Jayapura, Jubi – At the start of this year, several photographs showing illegal gold mining in the Koroway lands went viral on social media. The photos show work to build a helicopter landing pad to drop off and pick up mining equipment, believed to be near the head of the Deiram River. The authenticity of these photos can’t yet be confirmed. However, a similar case had previously occurred in the Danowage area three years ago, in 2015 or thereabouts. Our knowledge of that incident comes from the reports of Koroway schoolchildren. They told their teacher about illegal gold mining around Danowage. These schoolchildren had been working for the gold miners.
This article is based on the stories four Koroway schoolchildren told to their teacher in early February 2018. The name of the teacher is being withheld in this article, and the names used for the children who gave evidence are not their real names.
Yakobus told of how he had worked for a gold miner in the Landslide area, to the south of Danowage, 15 minutes away by katingting (a boat with a small motor). As he explained to his teacher, he had worked for straight-haired (a term for migrants from outside Papua) miners, from the Bugis ethnic group. He was given the task of building a base camp, carrying equipment, splitting firewood and other odd-jobs. However Yakobus claimed he had witnessed the whole mining process from start to finish. The person Yakobus was working for was called Koprak.
Yakobus told his teacher that the people who came to mine gold used a water pump, carpet, cloth for straining, pans and also ‘silver water’.
“The silver water is so heavy, even half a jerry can of cooking oil is so heavy, I can’t even pick it up”, said Yakobus.
Yakobus explained in simple language how silver water forms into balls, as if it were from outer space. He compared the weight of the jerry can with a battery from a solar panel system which weighs around 48 kilogrammes.
Obviously when Yakobus said silver water, he was referring to mercury, a heavy metal.
“Did they throw the silver water in the river?”, the teacher tried to make the question clearer, trying to get more information from Yakobus.
Yakobus said no. The illegal miners used the silver water to process more gold.
However the teacher was still not satisfied, and so asked Yakobus to describe how the silver water was used.
Yakobus related how the silver water was used to separate gold from black sand. The method used was to add a little water and silver water to the gold and sand mix and then stir. Then the gold would automatically be separated from the sand, and was kept, while the remaining water and black sand was thrown away. The silver water was poured into a bottle, and then strained through a cloth to filter out the water.
“After that they stored the silver water to use again and threw away the left-over water”, Yakobus said.
Yakobus didn’t know that the left over water which still contains mercury poses a danger to the environment. He went on to say that this water would be thrown anywhere, into the bushes, on the ground, or even into the river.
This practice represents a serious risk to the Koroway people’s livelihood, bearing in mind that the Koroway community depend on the Deiram river for their lifelihood, including transportation, a source of food and a source of clean water.
The miners gave Yakobus 900,000 Rupiah for 12 days work. During those twelve days they were working, the yields had been low. So after 12 days they stopped mining and moved to Yaniruma. The miners asked Yakubus to come with them to Yaniruma, but Yakobus refused saying he wanted to go to church, as it was a Saturday when they asked.
Lazarus’s Circle, Abiowage and Landslide.
Another schoolboy, Imanuel, had a different story. Imanuel was working for another person, called Jimi, who came from Kendari in Sourth-East Sulawesi province. However, Imanuel was not heavily involved, he was only asked to do some odd-jobs.
Imanuel admitted he was not permitted to be directly involved in the gold mining process. However he could confirm that the miners were using silver water. His job was to bring them the silver water and mining equipment.
“I was given 300,000 Rupiah pay for five days work”, said Immanuel.
Imanuel was working in the river to the north of Danowage towards Abiowage. He said that the name of the place the illegal miners were working was Lazarus’s Circle.
“It’s called Lazarus’ Circle because there’s an island in the middle of the river and the owner of that land is called Lazarus”, explained Imanuel.
The third schoolboy to tell his story was Anis. Anis was from Abiowage, and he also worked for Koprak, Yakobus’s former boss. Anis told his teacher that his work was similar to that of Imanuel, general labour, including carrying the silver water.
“Koprak’s mining operation started in Abiowage, but then Koprak split his team in two, and part of the team started working in the Landslide area, the rest in Abiowage”, said Anis. Anis worked for six days and was paid 600,000 Rupiah.
Some other schoolchildren said they were only playing in the mining area, sometimes helping a little or becoming day labourers. One of them is called Tius. He says he was paid 50,000 Rupiah for one day’s work. However, Tius backed up his friend’s statements about the silver water. Another pupil, Nahyu, said that he had only helped to carry equipment and was paid as a day labourer. Asked about their transport, he said they only used boats and katingting, they didn’t have a helicopter.
The scenes witnessed by these Koroway children make the theory that illegal gold mining is taking place in several parts of the Koroway territory, not just in Danowage, seem more plausible.
“In fact we only know about these three locations. It could well be that mining is taking place all along the upper reaches of the Black Deiram river, bearing in mind that this recent mining incident has been revealed as having occurred in the headwaters of the Deiram River”, said the teacher after listening to the schoolchildren’s claims.
The teacher, who is also from the Koroway ethnic group, added that the illegal miners came and met the landowners, asked permission, gave them some money, and enticed them with the idea of great riches. They made a lot of Rupiah by panning the gold belonging to the Koroway people. They even used the Koroway to work stealing the gold that they were the rightful owners of.
“And then the children and other Koroway people who worked for them were only given low wages,” the teacher added.
The Korowai people live in the border areas between five regencies: Boven Digoel, Asmat, Mappi, Yahukimo and the Star Mountains. This ethnic group was discovered by workers from the Sorong branch office of the French oil and gas company PT Conoco in 1982 or thereabouts. The workers were carrying out seismic surveys at the time. At the time, the Koroway could still be classed as a nomadic hunter-gatherer community.
This kind of illegal gold-mining is a common occurrence in Papua, including in Degeuwo, Paniai Regency. Since gold mining started in Degeuwo, many people have arrived from different regions. They arrive using different routes, by air or over land, lured by the promise of gold. However Degeuwo subsequently grew rapidly, becoming a kind of wild west city in the middle of the rainforest. Entrepreneurs and traders tried to build houses as fast as they could, followed by kiosks and cafes. Places of worship were also built. Businesspeople opened nighttime entertainment spots, such as discotheques and billiard halls. Hard liquor started to become rampant. Before long, female sex workers also arrived.
Local people also started to map out the nearby locations as their property. Places for which the ownership had never been an issue became disputed between local people. This came about since each person felt that they could claim ulayat rights (a form of collective customary ownership recognised by Indonesian law) over the land which was formerly forested. Disputes emerged within the local community, and enemies were made.
More often than not agreements are never found to resolve these situations, so slowly Degeuwo is also being “killed” with silver water and gold. (*)