But the anxiety passed, and Femmy didn't see a doctor. She forgot her worries until a few days later when Marseline, her eldest daughter, came home chattering about some scientists who had visited her school. The 10-year-old showed her a brochure they had handed out—and Femmy's world turned to ashes. Pregnant women were the most vulnerable to mercury poisoning, she read. They must avoid all contact with the substance or their babies could be born horribly deformed.
After that, as Femmy later recounted to a friend, she endured the three months with gnawing fear of what she had done to her baby by working all day in the ore processing factory. Almost every hour of every day had meant touching or breathing mercury: it is used to bind with, then separate the tiny bits of gold from the stone; then it has to be burned off to isolate the precious metal. When the baby finally arrived, the doctor waited until an hour after the birth before telling Femmy what had happened. Her son's intestines were outside of his body. And he had no fingers. It was probably the mercury that did it, the doctor said. Her baby was the first victim, but there would be more. Within four days her son had died: she hadn't even given him a name.
Afterward, Femmy didn't want to talk about it. People in her village, most of whom also work in processing units or mines, didn't want to know about the dangers. They were poor, and the gold brought money and jobs. So, day and night, in the hills above Manado, capital of Indonesia's North Sulawesi province, you can hear the noise from the processing units, the ore and water and stones and mercury sloshing and banging in steel barrels, the roar of the diesel motors turning the long lines of drums.
The collapse of political order in Indonesia has put the world's fourth-largest country through one nightmare after another in recent years: ethnic cleansing, cannibalism, mob massacres, military slaughter of civilians, lynch mobs enacting vigilante justice. But lost among these headline-grabbing horrors are other tragedies, the kind that will continue to haunt Indonesia long after the headlines have been forgotten. Factories are spewing out toxins unchecked, illegal loggers are slicing through national parks with impunity, and poachers and hunters are decimating the country's rich wildlife. At sea, pollution, uncontrolled fishing and the use of cyanide and dynamite threaten to empty Indonesia's waters of marine life.
One of the grimmest examples of how the collapse of government authority will blight the land and its people for generations is unfolding at the northern tip of the island of Sulawesi, where, like Femmy, thousands of people work in illegal gold mines and processing units. When Jakarta's word still counted, the army would have thrown out the miners—as they did at other similar sites—and allowed Australian firm Aurora Gold, which had won rights to mine the area, to go about its business. Even critics of the mining company say its modern equipment would have produced a fraction of the mercury currently being dumped. Instead, the region is confronting a disaster of biblical proportions as illegal miners burrow into the muddy earth. The ore they bring up from the hundreds of tunnels snaking as far as 70 m under the surface contains minute amounts of gold, a few grams a ton. Their primitive processing techniques require large quantities of mercury to extract the precious metal. Los Angeles-based environmental consultancy Dames and Moore estimates that between 100 and 200 tons of mercury have already seeped into the soil and water around the main mining site at Talawaan. Many tons more are dumped each month.
"Even if you take the lowest estimates, it would be absolutely devastating," says Ed Pressman, who works for the American mining giant Newmont, which operates a mine 100 km south of Manado. "It's one of the great, unrecognized environmental disasters of our time." Then Pressman mentions a name that has been burned into the world's consciousness along with Bhopal and Chernobyl: Minamata.
Minamata is the Japanese town where for 40 years a plastics company discharged mercury into the bay from which most of the town's fish were caught. Scores, perhaps hundreds of people subsequently died and thousands developed crippling illnesses, including paralysis and severe psychological problems. Children were born with deformities, the images of their arched, agonized bodies a perpetual reminder of the black underside of the 20th century's industrial triumphalism. That tragedy, Pressman points out, was the product of 27 tons of mercury over 40 years. "Imagine what these amounts could do in Manado."
The prospects of a government program to control the flood of mercury in Talawaan are almost zero. World Bank estimates put the cleanup costs at around $1 billion, a laughable figure in near-bankrupt Indonesia. And that assumes environment officials could get into the site. Victor Malonda, who heads the district mining office, recounts how he took 120 policemen and soldiers to the site a year ago to try to halt the mining. "We were chased away," he says despairingly. "They had samurai swords. We had to run for our lives."
Ask Yan Peter Tamban if the mining will be stopped any time soon, and all you'll get is an amused smile in response. Tamban is head of security at Talawaan's main mining site, a hilly patch of land that is mostly a gigantic mud pit dotted with shelters rigged out of blue and red tarpaulins. He also worked security for the geological team that surveyed the Talawaan area for Aurora; the company now plans to write off most of its $43 million investment and hand the rights over to its Indonesian partner. Whoever takes over will have to contend with Tamban.
After serving as a soldier for 17 years, Tamban left the army under a cloud following a dispute with his commanding officer. ("I shot him, but the bullet only creased his skull," he says with a grin.) Now he has a small army of his own: 24 full-time youths patrol the site with homemade swords. In addition, the entrance to the mining area is staffed by a couple of heavily beribboned paratroopers in full uniform. Tamban only smiles again and doesn't reply when asked about the paratroopers. Others are less shy. "The security at Talawaan was set up by the military," says Daniel Limbong, a taciturn university professor who heads one of the few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working to contain the damage at Talawaan. "They take money, of course." It is a cozy arrangement. And a lucrative one, too. According to a recently completed report compiled by Dames and Moore, the area's illegal miners produce up to 55,000 ounces of gold a year, worth about $15 million.
The miners working 12-hour shifts in the hills see little of the gold they bring out of the earth. Although working underground in makeshift mud tunnels is highly dangerous—occasionally fatal—it is the workers in the processing units who are in the gravest immediate peril. Unlike Femmy, whose baby was born with tragic deformities, many of the workers say that after educational campaigns by NGOs and the local government, they now know mercury can harm them. But the risk is more than offset by the high wages—nearly $50 a month, or double what they could make from a menial job in Manado, and far better than the erratic pittance that farmers make. Michael Andoh, 20, who works at a processing unit 5 km from the main mining area, has already been diagnosed as contaminated by mercury. That doesn't faze him. "I'm not scared because I need the money," he says. "I can't afford to be scared."
Even with repeated contact, the signs of mercury poisoning take time to manifest themselves. But some are already suffering. Almost all of the miners Limbong has tested in the past six months have 25 to 30 times the normal levels of mercury. Some are showing symptoms of the poisoning: muscle weakness, blurred vision, breathing difficulties. But getting the miners to agree to be tested and admit that they are sick is very difficult. "They are scared that if they mention this sickness they will have to stop working," Limbong says.
For Alfred Papai, 37, admitting illness is unthinkable: Who, then, would support his wife and child back home? But already, nausea, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes and vomiting are part of his daily routine. Ape, as Alfred's friends call him, works in a processing unit like Femmy's. He has difficulty just holding a fork or spoon in his hands, which tremble as he stretches them out in front of his taut, muscular frame. His wife, who lives with their daughter on the island of Sangir, north of Manado, has asked him to find other work, but the money is too good to give up. To earn more, he even works shifts in the mines themselves. "Sometimes I feel that one of the holes I dig will become my grave," he says with a laugh.
It's not just the workers who are in danger. Some 6,000 villagers live around the 300-odd processing units, which operate in the area and spew out some 150,000 tons of mercury-laden slurry into the environment annually. Many of them are frightened, too. But such is the gold fever gripping Talawaan that they don't dare speak out.
A new processing unit has just started work under a palm-thatched roof in the village of Tatelu. Fecky, a civil servant with the local government, lives next door. On this sunny morning he wanders over to watch the proceedings, his six-month-old daughter Indah—with gold hoop earrings, huge eyes and a mass of black curls—perched on his left shoulder. His 12-year-old son Dedy comes with him, scrambling over the stacked bags of ore and splashing with yips of delight through the lake of muddy water that surrounds the unit, all of it contaminated with mercury.
"We aren't stupid," Fecky says with a flare of irritation when asked about the danger from mercury. But like Femmy, who lives a few houses down the road, he knows better than to rock the boat. "Of course I worry about the contamination. But what can I do? To complain would be useless. It would just make problems for me and my family with the other villagers who think they can find the gold under their houses."
Fecky lowers his voice. Standing a few yards away, watching eagerly as one of his workers squeezes a cloth holding the precious mercury and gold mixture, is Freddy Sigarlaki, the owner of the processing unit. Eyes glistening, Sigarlaki explains how he spent about $3,000—several decades' income for most of the farmers in the area—sinking a shaft on a nearby piece of land he owns. The soil yielded hardly any gold. Undeterred, Sigarlaki boasts he has now hired an excavator from Manado at $20 an hour to dig farther and deeper and faster. "No, no, there's no danger of contamination," the pony-tailed Sigarlaki says impatiently. He pauses and looks around, and spots Fecky. "My neighbors want to look for gold, too, now that I have started. But they don't have any money."
The threat from the mercury has spread beyond the villages around the mining site. The processing units are highly mobile, with some located as far as 50 km away, says Rini Sulaiman, an environmental toxicologist with the U.S.-funded National Resources Management Program. And that, says Daniel Limbong, means the mercury contamination will eventually threaten the 400,000 people living in Manado. It could be happening already. According to Limbong, samples taken from sediment in the estuary of the Talawaan river where it empties in Manado Bay are almost at the levels seen in samples taken where the river passes the mine site, about 20 km upstream.
The mercury being dumped by the illegal miners in Talawaan is a relatively stable compound that is toxic only after repeated contact. But eventually it will be converted by bacteria into methyl mercury, the far more toxic form that wreaked such damage in Minamata after the same transformation took place. Guesses about how long the process will take range from two to 10 years. But nobody disputes that the conversion will happen. And when it does, Manado will be in grave danger. In Minamata, the population subsisted largely on a diet of fish caught in their bay. So too do the people of Manado. Every night, hundreds of stalls selling sea bream and garoupa and squid and prawns and crab and eel line the road that curves around the bay. "The Manadanese love to eat," says Limbong with a rare smile.
For the moment, mercury levels in fish caught in the Manado straits are normal, says Bonny Sompie, who has just taken over as the province's most senior environmental official. Sompie is at pains to play down the mercury problem. His estimates put the amount entering the environment every year at about 15 tons or lower, but he acknowledges the dangers of contamination. "It could turn into a national crisis" if something isn't done, he concedes. But the safari-suited former professor of civil engineering says there is little he can do to stop the flood of mercury. "It's the force of economics," Sompie shrugs. "The environment gets put aside."
It sometimes seems as though everyone—Yan Peter Tamban, the desperate miners, processing unit workers like Michael, gold-struck villagers like Freddy Sigarlaki, the army and police—wants things to go on as they are. Or like Fecky, who lives next to a processing unit, and powerless government officials like Bonny, who simply accept that there's no way to stop the mining. Everyone except Daniel Limbong, that is. Unlike the others, he has seen what happened to scores of other mineworkers, what happened to Femmy's baby boy. And now, "we have a report of a second deformed baby born near the mine," Limbong says, his usually impassive face creased with concern. Unless something is done, what he calls the "mercury time bomb" will not only condemn many of Femmy's co-workers to agonizing illness, madness and death; it could also blight a whole generation as yet unborn.