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‘Watch the sky and pray’: Bali’s volcanic Mt Agung looms large but local miners have little choice but to keep working

About 100,000 residents were evacuated in September when the ground shook and geophysicists predicted a major eruption – but many residents remain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 6:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 10:48pm

Ketut Suweni shovels gravel on the slopes of Mt Agung while the volcano spews ash clouds. For a second her sandal slips on the pile of black and grey stones and she stumbles onto her hands and knees.

“I keep an eye on the volcano while I work,” she said, wiping grime from her face. “The ash is quite light right now but if the sky turns dark I will leave.”

Trucks carrying sand and gravel, and a few locals on motorbikes, are the only traffic left in the danger zone around Mt Agung. Roughly 100,000 residents were evacuated in September when the ground shook and geophysicists predicted a major eruption. About 55,000 are living in dank, wet evacuation camps outside the 12km danger zone.

Watch: Mt Agung spewing ash in Bali

The volcano is in Bali – the Indonesian island home to 4 million and popular with tourists, although many are choosing to holiday elsewhere since the eruptions. Currently, hotels have 25 per cent occupancy compared to 80 per cent this month last year, according to the Malay Star.

However, miners like Suweni do not have a choice. They need the US$73 for each truck they fill – a fee they split. Suweni earns about US$15 a day. This gravel is used to build roads and in rock mixture to make bricks.

“We do not have a licence to mine here,” she says. “We have a partner who pays the police off.”

I keep an eye on the volcano while I work. The ash is quite light right now but if the sky turns dark I will leave
Ketut Suweni, worker

About 70 per cent of the miners do not have permits, according to Wired magazine. It is cheaper to bribe the police than get a licence that requires the group to pay for land restoration once the project is complete.

Suweni works in sandals and thin, patterned clothes shovelling rocks. Above her, on a ridge cut from the mountain, men swing hunks of rock into grinding machinery.

They all dashed for safety on November 25 when a colossal ash cloud darkened the sky and cinders fell like rain. The volcanic ash clouds grounded flights in Bali and the nearby island of Lombok for several days, causing travel chaos. Magma glowed like a cigarette against the dark clouds but it did not spill. Within days, Suweni was swinging her shovel again.

“I’m very worried,” she says. “But we must earn money.”

At the main observatory in Rendang, Dr Gede Suantika, a geophysicist, expressed concern for the miners.

“They should leave for their own safety,” he said. “We have sirens set up around the volcano that may be able to warn them. But if the volcano releases hot clouds there may not be enough time for them to escape.”

Hot clouds, known as pyroclastic flows, are clouds of fast-moving volcanic matter. Most of the 1000-plus people who died during the last eruption in 1963 were killed trying to outrun hot clouds.

The state of alert remains at its highest level but Suantika said: “If the ash clouds remain small then we will consider reducing it in a couple of weeks.”

Not that Suweni would know. She says her group do not listen to the radio for updates and none of them have smartphones.

“We can only listen to the mountain,” she says. “If the earth shakes, we run.”

It is not easy for people to leave their livelihoods even if it is dangerous. Ketut Urianda has not seen a customer at his restaurant and guest house on the edge of the danger zone for a fortnight.

“People here struggle to earn a living,” says Urianda, a retired teacher. “Rice farming is unpredictable as the crops can fail and you can’t get a job in the tourism industry if you do not speak English.”

Balinese miners are part of a worldwide industry. Sand and gravel “account for the largest volume of solid material extracted globally,” according to a 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Programme. It is used in the multibillion-dollar construction industry and as countries start to ban sand exports, citing environmental damage, the value is likely to rise.

Suweni and several other women wait at a damp bus stop for their husbands or friends to take them home.

“Usually I live near here but now I’m staying with family further away from the volcano,” she says.

Her drive back to where she is staying goes through eerily deserted streets and past boarded up houses, speckled with grey ash.

“I just watch the sky,” she says. “Watch the sky and pray.”