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Not all of the locals, however, feel grateful. Outside the five subsidized villages, the mine's presence has brought little more than envy (as those who don't have mining jobs resent those who do) and frustration (as the influx of mining salaries drives up the cost of living). One flash of anger came in 2006, when vandals burned down a Newmont exploratory camp in eastern Sumbawa, halting the company's testing for a new mine site.

Now the local and provincial governments, whose power has expanded since the dictator Suharto fell in 1998, are starting to assert themselves. Working with Indonesian business interests, they are moving to capture a share of the mine and a say in how its revenues are distributed. "We had no control over our destiny when these contracts were signed under Suharto," says local People's Council representative Manimbang Kahariyai. "We have to protect our future. What will be left of our environment when the mine is finished?"

Sitting in her new house in the village of Jereweh, Nur Piah is focused more on the present than the future. "So many people depend on me," she says. Her husband makes some money as a timber trader, but Nur Piah's salary—about $650 a month—paid for their two-story concrete home. As if in tribute, she has hung on one wall a large painting of the yellow Caterpillar 793. Nur Piah's job is not without its hardships. Maneuvering the enormous truck over a 12-hour shift is especially stressful, she says, when the pit's graded roads are slicked by torrential rains. But now, after a long day, she smiles contentedly as her child, age six, falls asleep on her lap. The girl's middle name? Higrid, the Indonesian approximation of "high-grade," the best ore in the mine.

The gold ornaments come out of the velvet boxes one by one, family heirlooms that Nagavi, a 23-year-old Indian bride, always knew she would wear on her wedding day. The eldest daughter of a coffee plantation owner in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Nagavi grew up marveling at the weddings that mark the merger of two wealthy Indian families. But not until the morning of her own arranged wedding to the only son of another coffee plantation family does she understand just how achingly beautiful the golden tradition can be.

By the time Nagavi is ready for her wedding, the university graduate with a predilection for jeans and T-shirts has been transformed into an Indian princess, shimmering in gold. An exquisitely crafted hairpiece is so heavy—five and a half pounds of gold—that it pulls her head back. Three gold necklaces and a dozen bangles act as effective counterweights. Wrapped in an 18-foot-long sari woven with thread dipped in gold, Nagavi walks slowly out of her home, trying to keep her balance as she tosses rice over her head in a traditional gesture of farewell.

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