The search intensifies for dozens buried in an Indonesian landslide that killed at least 23 people

PALU, Indonesia (AP) — Search efforts for those trapped in a deadly landslide intensified Wednesday, with more rescuers deployed to search an unauthorized gold mine on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island that saw 23 deaths over the weekend.

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

The provincial Search and Rescue Office said Wednesday that 81 villagers managed to escape from the landslide, several of them pulled out by rescuers, including 18 with injuries. It said 23 bodies were recovered, including a 4-year-old boy, while 33 others were missing.

More than 1,000 personnel, including army troops, were deployed to increase the strength of search efforts, said Edy Prakoso, the National Search and Rescue Agency’s operation director.

He said the Indonesian Air Force would send a helicopter as it was the only way to speed up the rescue operation that has been hampered by heavy rains, unstable soil, and rugged terrain.

Informal mining operations are common in Indonesia, providing a tenuous livelihood to thousands laboring in conditions that pose a high risk of serious injury or death. Landslides, flooding and collapses of tunnels are just some of the hazards facing miners. Much of gold ore processing involves highly toxic mercury and cyanide with workers frequently using little or no protection.

The country’s last major mining-related accident occurred in April 2022, when a landslide crashed onto an illegal gold mine in North Sumatra’s Mandailing Natal district, killing 12 women who were looking for gold.

Environmental activists have campaigned for years to shut down such operation across the country, especially on Sulawesi, where the practice has grown in recent years. Sunday’s landslide reignited their outcries.

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

He said that gold mining involves many people who share blame, from those working on the ground all the way up to officials in the local council and even the police.

“This mafia network appears to have helped shield the miners from law enforcement, even as they tear up protected forests,” Jamil said, “When natural resources such as rivers, forests, land and the sea are damaged, it will be a complete loss to the country’s economy.”

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

“Flash floods and landslides would persist if illegal mining and the deforestation in the practice continue,” Hasiman said, “We call on the local and central government to expand their efforts to shut down illegal gold mining across the country.”

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Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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