Harvesting rice on a lunar landscape Duncan Graham
Seen from above it looks as though Bangka has suffered a severe case of smallpox. High quality aerial photos are more like X rays, revealing ugly blotches, similar to cancers. Pallid grays instead of once lush greens.
For about 300 years Bangka, the island at the southern end of the Straits of Malacca has been pillaged and raped. The first offenders were the Dutch. Now its local and overseas companies and individuals hosing, hacking and dredging the land for tin.
There are hundreds of small ragged-edged ponds dotted across the island where miners have hunted for the silver-colored ore, then left the gouged land to be flooded. The landscape is lunar
“There are 30 tin smelters on the island,” said Santoso Prasetija, factory manager for the company Donna Kembara Jaya, “and that’s far too many. Maybe we’ll have to start producing palm oil.”
Maybe not. Two years ago a land dispute on the island resulted in palm oil crops being torched. Bangka is not wet and fertile like Java.
Prasetija and his workforce were standing round a furnace with no ore to process. The smelter’s capacity is 800 tonnes a month. It’s now producing only 200 tonnes.
There are many reasons. Easily accessible ore is getting harder to find. Deposits below ten meters are too costly to excavate. Prices are dropping, costs are rising.
Restrictions on mining and environmental concerns are other factors. Earlier this year the Indonesian government said it would cap production – then said that might not be necessary as demand was weak.
Like most primary producers, tin miners are price takers, not makers. The value of the metal – currently around Rp 150,000 (US $15) a kilogram - is set in London.
Last year the price reached US $25.
There are 1.3 million people in Bangka-Belitung, Indonesia’s youngest province created in 2000 from the two large islands off the east coast of Sumatra. The government estimates that at least 10,000 make their living in the industry, though this seems to be a low estimate.
Not all workers are employed by the big companies. Small-scale illegal mining has long been a problem and difficult to eradicate despite penalties for tin smuggling equal to those for drug trafficking. What happens when the tin runs out or becomes unviable is a serious question.
Indonesia is the second largest producer of tin in the world, second to China. There are believed to be reserves of 800,000 tonnes left on Bangka, but the issue is accessibility
“I’m optimistic about the future,” said the vice-governor Syamsuddin Basari. “We are serious about rehabilitation and planting millions of trees. Our goal is that three trees should be planted by everyone on the island. I even do it myself. It’s called Bangka Goes Green.
“We are trying to lift the quality of education in the province so students don’t have to go elsewhere, and we’re looking to tourism to create employment.” In an adjacent office a two-finger typist pecked out a memo on an ancient typewriter. Power outages are frequent.
The potential is certainly there. Fine beaches, uncrowded streets, reasonable roads and a pleasant capital in Pangkalpinang, a city of only 200,000.
Bangka is famous as the setting for Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Lord Jim, and infamous as the massacre site of 22 Australian nurses in 1942 by the Japanese.
Much work still needs to be done to understand the needs of the modern tourism industry. At the little airport, which cannot take international flights despite being within sniffing distance of Singapore and Malaysia, there’s a giant billboard promoting 2010 as the year to visit Bangka-Belitung.
Unfortunately the bureaucrats have folded the province’s name into Babel, which has some unfortunate connotations as all Old Testament readers know.
To charm visitors the sign features neither happy families frolicking on the beach, nor young couples stunned by the scenery, but five stern middle aged public servants. All are men and two in uniform.
They look more like a deportation squad than a welcome team. Malaysia, with its long-running and successful Truly Asia promotion has nothing to fear from the Visit Babel campaign.
Yet despite the enormous environmental damage Bangka could be a good destination for serious eco-tourism.
A consortium of smelter companies has set up a corporate social responsibilities program. This is doing some spectacular rehabilitation work, though on a small scale, in a project called Bangka Botanical Garden.
Heavy machinery has straightened the sides and flattened the floors of old mining pits and used these to plant crops. First attempts to grow rice were failures, said farm manager Jerry Japri, but the companies have persevered and the plants seem to be flourishing.
There are large stands of cattle feed growing in the pits and these are being harvested for 330 beef and dairy cows. The animal waste is used to build the poor soil fertility. The milk is pasteurised and given free to local schoolchildren to boost their health.
The ambition is to supply 20,000 kids, though many aren’t keen. Drinking fresh milk is not part of Indonesian culture.
“We are still experimenting to find what works and doesn’t,” said manager Japri. “This project has been running for three years and we’re not making money.
“We’re trying the meet the challenges of rebuilding the land and making it productive. Seeds from crops that thrive will be given to local farmers.
“We want to build cattle numbers to 1,000 head, but some of the Friesian dairy cows are suffering from the heat.” The first rains for five months fell when The Jakarta Post was visiting.
Plump white ducks paddled around the flower-bordered ponds where laborers once sweated in the roasting heat so the world could buy tins of food. Manicured avenues of trees offered welcome shade.
As a showcase of what can be done in mine site reclamation the Bangka Botanical Garden is a standout. But it’s only scratching the surface of a huge task and no one seems to know how long the companies will maintain support.
The government’s plan to have every person plant three trees may have to be revised to 300.
Can it be tin?
Despite the name, tin cans are basically made of steel.
The discovery in 1810 by British engineer Peter Durand that a thin coating of tin on the inside of an airtight steel can could preserve the contents created a revolution in food packaging.
Tin isn’t toxic and doesn’t corrode.
Lighter, recyclable aluminium cans are slowly taking over, but tin is still in demand for electronics where it is used in the solder that ensures good electrical connections.
Tin mixed with copper produces malleable bronze used in Indonesia to make handicrafts and gamelan gongs.
The Dutch moved thousands of Chinese laborers to Bangka to exploit the tin. Their descendants now form 12 per cent of the population – four times higher than in Java.
Race relations on Bangka are said to be so good that some Chinese businesspeople in Jakarta keep homes on Bangka as a safe refuge in case riots erupt again in the capital as they did in 1998.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 October 2009)