In­done­sian is­lands pay price for global smart­phone rush

Enterprise - - International news -

Deep be­neath the murky ocean, Paci breathes through a thin plas­tic tube as he dredges the seabed for tin, a vi­tal com­po­nent in­side smart­phones and tablets that´s brought riches and ruin to his is­land home.

One-third of the world´s tin comes from the In­done­sian is­lands of Bangka and Beli­tung, where thou­sands risk se­ri­ous in­jury and death in the mines. De­mand for the metal ore has soared in re­cent years, driven by a vo­ra­cious con­sumer ap­petite for the lat­est elec­tron­ics gad­gets.

In Bangka, the re­sult has been a free-for-all -- both in­land and now off­shore. Many min­ers are un­li­censed, sail­ing out in re­pur­posed fish­ing boats in the hope of find­ing new de­posits with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence, and no pro­tec­tion.

Paci, who like many In­done­sians goes by one name, earns USD $1R for a day´ s work be­neath the seas. Clad in gog­gles and a swim­ming cap he rakes a pow­er­ful hose across the sea floor, send­ing vi­o­lent tor­rents of min­eral-rich sand shoot­ing to the sur­face.

“It is very dan­ger­ous work, and the risks are huge,” he told af­ter sur­fac­ing, as the min­ing crew panned the dark sed­i­ment to sep­a­rate frag­ments of tin. “But what are you going to do? It´s my life and this is my job,” he added.

He is not alone. Dozens of dredg­ing crews trawl off north-east Bangka, the same stretch of coast­line where a 23-year-old miner drowned in October last year. At least one miner dies ev­ery week in Bangka and Beli­tung ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from the In­done­sian Tin Work­ing Group, an or­gan­i­sa­tion com­prised of elec­tron­ics com­pa­nies, tin firms, in­dus­try bod­ies and ac­tivists.

A four-man op­er­a­tion can fetch 30 kilo­grams of tin ore on a good day, an­other sea miner told. It passes through many hands be­fore ar­riv­ing at smelters, which ex­port the re­fined prod­uct used in the solder bind­ing the com­po­nents of tech gad­gets.

Half of all mined tin is trans­formed into solder for the elec­tron­ics in­dus­try, data from in­dus­try group ITRI shows, mak­ing the brands be­hind best-sell­ing lap­tops and flatscreen tele­vi­sions a pow­er­ful force in the global mar­ket.

While there is ob­vi­ous dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment, and min­ers have lost their lives, tin from In­done­sia is con­sid­ered “con­flict free” and so there are no trade re­stric­tions on its use.

But as the nega­tive im­pacts on the land and to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are re­vealed, elec­tron­ics firms have come un­der pres­sure to prop­erly ac­count for the prove­nance of the min­er­als they use.

Evert Hassink from Friends of the Earth Nether­lands says com­pa­nies have done lit­tle to en­sure the tin they used in their gad­gets was not harm­ing Bangka.

“Com­pa­nies don´t even know what they are sourc­ing,” he said.

“They refuse to really stick out their necks and dive into the sup­ply chain.”

Ten ma­jor tech man­u­fac­tur­ers -- in­clud­ing Ap­ple, Sam­sung, Mi­crosoft and Sony -- are mem­bers of the tin work­ing group, which has pledged to sup­port less harm­ful min­ing prac­tises on Bangka. Ap­ple said in a state­ment it had spent “thou­sands of hours” in In­done­sia in a bid to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion for work­ers and the en­vi­ron­ment.

It added “Sup­pli­ers who are un­will­ing or un­able to com­ply with our stan­dards will be re­moved from our sup­ply chain.”

A spokesman for Sam­sung said the firm was “com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­ously evolv­ing its ef­forts on re­spon­si­ble min­eral sourc­ing”.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the tin work­ing group said it had two pilot projects aimed at im­prov­ing worker safety and restor­ing land de­graded by min­ing in devel­op­ment.

Jabin Su­fianto, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of In­done­sian Tin Ex­porters, ac­knowl­edged some tin firms were ap­pre­hen­sive about com­mit­ting fur­ther but be­lieves things will change over time.

“What´s im­por­tant now is do­ing the pilots, so we can show there is progress and it´s not just all talk,” he told.

But oetno Budi from Walhi, a con­ser­va­tion group that has mo­bilised huge ral­lies against tin min­ing, is scep­ti­cal.

In­land from Sun­gai Liat, a gi­ant pit mine stretches as far as the eye can see, one of the tree­less, pock­marked scars vis­i­ble from a flight over the is­land.

“They say they´re restor­ing the land -- I´m yet to see it,” he told, sur­vey­ing the ru­ined land­scape.

“To this day there has been al­most no ef­fort to fix any­thing what­so­ever.”

Just weeks ear­lier two min­ers died in a land­slide at the mine, he said.

Nazarud­din earns less pan­ning for tin, a back­break­ing job un­der the blis­ter­ing sun, but avoids the dan­gers of pit min­ing.

“Over there, they don´t think about safety,” he told, ges­tur­ing to a crew blast­ing sand and rock be­low a steep cliff.

“It´s all about the tin, tin, tin.”

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