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Indonesian president's mercury ban wins church backing

Widodo forbids use of toxic element by small-time gold miners after report details health, environmental risks

Indonesian president’s mercury ban wins church backing

This file picture taken in Kereng Pengi, Pontianak shows an Indonesian vendor showing a piece of gold in Pontianak. Small-time miners are rushing to tear up the earth in the hunt for the precious metal. But the mercury used to extract it is taking an even greater toll. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)

Katharina R. Lestari, Jakarta
Indonesia

March 17, 2017

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The Catholic Church has welcomed a presidential ban on the use of mercury at hundreds of small-scale gold mining sites across Indonesia, saying the move would help prevent pollution and lessen health risks the toxic element poses.

Mercury is commonly used in the gold mining industry to help extract gold from ore.

Last week, President Joko Widodo banned artisanal gold miners from using mercury after receiving a report about hazardous pollution caused by the element at 850 small-scale gold mining sites.

The health of 250,000 miners and their families as well as people living in surrounding areas had been affected, the report said.

"Mercury eventually settles in the soil and the sediment of rivers, lakes, bays and oceans. It is then ingested by fish. And if fish are eaten by people, it badly affects their health," Father Peter C. Aman, director of the Franciscan Friars’ Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, told ucanews.com.

"I support this ban because illegal distribution of mercury among artisanal gold miners cannot be controlled and there is no safety factor involved as the miners only use simple tools," he said.

The government should crack down on the distribution of dangerous materials including mercury "as the government often fails in this matter."

Ingestion of mercury has harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, lungs and kidneys, and can be fatal, according to the World Health Organization.

Symptoms can include mental retardation, seizures, vision and hearing loss, delayed development, language disorders and memory loss.

Melky Nahar of the Mining Advocacy Network, an anti-mining group also welcomed the ban but said it did not go far enough.

"It should apply to both artisanal miners and gold mining companies. They also use mercury in their mining operations,’ he said.

Despite knowing the risks, artisanal miners were unhappy about the ban.

"I know how dangerous mercury is. But I have no choice. I have to feed my family. It will be more dangerous if we cannot eat," said Muhammad Mukhtar from Cisarua,in West Java province.

The father of two earns about 400,000 rupiah (about US$31) a month, hardly enough to cover his family’s daily needs.

"If the president wants us to be prosperous, he should help us with development programs so that we can stop mining," he said.

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