The Guardian tells us all about this new frontier being staked out. It’s tin mining in Indonesia now. Much of what they actually say they get right. There is indeed a belt of alluvial tin ore ranging from Burma down to Indonesia. In the poorer countries there it is indeed mined by very primitive methods. Miners are badly paid while they do so and yes, some of them die while they do it. The poor pay and primitive methods are because the places are poor: they’re actually the exact same statement.
Just as a little background, and without too much technical guff. The only ore of tin that we care about is cassiterite. Sometimes we find vast mountains of it as in Peru. Sometimes small mountains of it as in the Erzgebirge/Krusny Hory on the German Czech border (disclosure, I’m currently waiting, rather nervously, to find out whether my application for a mining license there is going to be granted. I’m not looking for tin but for the closely related, in an ore sense, tungsten but tin will be a by-product and it’s the main product of the mine right next door.). And sometimes we find that vast mountains of it have been worn down by erosion and that the cassiterite is now spread through the silt and sand of an ancient estuary. This is what the SE Asian tin sources are and why they are described as “alluvial” deposits. The cassiterite makes up some fraction of the standard sand and river silt there.
Back an ice age or more sea levels were much lower than they are now and that silt has been deposited right across the area, sometimes above current coastlines, sometimes below them, close inshore and well offshore too.
The extraction method is really quite simple. Dig up, suck up, that sand and silt then separate the heavier cassiterite from the lighter sand and silt. While they use a slightly different method it’s exactly the same principle as those cascades of wooden troughs you see in every Western movie about gold mines. The cassiterite sinks faster so the first stuff that sinks is the cassiterite.
Getting the tin out of the cassiterite is pretty easy: a hand built furnace and some charcoal can be used to do it although obviously modern machinery can make it more efficient. That ease of extraction is what made tin one of the very first metals that humans really learned to use. It is, quite literally, Bronze Age technology as bronze is copper and tin. Some of the earliest deposits exploited were those in Cornwall and Devon, in the SW of England. Some of the little mountain streams would have eroded and then collected deposits of that cassiterite: alluvial deposits again. The higher areas of both counties are littered with the remains of several thousand years of their exploitation. We’ve good evidence of Cornish tin ingots in the Eastern Mediterranean by about 1,200 BC, taken there by Phoenecian traders.
So it’s a long standing industry, almost certainly one of the very oldest we have after agriculture. And the deposits being mined there in Indonesia are indeed rich and valuable.
So, what actually is the problem?
There is a chain here: Bangka and Belitung produce 90% of Indonesia’s tin, and Indonesia is the world’s second-largest exporter of the metal. A recent Businessweek investigation into tin mining in Bangka found that Indonesia’s national tin corporation, PT Timah, supplies companies such as Samsung directly, as well as solder makers Chernan and Shenmao, which in turn supply Foxconn (which manufactures many Apple products). Chernan has also supplied Samsung, Sony and LG. So it is highly likely that the smartphone or tablet you use has Bangkanese tin in it, perhaps mined by Suge or one of the many tens of thousands of men like him, most of whom earn around £5 a day in a local industry that fetches roughly £42m of revenue for Indonesia every year.
All of this is entirely true.
Official police figures show that mining accidents such as Suge’s have quadrupled in the past two years, with the number of deaths increasing from 21 in 2010 to 44 in 2011. But activists say the number of dead actually averages around 100-150 every year, with many cases going unreported.
I’m sure that is too.
At 8.30am on a cloudy morning at Rebo beach, Alik, a lanky 35-year-old with shoulder-length hair and a wispy goatee, is looking out at the storm on the horizon with a beer in his hand. As the manager of 20 pontoons – makeshift rafts assembled from wood, thatch, plastic barrels and suction hoses – he is nervous. Soon there will be a meeting with the local government about turning Rebo beach into a tourism destination, essentially putting an end to the illegal mining his 80 men work at every day.
“There’s no other work here besides mining,” Alik says solemnly, pointing with his beer can out to sea. “Last year there were three suction ships just off the shore there. They sucked out almost all the tin, and so this year we have 75% less than last year.” He sighs. “It’s enough to get by but finding tin ore is like gambling. If you’re lucky you’ll find a lot and get rich for the day. If you’re not, you earn just enough for a little food.”
And I’m equally sure that that is true too. The big question though is, what, if anything, should be done about it?
After leading an investigation into tin mining in Bangka earlier this year, Friends of the Earth is now pushing the biggest smartphone companies, Samsung and Apple, to agree and implement a plan that will put an end to the human and environmental problems it causes. The demands are part of FoE’s Make It Better campaign, calling for Europe-wide legislation that would require companies to report on their products’ full human and social impacts – from accidents and pollution to how much water, land and raw materials they use. “Samsung and Apple have the power to help improve the situation [in Bangka],” says campaigner Julian Kirby. “Millions of us love our smartphones; this new mandatory company reporting would set us on track to also being able to love the way they’re made.”
Sigh. Of course it’s not just smartphones it’s every piece of electrical or electronic equipment. But because Apple’s such an iconic brand if they can be tied into it then so much the better for the purposes of the campaign.
But let us imagine that everything becomes lovely. Apple and Samsung work to improve the situation. At which point we’ve got to ask, well, what will actually improve the situation?
Obviously, mining isn’t going to stop: the ore is too valuable for that to happen. Indonesia is indeed getting richer but it’s not rich enough yet to give up $60 odd million a year in revenues from the tin industry. We also cannot stop using tin in electrical and electronic items. We’ve only just stopped using lead in solders which has increased the demand for tin. And the only workable alternative uses bismuth which has its own supply problems.
So what can we do?
Actually, the only thing that can be done is to automate the mining. Instead of an army of low paid labour digging and sluicing with makeshift equipment we’d need to mine with one or two great big machines. We know how to do this of course: it’s already done with other alluvial deposits. There’s no great secret to it, nothing difficult at all. Just spend a few millions, a few tens of millions maybe, on the machinery and produce away. There is however one problem with this idea:
To say that mining is everywhere on Bangka seems an exaggeration until one studies the numbers. Government officials estimate that roughly 20% of Bangka-Belitung’s 1.3m islanders are miners, with a further 40% involved in related industries – working in the smelters, for example, or trading as middlemen, or selling generators.
Our great big machines would put all those people out of work. All 780,000 of them. Well, OK, not quite all: we might end up using a couple of thousand to run the machines but unlikely to be more.
And that’s what our real problem is. This is a poor country with a lot of poor people in it. Thus they use production methods that use a lot of cheap human labour. It’s absolutely possible to to replace that cheap labour with machinery. But is that what we actually want to do, throw three quarters of a million people out of work? In a country where there isn’t any alternative industry to take them on nor an unemployment system to take care of them until there is?
I most certainly wouldn’t want to work as those Indonesian tin miners do. And perhaps it is indeed right that no one should have to work that way so that we can get our shiny electronic gew gaws. But what is going to happen to them if we do manage to pressure Apple and Samsung into not using their labour or the tin it produces?
There are indeed things that don’t in fact have a solution and I’ve a feeling this is one of them. The conditions those miners work in are indeed bad: but they’re better than any of the alternatives they have. Should we force them back to even worse lives in order to salve our consciences? Forbes Magazine