Issue 18
Monday, 23 October 2017
Charles Darwin University
A manganese miner in West Timor
A manganese miner in West Timor

West Timor project links farming, mining

By Andrew Hall

A three-year research project led by CDU Research Fellow Rohan Fisher has resulted in a revision in understanding the relationship between artisanal mining and agriculture in West Timor.

When the Artisanal Mining in Eastern Indonesia project began the focus was on how small-scale manganese mining carried out by hand might affect the subsistence farming activities in West Timor and what potential threats to individuals’ health and safety were present.

Mr Fisher said the rapid increase in Chinese steel production, in which manganese was an essential element, led to a peak in demand for the mineral in about 2010.

Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods researchers, in partnership with colleagues from the University of Nusa Cendana (UNDANA), delivered training to West Timor government departments and conducted field research to help them assess environmental impacts of the mining activities.

“At the end of the first research phase we have found that artisanal mining is a really huge livelihood activity throughout rural West Timor, which is otherwise largely reliant on subsistence farming,” Mr Fisher said.

But the two forms of livelihood, he said, could co-exist in a semi-symbiotic way in the same places.

“The people need alternative livelihoods to survive because they can’t live from the meagre amount of agricultural produce they grow; by about 2010 we estimated there were between 500 and 1000 people engaged in artisanal mining,” he said.

“On an environmental level this form of mining was good because there were no toxic chemicals involved, as the ore was merely dug up and sold on (without being processed).”

But in 2012 the Indonesian Government introduced a law that prevented unprocessed manganese being sold offshore.

Mr Fisher said that this situation had changed somewhat and the researchers from CDU and UNDANA had proposed to the Government that further support be given to West Timorese manganese miners to help them develop farmer–miner cooperatives and  best practice mining techniques to support them re-entering the market.

“What we’re arguing is that artisanal mining should be seen as a legitimate rural poverty reduction and livelihood diversification activity for these poor people with minimal negative environmental or social impacts.”

Mr Fisher said work had started on the first academic paper about the project, which would posit that artisanal mining of manganese in West Timor was a model of a sustainable rural livelihood in a developing country.

The project was funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.