You’ve probably never heard of the island of Bangka, but you might have a tiny piece of it in your pocket. Off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, the island is the world’s largest producer of tin–a necessary component in smartphones and other electronics. As the number of gadgets skyrockets, so does tin production on Bangka, destroying a place that was once a tropical paradise.
Last fall, Italian photographer Matilde Gattoni and journalist Matteo Fagotto traveled to Bangka to document the destruction. “We decided to go and see with our own eyes the environmental degradation,” says Fagotto. “We wanted to understand a bit more how the tin market works, and how tin is extracted. We thought it was a story that deserved to be told.”
Most of the mining that happens on the island is illegal. “Informal” miners chop down tropical forests and hack pits out of the ground with simple tools like shovels and axes. When police shut down one mine–something that only happens intermittently, as they take bribes–another mine pops up a week later.
Even more mining happens offshore on makeshift pontoons, where workers use bamboo poles to scrape the seabed, and then dive underwater to suck tin from the surface through giant, vacuum-like tubes. Larger companies use dredging vessels.
The process is incredibly dangerous. The deep underwater pits can collapse, burying miners under sand. “One miner dies every week,” Fagotto says. “Still, tin mining is a big part of the local economy, and people want to continue it.” They’re willing to risk both their lives and the environment; mining has destroyed between 30% to 60% of the coral reef in the area and decimated local fishing.
In an article Fagotto wrote in the South China Morning Post, he quoted a local business owner:
“People here are crazy for mining. Some families destroy their houses just to search for tin below them,” he says. “You can’t separate tin from Bangka. It’s part of the culture, and locals have this faith that nature will somehow heal itself.”
Over the last decade, as the global demand for phones and tablets and computers has grown, the price of tin has more than quadrupled. A miner can make about $15 in a day, far more than other local work. Mining also has a long history on the island; tin became part of the local industry hundreds of years ago, when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. But now, thanks to electronics manufacturing, it’s happening exponentially faster.
After intense pressure from environmental groups, a handful of the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers agreed to look at the situation in Bangka. So far, there aren’t any clear answers; it’s hard to trace which tin is extracted illegally, and even the tin that’s legally mined isn’t sustainable or safe for workers.
If anything, it’s one more argument for better electronics recycling. If recycling processes recovered all metals–and if more people recycled their gadgets, instead of sticking them in drawers or tossing them out–tin mining might be a little less necessary.
The story of Bangka is also yet another reminder of the far-reaching impact of the choice to buy the latest tablet or laptop.
“What we want to highlight through this project are the effects that decisions taken in one part of the world can have on faraway countries, populations, environments, and cultures . . . and how shaping our consumer choices can impact, positively of negatively, on populations and countries which have been used as the ‘raw material’ of globalization so far,” says Fagotto.