Fishing The Bowels Of The Earth

Fishing The Bowels Of The Earth
Artisanal diamond mining in South Kalimantan, Indonesia

by Shivaji Das, 2 April 2017

As my motorcycle enters the diamond mines at Pumpung, a village near Cempaka in South Kalimantan, I am greeted by the buzz of several throbbing hearts, makeshift water pumps scattered around a vast green flatland interspersed with tiny brown hillocks. Each hillock has a bamboo stairway to heaven placed in front of them. The trails to these are flooded, and I walk like a drunkard along the edges, trying to keep my feet dry and clean. Soon I spot the first pit, where the earth has hidden its treasures but failed to keep the secret.

Four men stand along the slopes of the pit, digging for fortune. The earth here is a swampland that constantly oozes water into these pits to annoy these men; like a child not wanting to share her toys. The pumps work for the men to suck out this water while the sun works for the earth to scorch the men. Again and again, the men slip and slide in the mud, but they climb out of the pit, covered entirely in mud, almost unrecognisable, and then again give the pit a few blows with their shovel before sliding down. I imagine the fancy jewellery stores with perfect air-conditioning in Singapore and Jakarta, with sharp-suited salespeople guiding our vision with warm spotlights on dark velvet. This world couldn’t have been further from that.

On seeing me, the miners find the excuse they need to take a break from this contest with the earth to share her treasures, and struggle out of the pit to give me high-fives. Immediately, they apologise realising that their hands are covered in  mud. ‘Look what we found today!’ Anang, a man in his 30s with chiselled face and weather-beaten skin, shows me two rocks with black innards, ‘It’s not that most precious stone, but these will get us 10,000 rupiah.’’ That’s a little less than a dollar. Mostafa, a miner in his early 20s with baby cheeks, is the most excited, ‘Come take my picture with these rocks!’ he poses, ‘Hey, you!’ He shouts to the two men working the pump, ‘Pose for him.’

Anang and Mostafa show me around, ‘We dig out the mud and then mix it with some more water and then put it in these machines’ The machines, which I had taken to be the stairways to heaven, are meant for sluicing. ‘Then the mineral-bearing rocks are separated from the mud after which we have to inspect these rocks manually’ Three old men were shovelling up the mud to the mouth of the sluicing machines. They were panting in the heat, resting after every four or five attempts. ‘We take turns to do this,’ says Anang, ‘All of us are from the same village. I have been doing this for 12 years. My father has been at it for 30 years.’

Many such mines are scattered around south Kalimantan. The miners exhaust one pit and then move on to dig a new one. Diamond mining is a practice that’s over 150 years in South Kalimantan, though some date this to over 400 years. Apart from diamonds, the pits contain minerals such as topaz, emerald, amethyst and gold. In 1965, a 166.85-carat diamond named Trisakti was found in Pumpung. And in 2008, a 200-carat diamond named Puteri Malu was found nearby. However, it is unusual to find anything over five carats from these mines. Anang says, ‘It’s not just the size. Most of the diamonds have defects and sell for much less. But we just need one big one,’ he makes a round hole with his fingers, ‘Just once, this big!’

Anywhere in the world, artisanal mining is as much about hard work as it is about superstitions. At Pumpung, it is believed that one shouldn't ever say the word intan (diamond) in the vicinity of the pits, else he will not hit diamond for years. The Garimpos in Mato Grasso in Brazil believe that one is doomed if one finds gold instead of diamonds. Mostafa whispers as he giggles, ‘That man with the hat working at the machine, he doesn’t talk to anyone. He keeps saying some prayers all the time when at work. But he hasn’t got a big stone yet.’

The Pumpung miners and the Garimpos also deploy similar business models. The proceeds from the sale are divided between the miners, the owners of the machines and the owner of the land. ‘Whatever we get, our leader goes and sells at Martapura. We keep 50 per cent which we share equally among all of us who work at that pit, the owner of the machine gets 15, and the landowner gets the rest. Some miners don’t use machines and just sort with pans.’ My grab-it-all urban conditioning leads me to ask the obvious question—what if you don’t tell the others. ‘Oh no, that is not possible,’ says Anang, ‘Everyone knows everyone here; the miners, the buyers, the machine owners. The buyers will only buy from designated people among us. You cheat once and you will be cast out for life.’  I recall stories of cheating Garimpos desperately begging anyone to buy all their diamonds in return for a single bowl of Feijoada (bean stew) because not a single buyer would buy from them.

The diamonds and other gems collected from Pumpung are processed in small workshops in the neighbouring town of Martapura where there are many small stores selling the jewels. Visitors come from all over Indonesia to these jewellery stores in Martapura. These are not fancy stores of the big cities; just countless beads hanging from walls and doorframes and the more precious jewels housed inside glass-top wooden cupboards. On the streets, one will come across individual sellers who just walk from one prospect to another, taking out his handkerchief to show his collection of gems.

It is time for lunch and the miners gather at a makeshift warung which has been set up by one of the villagers near the pit. ‘Each pit has its own warung, if she sees us walk over to the next warung, she will scream louder than these pumps’ the man who prays takes a break to crack this joke about the warung’s owner and the entire group breaks into laughter. Mostafa says, ‘Yes, that’s another rule for the miners. Even though our house is just a five-minute walk, we have to have lunch at our respective warungs.’ Lunch is instant noodles with a glass of tea and afterwards, as the miners relax over a smoke, I head on to the neighbouring pits.

Again, the young men digging the sides are overjoyed and pose for me, asking for photographs, some raising Ronnie James Dio’s famous sign of the horns. The youngest of the lot slides in the walls of the pit and lands in the water below. He then goes completely under the muddy water. His elder brother, Ahmed, walks up to talk to me, ‘My brother is a water buffalo. He can’t take the heat for long and goes into the water every now and then.’ Ahmed is 25 and has been working at the mine for five years, ‘I have two daughters already. Both go to school. Here, we get married by the time we are 20.’ Ahmed says that working in the mines is safe but tough, especially for beginners, ‘When I started here, I used to get fever every few days. The sun was unbearable. And then you are always with water. But you get used to it.’ The miners work from sunrise to sunset and take a day off on Friday, the day for prayers.

I ask Ahmed about Trisakti, the mega-stone. ‘Don’t mention it, sir,’ he says. ‘It didn’t do any good for us miners. Our village is still the same, living hand to mouth. We don’t even know where that stoneis now; some say it is in some Dutch museum.’  

The Trisakti was found in the month of August, just one month before the September coup attempt that led to a series of mass murders in Indonesia eventually facilitating Suharto’s takeover. Even before the coup attempt, the political environment in Indonesia had become toxic. In the midst of this, the villagers who mined the Trisakti, together with local government officials, tried to meet President Sukarno to hand over the diamond to the state. Sukarno, struggling to cope with the turn of events, left it to his government officials to meet this group and take the diamond in return for a small payment. But apparently, the name Trisakti or ‘Three times powerful’ was given to the diamond by Sukarno himself, amidst all the chaos of 1965. Later the miners were provided with an all-expenses paid trip to Mecca for hajj. The diamond was sent to a workshop in the Netherlands for processing. Somehow, soon after, it was lost from the pages of history.

Ahmed says, ‘We don’t even want such a stone again. We know someone else will take away the benefit even if we find one. It is good enough if we get a small stone every now and then.’

Diamond mining in South Kalimantan has been through its ups and downs. A contest between greater mechanisation and the consequent depletion followed by even greater mechanisation. And despite so much depending on the hope of that one big find, the miners remain calm about their lives. They are driven by natural human spirits—to take risks but also to share risks. They are curious to know about the outside world and relish interacting with outsiders. Pumpung, the home they have built for themselves, is a charming idyll of colourful clothes on washing lines with only the occasional scampering chickens disturbing the peace. And on Fridays, they don their best clothes to go to Martapura to pray at its Grand Mosque and shop and eat with their family at the market.

As I ride back, the women and children shout goodbyes. My hands, muddy from many handshakes, feel dry. This dried mud has given hopes, created myths and then broken hearts. And I have this whim to never wash my hands again.

(Excerpted from Angels by the Murky River: Travels Off the Beaten Path, 2017, YODA PRESS)

About the book

Angels by the Murky River is a collection of travel narratives that stay off the beaten track. During the course of his travels, the author encounters people who would not typically attract a tourist’s attention---homeless people in Mumbai and Seoul, ageing anarchists in Melbourne, the crew on board a container ship, poverty-stricken diamond miners in Indonesia, renunciant monks in the material city of Singapore, farmers-turned-painters in Morocco and China, an elderly couple who scribble love poems on walls of small-town China while not daring to meet each other, Filipino women boxers and beauty pageant specialists, and a group of migratory mothers-in-law, to name a few.

These are narratives that capture human resilience in the midst of adversity, our passion for cherished ideals, and our capacity for creativity, kindness, and humour, irrespective of our backgrounds, and no matter what may be the traveller's destination.

Available at Books Actually and online.