There is one thing, however, that Nur Piah finds curious: In a decade at Batu Hijau, she has never seen a speck of the gold she has helped mine. The engineers monitoring the process track its presence in the copper compounds to which it adheres. And since the gold is shipped out to smelters overseas in copper concentrate, nobody on Sumbawa ever sees the hidden treasure that has transformed their island.
Pushed by rising gold prices and the depletion of deposits in the U.S., South Africa, and Australia, the world's largest mining companies are pursuing gold to the ends of the Earth. Few companies have gone global more aggressively than Newmont, a Denver-based mining giant that now runs open-pit gold mines on five continents, from the lowlands of Ghana to the mountaintops of Peru. Lured by the benefits of operating in the developing world—lower costs, higher yields, fewer regulations—Newmont has generated tens of thousands of jobs in poor regions. But it has also come under attack for everything from ecological destruction to the forced relocation of villagers. At Batu Hijau, where Newmont, the single largest shareholder, is wholly responsible for the mine's operation, the company has responded by ramping up community development and environmental programs—and dismissing its critics. "Why is it that activists thousands of miles away are yelling, but nobody around the mine complains?" asks Malik Salim, Batu Hijau's senior external relations manager. "Gold is what drives everybody crazy."
Most inhabitants of Sumbawa are farmers and fishermen who reside in wooden shacks built on stilts, their lives virtually untouched by the modern world. But inside the gates at Batu Hijau, Newmont has carved out of the jungle an American-style suburb, where some 2,000 of the mine's 8,000 employees live. Along the smoothly paved streets there is a bank, an international school, even a broadcast center that produces Newmont's in-house television channel. Families arrive in SUVs for free-pizza night at a restaurant overlooking a lush golf course. Up the road there is a basketball gymnasium that Newmont staffers jokingly refer to as "the second home of the Denver Nuggets."
The name is fitting for a Colorado-based gold-mining company, though there are no nuggets here. And therein lies the problem. Higher prices and advanced techniques enable companies to profitably mine microscopic flecks of gold; to separate gold and copper from rock at Batu Hijau, Newmont uses a finely tuned flotation technology that is nontoxic, unlike the potentially toxic cyanide "heap leaching" the company uses in some of its other mines. Even so, no technology can make the massive waste generated by mining magically disappear. It takes less than 16 hours to accumulate more tons of waste here than all of the tons of gold mined in human history. The waste comes in two forms: discarded rock, which is piled into flat-topped mountains spread across what used to be pristine rain forest, and tailings, the effluent from chemical processing that Newmont pipes to the bottom of the sea.