Tin mining on these sleepy islands off Sumatra has brought wealth, but at a price; it is literally eating away at the land.
The scale of the environmental damage on the Bangka-Belitung islands can be most clearly seen from the air, revealing a lunar landscape of craters and hundreds of highly acidic, turquoise lakes created by centuries of largely unregulated tin mining.
Efforts in recent years to control illegal mining on the islands have reverberated thousands of miles away by spooking world markets for tin in global financial centers such as London.
Tin exports from Indonesia, the world’s second-biggest producer after China, have slowed after a government clampdown on illegal mining in Bangka-Belitung, helping make tin one of the best performers on the London Metal Exchange in recent years.
The white metal, widely used in food packaging and to solder electronic products, hit an all-time high of $25,500 a tonne in May. It has halved along with falls in most other metals due to concerns over a global recession.
Indonesia’s government has said it will set an annual tin production quota of 100,000 tonnes from next year in a bid to reduce environmental degradation in the main tin-mining areas.
But the situation on the ground is often murky.
Thousands of small-scale traditional and often illegal mining operations sprung up in the late 1990s when the Asian financial crisis wiped out jobs in other sectors of the economy.
From Papua to Kalimantan, there are many examples of mining damaging Indonesia’s rich natural environment, with the situation often exacerbated by lax policing, poverty and corruption. The explosion in unregulated mining in Bangka helped tin exports soar and prices plummet in 2002 before a crackdown on illegal tin mining and smelting in 2006 spurred a recovery.