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.
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 carton for him.
His brown eyes are framed by unusually long eyelashes. When he looks at his mother, he smiles warmly.
“In the provincial hospital, they told me his condition is related to his nerves and development. I want to know what caused him to be like this,” Suparni says.
Zaim was recently diagnosed with microcephaly – a medical condition where a child’s head is smaller than average, often impacting brain function.
“Before Zaim was born, his father was a miner. He would process the gold here too, and he used mercury to process the gold,” his mother says, pointing at the machine beside their home.
Researchers from a local non-governmental organisation, the Nexus3 Foundation, are looking into his case and other children they believe are victims of mercury exposure.
Yune Eribowo leads the organisation’s research into mercury and other hazardous chemicals.
“In this area, there are children born with less fingers or cleft lip … some are born without an anus,” Yune says.
According to the World Health Organisation, exposure to even a small amount of mercury can cause serious threats to the development of a fetus in utero and a child in infancy.
“Small-scale miners use mercury, which they keep at home. They use it in front of their children too. And for newborns, the exposure is through their mother,” she says. “Look around here. Only a few houses don’t have processor equipment in their villages. Since the pandemic, it has surged again because people have financial problems.”
Yune’s team is conducting DNA and IQ testing on local school children to see how widespread the effects of mercury may be on this community.
One of the schoolchildren participating in the research is a nine-year-old boy named Randy.
He is from a family of miners – and knows first-hand how dangerous mercury can be after a recent accident sent him to hospital.
“I saw the liquid on the table and I spilled it. It hit my face. I couldn’t see anything for four days,” Randy says.
His mother, Sa Rah, says it was a terrifying experience.
“Randy’s brother had been processing gold and he left the mercury lying around. Then, Randy spilled mercury all over his face. I panicked and took him to hospital,” she said. “He couldn’t open his eyes for four days. His eyes were swollen, and his lips turned white.”
Randy regained his sight – but it is unclear if there will be any lasting impacts from his prolonged exposure to mercury over the course of his life.
It is difficult to know precisely how many children are affected by mercury exposure. Some live in areas with limited connectivity, and others may have died already, without ever interacting with the public health systems.
And even children with no direct link to mining may bear the consequences of Sekotong’s gold obsession.
“The mercury is in the air we breathe, so the exposure is on a huge scale,” Yune says.
Now, Yune’s research team is trying to collate the names of children who may have been impacted by mercury exposure.
On that list is baby Narendra. The one-and-a-half-year-old was born without eyes.
“I never imagined I would have a son without eyes. I don’t want this to happen to other parents. It’s very painful,” his mother Ni Made Sukermi says.
“The doctor asked me if my husband was a gold miner and I said no. There are gold miners around here but not my husband. I did wonder why the doctor asked that.”
Ni Made said she doesn’t know what the future holds for Narendra. She said it is unlikely her family will be able to send Narendra to a school for children with disabilities as they cannot afford it.
“Once he can speak, he may ask me, why is everything dark? How do I answer that?” she said.
“What if he asks, why can’t I go to school? That’s what I think about. I pray for him.”
The island of Lombok is next to Bali – but unlike its neighbour, its tourism industry is largely undeveloped.
The government hopes that will soon change and has invested in several high-profile tourism infrastructure projects on the island.
With the aspiration of turning Lombok into a global tourism hub, the Governor of West Nusa Tenggara, Zulkieflimansyah, says the use of hazardous chemicals in illegal mining activities must not be tolerated.
“It is easy to find gold in Lombok. But the land is so beautiful. We have to make a choice between tourism and mining,” he says.
“Step by step, hopefully people will understand … you can make money in the short term but in the long term, it can be dangerous for our environment and for future generations.”
He says it takes time to educate the public.
“It is a challenge for the government and education institutions to educate people in the rural areas,” he says.
“We cannot change their mindset in a minute. They are familiar with this habit. But we are optimistic they will change to new behaviours.”
While the governor hopes for change, Zaim’s mother has her own dreams for her son.
“I hope that someday he will walk and talk. It would make me so very happy,” Suparni says.