Scrabbling at the Equator: Gold Mining in Kalimantan

Article excerpt

Clinging to any available perch, the eight of us bounce and shudder as thick red mud sprays from the four-wheel drive "taxi's" spinning tires. We climb higher and higher up the steep hillsides, the jungle pressing close on either side. Drooping vines and staghorn ferns buzz with noises loud enough to drown out the steady roar of the taxi's tractor engine. Occasionally, glimpses of the plains to the east open up, but we ignore them, lunging forward into seemingly impenetrable jungle.

When we arrive at the drilling rigs of the Haraan prospect (exploration site), the rain forest towers forty meters high on all sides. Stepping down from the grumbling blue Ford into mud left over from the rainy season, Fong Fatt Chong and I inspect the geology exposed by a roadside cut. "You see this vein?" Chong asks, pointing out a wide strip of quartz. He gestures broadly toward the valley to the south: "It runs all the way. It is one big cash cow."

Or so he hopes. In their relentless search for gold, Chong's crew will pursue the vein however far south it may run. Tall, lean, direct, and assertive, Chong exudes an aura of inexorable success. Chong expects a lot from his crews and is constantly testing them. Around each site he will stop at the side of the road to ask "What is this rock?" or "Why is the soil red here?" Of course, he knows the answers: He wants the right response. "The guys who work for me are all a little bit afraid of me," he comments.

Chong is the managing director of Pelsart Resources, a small gold-mining subsidiary of the Gajah Tunggal Group, a Djakarta-based Indonesian multinational corporation. We are spending nine days checking on several of Pelsart's mines and prospects scattered through Indonesia's Kalimantan (formerly Dutch Borneo). We travel all day, stopping only to inspect sites or grab lunch. All the while, the endless humidity sneaks stickily around inside our clothes.

It is only in the last few decades that significant penetration of Kalimantan's interior jungles has occurred, but it has come with a vengeance. Palm oil plantations stretch for thousands of hectares across the hills, enormous paddies of brown-topped rice are cultivated to feed migrants from Java, and logged-out areas stand in tall, bright green tangles of regenerating bush and vine. Rivers of a dozen colors wind through the landscape, and narrow strips of gravel twist across hillside ridges. The only visible human settlements are bamboo huts clinging to small plots of burned-out hillside and clusters of tin-roofed shacks where roosters scurry and crow.

Most but not all of the gold prospecting takes place in remote pockets of the surviving jungle, far from the towns. That isolation may have contributed to the most spectacular failure--and audacious confidence trick--in mining history. Bre-X Minerals Ltd. claimed to have found a mother lode of enormous size at Busang. But in March 1997 the "find" was proven fraudulent: The mine had been "salted." The geologist responsible mysteriously died in a fall from a helicopter, and investors worldwide lost more than three billion dollars.

Fly camps and jungle outposts

Pelsart's rigs at Haraan are about two kilometers from the main exploration camp at Meratus. Staff there have hot showers, television, and window screens to keep out the bugs. With buildings scattered across the forested hillside the camp is even charming, in a rough-hewn, plywood sort of way. But the terrain is so steep it doesn't make sense for Haraan's work crews to commute back and forth daily. They must stay in the drilling fields for up to a week at a time before returning to the luxuries of Meratus.

Henry Salvado, vice president of exploration for Pelsart, has a thousand stories about the rigors of exploration. Once, he went to examine a site where promising minerals had turned up in the soil. He was dropped off by helicopter on a river sandbar. His pickup was scheduled for the next day. …