The road wound up the hill in large sweeping s-bends offering a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and valleys and the open sea beyond. Although the afternoon sky was filled with clouds, the rains had yet to come to the South of Lombok and the land was dry and dusty. Looking around I could see signs of the illegal gold mining everywhere. The land was pockmarked with deep holes and large trailing ponds filled with arsenic. Lines of heavy trucks crawled slowly up the steep road like busy worker ants, the back filled with crushed up dirt and stone.
Five years ago when I first visited Kuta, there were no signs of these illegal mines. The villages I passed through were poor and empty, the men worked in the dry fields growing tobacco while the women set the leaves out to dry in bundles on the side of the road. The countryside was a place with few opportunities, where farmers lived on a financial knife edge.
Riding through the same villages today it is obvious just how much things have changed. In the back gardens of peoples houses I could see small pneumatic crushers, the pistons turning slowly as they crushed the stone dug up from the illegal mines into a fine powder. This dirt is then packed into hundreds of sacks that line the roads of all the villages, before the gold is seperated from the soil using mercury.
It is these ponds full of trailings that I could see everywhere. The contaminated waters full of heavy metals slowly leaching out into the groundwater. From here it is taken up in the tobacco leaves and accumulates in the rice, before making its way up the food chain. It is a ticking time bomb that the local government is currently unable to deal with.
For the moment, there is an uneasy truce between the tourism industry and the illegal mining, but how long it can last remains to be seen. Let’s be honest, mines don’t make great tourist attractions and poisoned food makes for terrible guests. What’s more, the mines can’t be avoided. Any tourist who come to Kuta and visits the surfing beaches in the South of Lombok, even if they don’t realise it, will pass these illegal gold mining operations.