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The Toxic Toll of Indonesia's Gold Mines


National Geographic news

Ipan, 16 months old, suffers a seizure as his mother, Fatimah, looks on. Both his parents, who live in Sekotong, Indonesia, were gold miners who used mercury to process gold. Doctors say Ipan probably suffered mercury poisoning while in the womb. Thin and frail, he is unable to walk, talk or grasp objects. Photograph by Larry C. Price

More than a million small-scale miners in this island nation are poisoned, which is leaving children with crippling birth defects.

By Richard C. Paddock

Published May 24, 2016

SEKOTONG, INDONESIA - Ipan is 16 months old and suffering his third seizure of the morning. His head is too large for his body, and his legs are as thin as sticks. He arches his back, and his limbs stiffen. He cries out in pain.

His mother, Fatimah, tries to comfort Ipan, but there’s not much she can do. A dukun, or shaman, says his soul was invaded by the spirits of the monkey, bat, and octopus. On his advice, Fatimah and her husband, Nursah, changed the boy's name from Iqbal to Ipan and fed him tiny rice balls mixed with octopus.

“The dukun says this is why Ipan’s legs look like a monkey’s legs,” Nursah says. “Actually, I don’t believe that, but I will try anything.”

Doctors say the real culprit is more down-to-earth: mercury poisoning. His parents are small-scale miners who used the heavy metal to process gold for years before Ipan was born, including while Fatimah was pregnant.

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