Heavy rains halt search for 30 people missing in Indonesia landslide that killed at least 23

Heavy rain has halted the search for 30 people believed to have been trapped by a landslide that engulfed an unlicensed gold mine on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi over the weekend, killing at least 23.

PALU, Indonesia — Heavy rains on Wednesday halted the search for 30 people believed to be trapped by a landslide that engulfed an unauthorized gold mine on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi over the weekend, killing at least 23.

More than 100 villagers were digging for grains of gold in the remote, hilly village of Bone Bolango in Gorontalo province on Sunday when tonnes of mud poured down from the surrounding hills and buried their makeshift camps.

The search was suspended Wednesday afternoon due to heavy rain, said Heriyanto, head of the provincial search and rescue office. Rescuers have not yet been able to locate the missing people, he added.

The National Search and Rescue Agency said Wednesday that 92 villagers had managed to escape the landslide. Several of them were pulled out of the water by rescuers, including 18 injured. The agency said 23 bodies had been recovered, including that of a 4-year-old boy, while 30 people were missing.

More than 1,000 people, including army soldiers, have now been deployed in the search, said Edy Prakoso, the agency's operations director.

He said the Indonesian air force would send a helicopter to speed up the rescue operation, which has been hampered by heavy rain, unstable ground and rough terrain.

Photos released by the agency show an excavator removing tons of mud and rocks that blocked access to the site.

Informal mining operations are common in Indonesia, providing precarious livelihoods for thousands of miners who work in conditions that pose a high risk of serious injury or death. Landslides, floods, and tunnel collapses are just some of the hazards miners face. Much of the gold ore processing involves highly toxic mercury and cyanide, and workers often use little or no protection.

The country's last major mining accident occurred in April 2022, when a landslide crashed into an illegal gold mine in Mandailing Natal district, North Sumatra, killing 12 women panning for gold.

Environmental activists have been campaigning for years to stop such operations across the country, particularly in Sulawesi, where the practice has flourished. Sunday's landslide has renewed their calls.

“The local government, which allowed illegal gold mining activities to continue in this area, contributed to this deadly disaster,” said Muhammad Jamil, who heads the legal division of the Mining Advocacy Network, an environmental watchdog.

He said many people share responsibility for illegal gold mining, from those working on the ground to local council officials and the police.

“This mafia network seems to have helped protect miners from law enforcement, even when they destroy protected forests,” Jamil said. “When natural resources such as rivers, forests, land and sea are damaged, it represents a total loss for the country’s economy.”

Ferdy Hasiman, a mining and energy researcher at Alpha Research and Datacenter, said the proliferation of open-pit mines has long been blamed for causing environmental damage in upstream areas, which in turn has exacerbated flooding and landslides downstream.

“Flash floods and landslides will persist if illegal mining and deforestation continue,” Hasiman said. “We call on local and central authorities to step up efforts to end illegal gold mining across the country.”


Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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