Jungle school pushes danger message on mercury
Anyone wanting to learn about the environmental issues and impacts of mercury could refer to students at Bina Cita Utama (BCU) in Palangkaraya regency, Central Kalimantan.
And this is not just because staff at the province's first and only National Plus school have set assignments to research the damaging effects of the heavy metal; there's a pragmatic side also, for the school is in a province where mercury is a real threat, and factual information is sparse.
Alluvial miners, working in the Bornean mountains that feed the broad rivers in the area, still use mercury in large quantities to separate the gold from the sand by forming an amalgam. The used mercury is then dumped in the water.
So far, analysis of water from the nearby Rungan River has not given cause for real alarm, though swimming in the water and eating the carnivorous fish species that ingest and store the poison isn't recommended. But that is not the situation with other waterways.
The Rungan is relatively short; but bigger rivers nearby, like the Katingan and Kahayan, have high levels of mercury. The waters rise in the distant Muller and Schwaner Ranges, where gold is sought by hundreds of miners and their families, mainly from Java. A reported 240-square-kilometer expanse of native jungle has already been plundered.
Yadi Mihel, 40, lives on the Rungan riverbank near BCU with his three children.
"We know there is mercury in the river, but we don't know the percentage," he said. No one has been here from the government to tell us. All I know is what I've read at the school, where I've seen warnings saying it can affect the brain and the skin."
The school walls are cluttered with posters produced by the students giving chapter and verse on the dangers of mercury. And as locals are free to come and go, the students' message about the hazards is becoming widely known.
Using resources provided by the Global Mercury Project, funded by the World Health Organization and relevant United Nations agencies, the students have learned that mercury used in mining is a problem with no easy solution.
The miners are poor and although they eventually get sick, they have no other work -- without the gold, they'd starve. At best, they make only Rp 100,000 (US$11) a day. If the use of mercury were made illegal, the processing would continue out of sight of government officials.
The BCU students agreed that the only practical solution appeared to be the creation of other work that paid better than panning for the precious metal. But what "other" work? Tourism is seen as one possible answer, but Central Kalimantan does not have an international airport.
The more the students looked at the issues, the more complex they became.
Bina Cita Utama -- which means nurturing noble ideals -- is an unusual school. It is based in a Subud community called Rungan Sari, about 35 kilometers northwest of provincial capital Palangkaraya. Kalteng, short for Kalimantan Tengah, is the local name for the province.
Subud was started in the 1920s by a Javanese Muslim seer, Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, and claims to be an awakening of the inner self; a spiritual movement and not a religion. People of all religions and no religions are said to be followers of the movement.
The name Subud has been distilled from the Sanskrit words susila (morality), budhi (reason) and dharma (duty). Subud followers define the name as "the possibility for human beings to follow the right way of living".
In most cities, supporters live in their own homes and get together at a center; but in Kalteng, they have built a well-resourced community on leased land in a jungle clearing.
Many homes are palatial, reflecting the affluence of those Subud followers who are professionals and businesspeople from overseas. Two houses have been converted into classrooms. Not surprisingly, the school has plenty of teaching and playing space, and good facilities.
BCU, which is associated with the U.S.-based education charity Susila Dharma International, started in July 2005 as a bilingual, multicultural school with 28 children from ages 5 to 16. Its student body has now expanded to almost 40 -- and most are Dayak, the indigenous inhabitants of Kalimantan. Dayak students live outside the Subud community and are bussed to the school. The plan is to increase enrollments to 200.
The school has only six students of foreign backgrounds -- five Australians and one Portuguese -- who live in the Subud community.
The National Plus concept was introduced to Indonesia in the late 1990s, and bridges the gap between national and international schools. Expatriate children are allowed to study at National Plus schools, where the teaching medium is often English and the students follow an international curriculum.
BCU is a fee-paying school that offers scholarships to Indonesian nationals and is open to the public. It is run by a nonprofit foundation and has two principals: Dr. Gunarjo S. Budi, a physics lecturer at Palangkaraya University who teaches mathematics and science at BCU, and Australian educator Karsten MacDonald, who carries the title "principal counterpart".
MacDonald said the local education system in Kalimantan was based on rote learning, with classes of up to 60 students. Primary school teaching hours lasted from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., and teachers were frequently absent. Corporal punishment was not unusual.
"A newspaper reported that 53 percent of students in Kalteng failed the national exams," he said. "The local government knew the system was failing, but weren't sure how to proceed."
MacDonald said Kalteng officials responded positively to the establishment of BCU.
"When they heard about the community here planning a National Plus school, they were highly supportive. They now believe that a school like BCU could become a model for others in the province," he said.
"We provide a learning environment which is non-threatening and high quality. At the same time, we maintain the integrity of the indigenous culture. All children learn the Indonesian language and culture, so they will not lose their cultural identity."
First published in The Sunday Post 9 December 2007