A coalition of activist groups has praised Indonesia for signing an international treaty on mercury emissions, but emphasized that the country has much to do to reduce the use of the highly toxic metal across the archipelago.
"We have to stop importing mercury and Indonesia must set a mercury-reduction target immediately in the national implementation plan,” said Yuyun Ismawati, a representative of BaliFokus.
On Oct 10, government representatives from 139 countries agreed to adopt the new mercury treaty, named the Minamata Convention on Mercury, in Kumamoto, Japan. As of today, 94 countries, including Indonesia, have signed the treaty.
The true extent of mercury poisoning was first found in Minamata. A local chemical factory dumped the metal into the city's bay for more than 30 years, contaminating local seafood. After years of eating fish and shellfish, residents began to exhibit the signs of what is now called Minamata disease.
While the use of mercury in modern gold mining is a thing of the past, opportunist prospectors in Indonesia and other countries frequently rely on the metal to increase yield. A UNEP study showed that small-scale gold mining was identified as the single biggest source of mercury emissions around the world, while clandestine gold mining in Indonesia by small groups accounted for 57.5 percent of the country's emissions, equivalent to 195 tons per year.
Mercury is imported into Indonesia through legal channels for use in light industrial and medical applications, but a black market exists for the self-employed gold trade. Yuyun said illegal mercury imports in 2012 were valued at around $31 million, traded illegally in as many as 850 locations across the country.
“It is so shameful that Indonesia is the top importer of the illegal mercury of the world," said Nur Hidayati, head of advocacy and campaigns at environmental watchdog Walhi.
Gatot Sugiharto, coordinator of Community Green Gold Mining (CCGM), said that communities involved in gold mining would be broadly supportive of a program to implement non-mercury techniques. He emphasized, however, that the threat of criminal charges for miners would drive many away from engaging in the initiative.
Rossana Dewi from the Gita Pertiwi Foundation emphasized the human health consequences of mercury entering the food chain.
"When the food chain is contaminated, our food will be unhealthy and unsafe, risking the quality of life for our future generations,” Rossana said.
Henri Subagiyo, the director of Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said that the government must ensure that it put in place a system that made polluters responsible for reparations backed by adequate law enforcement.