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Search intensifies for dozens buried in Indonesia landslide that killed 23

More than 100 people were digging for gold in a remote village on Sunday when tons of mud plunged down the surrounding hills and buried their camps.

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Rescuers prepare to head out to the site of a landslide that killed at least 23 people in Suwawa on Indonesia's Sulawesi Island

The search for those trapped in a deadly landslide on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island intensified on Wednesday, with more rescuers deployed to search an unauthorised gold mine where 23 people died over the weekend.

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

The provincial Search and Rescue Office said on Wednesday that 81 villagers managed to escape from the landslide, several of them pulled out by rescuers, including 18 with injuries.

Indonesia Landslide
Rescuers search for victims at the site of a landslide in Suwawa on Sulawesi Island, Indonesia (BASARNAS/AP)

It added that 23 bodies have been recovered, including that of a four-year-old boy, while 33 other people are 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 operations director.

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

Indonesia Landslide
An Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency worker tends to an injured victim of the landslide in Suwawa on Sulawesi island (BASARNAS/AP)

Informal mining operations are common in Indonesia, providing a tenuous livelihood for thousands labouring 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 on to 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 calls.

“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 the legal division of the Mining Advocacy Network, an environment watchdog known as Jatam.

He said gold mining involves many people who share blame, from those working on the ground 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,” Mr 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 Datacentre, 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,” he 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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