‘Perhaps I will be rich tomorrow’: Diamond miners in Kalimantan grapple with unstable income, safety risks
- Cempaka mine in South Kalimantan is well known in Indonesia for its diamond deposits.
- But for the miners there, there are various safety risks. They also suffer from the problem of not having a stable income.
- The authorities are planning to incorporate the site into an existing geopark, hoping that it will grow the local economy.
BANJARBARU, South Kalimantan: Most people prefer to relax on weekends but diamond miner Salim, 47, does not have the luxury.
On a scorching hot Sunday, Salim was toiling in water up to his waist, hoping that he would find a gem in Indonesia’s biggest traditional diamond mine Cempaka in Banjarbaru city, South Kalimantan.
For 25 years, he has been doing the same thing every day from 7.30am to 4pm, panning a round cone-shaped tool in a circular motion to sift diamonds from the sand.
“I don’t find diamonds every day. It depends on my luck,” said Salim who goes by one name.
“There are times when in a (whole) week, I don’t find a diamond at all,” said the miner who only went to primary school.
He might be able to find about half a gramme of gold per day as there are also gold deposits in the area.
Still, what he earns is not enough to feed his 4-year-old child and wife.
On average, he earns less than a million rupiah (US$66) per month.
Unregulated diamond and gold mining using traditional methods have been carried out by individuals in the area for years.
In addition to the issue of unstable income, there are also safety concerns as the area is prone to landslides.
The government has tried to help the miners to switch to more stable and less dangerous jobs such as farming. However, as the miners lack skills and experience, getting them to switch jobs has been a challenging endeavour.
According to Ahmad Yani, the head of Banjarbaru’s tourism agency, there are plans to convert the location into an educational site by next year for tourists to learn about traditional mining and the history of the place.
The miners would act as guides, showing tourists how traditional mining is done. It is hoped that this would also generate income for the local government, said Yani.
PIGEON EGG SIZE DIAMOND DISCOVERY
Cempaka mine is one of the largest diamond mines in Indonesia.
In August 1965, the mine was in the headlines when miners reportedly found a 166.75-carat diamond. Its size was almost as big as a pigeon’s egg.
The diamond was brought to Jakarta in early September. Then Indonesian president Soekarno named it Trisakti, meaning thrice sacred in Sanskrit.
It is estimated that the diamond was worth trillions of rupiah at that time.
Hence, the government promised to reward the 24 miners who found the diamond. At that time, it was reported that the miners would be sent on a haj pilgrimage and their future generations would be taken care of.
But on Sep 30, an attempted coup d’etat took place. In 1966, Soekarno was forced to hand emergency powers to Soeharto who later became the country’s second president.
Eventually, the authorities lost track of the whereabouts of the diamond, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy. But they did keep their promise of sending the miners on a pilgrimage.
Trisakti is not the only big stone discovered in Cempaka.
In 1850, a 106.7-carat diamond was found there. Four years earlier, a 20-carat diamond was also discovered.
Given these past events, the history of the mine will be an integral part of the new tourist park, said Yani.
“We will educate people that in 1965, miners found a diamond as big as a (pigeon’s) egg there,” said Yani.
Another interesting facet of mining in Cempaka is how the locals have their own taboos, said Noor Purbani, a senior official with Banjarbaru’s tourism agency.
For instance, It is frowned upon to say the word diamond if they find it. Instead, the miners must call it “galuh”, meaning girl in the local language.
According to Purbani, the miners believe that the stone might disappear if they call it a diamond.
NO STABLE INCOME, SAFETY RISKS
For those who eke out a living at the mine, there is no stable income.
Muhammad Yusuf, 50, has been panning there for about 30 years and his grownup son is also a miner there.
“Because there is no other job available,” he said.
Yusuf said his son did not go to secondary school as he did not have the financial means to support his studies.
However, they are both aware that the golden era of the mine is over as it is harder to find diamonds there nowadays.
Thousands of people used to mine there during the heydays, Salim recounted. But today, just a few hundred of them are scattered throughout the area.
Safety is also an issue.
Purbani of the local tourism agency said that while mining is a tradition there, it is also a dangerous way to make a living.
"There is minimum security and safety for the workers there," said Purbani.
Frequent landslides are a problem. There is no official data on how many people have died due to landslides over the years. But anecdotally, they happen quite frequently.
For example, at least three people died in two different landslides in July last year.
Five miners also died in April 2019, after a sudden landslide buried them.
Salim added: "In the past, when it was still crowded here, there were landslides almost every month.”
Kanafi, head of Banjarbaru’s planning agency who goes by one name, said that there is a local belief that if the mining claims lives, there will be a big diamond in the area.
“We must change this perception and that will be our job,” he said.
MARKET FOR DIAMOND LOVERS
When miners find stones, they would usually sell them to middlemen. The latter would subsequently send the diamonds for polishing in Martapura, which is about a 15-minute drive away from Cempaka.
Once a busy place for traditional diamond polishing, it is now also quiet as there are limited requests.
Diamond polisher Yusuf, who goes by one name, has been doing the job for 25 years.
“I learned diamond polishing from my father,” the 47-year-old told CNA.
It took him six months to master it but he does not want his children to follow in his footsteps.
He only earns 400,000 rupiah per gramme so his income depends on the size of diamonds that he gets to polish.
The diamonds are generally then sold as jewellery at a market in Martapura.
The market is a hidden gem for precious stone lovers who can buy diamonds from Cempaka as well as from Africa and Europe.
Diamond seller Imu, who only has one name, has been selling jewellery and diamonds there for 30 years.
“There are stones here from one million rupiah to tens of millions of rupiah,” he said.
What would happen to the market if the traditional mine is no longer operating?
Kanafi of the planning agency said that the market would still have room for survival, as mining company PT Galuh Cempaka operates just outside the proposed geopark expansion.
“We here have a modern way of mining that is done by PT Galuh Cempaka.
“So the diamond industry will still survive,” he said.
PRESERVING NATURE, EMPOWERING LOCALS
Cempaka and Martapura have long been icons of South Kalimantan province.
The province also has Meratus geopark, a protected area for conservation, research, tourism and education. Geopark is an area that contains various types of geological elements and is preserved as natural heritage.
Cempaka lies just outside of the geopark.
Therefore, it is important to preserve the mining site and make it part of the Meratus Geopark, said Kanafi.
“We want to make it a huge educational site,” Kanafi told CNA, adding that there are plans to build a museum on diamonds there.
“Because the people of Cempaka were traditionally miners and every year the mining has claimed lives, so opening a tourist site with entrance ticket would be a solution to it,” he said.
Gunardi Kusumah, a policy analyst with the coordinating ministry for maritime and investment affairs who oversees geoparks, said that the aim of these places is not just to preserve nature. It is also about preserving culture and helping the local economy.
“If the mining site has a story, that would be an added value,” he said.
“As long as there is a storytelling element which is proven.”
Environmentalist Kisworo Dwi Cahyono, executive director of non-governmental organisation Walhi South Kalimantan welcomed the initiative, as converting the traditional mine into an educational tourist site would preserve the environment.
It would also save lives, he added.
But he stressed that the locals need to be involved as much as possible.
“The local people must be empowered. The former miners can be guides there or tutors on the mining (process).
“Otherwise, they will just move to a different area and find a new place (to mine),” he said.
For now, the miners in Cempaka are still hoping for the best. From Salim’s perspective, what he does every day represents hope.
“This job allows me to imagine. I am poor today, but perhaps I will be rich tomorrow,” he said.
Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia here.