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101 East

Tin Trouble

Indonesia is the world’s biggest tin exporter but for poverty stricken miners, the costs are deadly.

Last updated: 24 Jan 2014 07:32
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It is nightfall and Rusdanila is on his way to meet an illegal tin dealer. Carrying almost 4kg of tin in a bucket, the product of a hard day’s work, he goes to the first collector, hoping that the metal will fetch at least $3.50 per kilogramme.

Here in the little island of Bangka, east of Sumatra, miners like Rusdanila are at the mercy of the price of ore determined thousands of miles away at the London Metal Exchange.

But in Indonesia, this precious mineral is largely mined illegally.

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In 2012, the country exported 98,000 tons of tin, supplying 40 percent of international demand. Major electronics consumer brands like Samsung, Apple and Philips rely heavily on Indonesia’s tin. Each mobile phone contains seven grams of the mineral.

Currently, tin rakes in around $28m a year for Indonesia but the human and environmental toll is proving costly.

Families outside of the islands of Bangka and Belitung are cashing in on the mining boom, rushing to illegal mines sprouting across the land. The work is dangerous – landslides are common and the mined tin is usually mixed with radioactive elements.

In Bangka, tin is getting harder to find in the ravaged ground, so the private companies, as well as the illegal miners, are taking it one step further: they are searching the offshore seabed.

While it is as dangerous as mining on land, sourcing tin in the sea has an added disadvantage – poor visibility. Officially, dredging is illegal within four miles of the coastline but the community bribes a middleman to grease the palms of policemen, allowing the miners to set up their equipment a few hundred metres away from the shore.

Yudi, 25, works with a diver out in a makeshift barge. The diver is given a breathing tube attached to a compressor and he needs to suck the seabed, digging deeper to reach the tin in the lower layers. Yudi knows if there is a landslide in the water, his diver will not be able to see, much less anticipate it. “The danger also comes from the compressor, because the oxygen we are breathing is not pure oxygen. Since it’s coming from the compressor, it’s dangerous for the lungs,” he says.

In addition to a steadily rising death toll, local ecosystems are being ravaged by massive deforestation, water pollution, soil depletion and the collapse of fish stocks. “It will take centuries, thousands of years, before everything can return to normal,” says biologist Eddy Nurtjahya.

Even though it is against the law to buy tin from illegal mines, transactions between miners and dealers and then private smelters are commonplace, fuelled by rampant corruption.

101 East travels to Indonesia and explores the deadly cost of extracting precious tin.

How can Indonesia stop illegal tin mining? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East #TinMining

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.

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Al Jazeera
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