to extract the gold from the sediment. They constantly churn, breaking up the rocks and making it easier to see the gold specks in the sediment. People put mercury inside the machines to help extract the gold. It’s cheap and easy.
Muhammad Yusuf, 24, has been involved in this process for more than eight years.
“We get home from the mines, we smash the rocks into smaller pieces, and then we put it in the barrel. It turns the materials into mud and then we add mercury,” he says.
Muhammad is also a teacher. He was able to pay for his university studies with his income from gold mining and processing.
“I understand the dangers of mercury. I saw a video about it which said it is very dangerous. But processing gold is the way we make money,” he says.
‘I want to know what caused him to be like this’
The gold processing machines are the unrelenting soundtrack to life in Sekotong.
They are often right next to people’s homes. But there is a cost associated with this convenience.
In a small village in Sekotong, five-year-old Zaim lives with his parents.
He cannot walk or talk. He likes to drink chocolate milk, but his mother, Suparni, has to hold the small …….