Siti Nurleily Marliana and Joaquim Baeta

Back in the Office, with Some Good Omens: Recountings on Seeking the Eureka for Mercury Contamination in Obi

Fresh off the boat—or in this case, a whole bunch of them—one of the Laboratory of Ecology and Conservation's own lecturers has returned from a research excursion to far-off Obi, alongside a consortium of scientists from the Center for Applied Microbiology Research, Hasanuddin University, SEAMEO-BIOTROP, Universitas Hein Namatemo, and several departments of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. A remote island in the North Maluku group of islands in eastern Indonesia, Obi poses considerable risk to time-sensitive research, owing to the difficulty of either regular or timely access to it. From Ternate, where travelers will usually disembark, an overnight ferry is required, comprising over a day of waiting as time curled its cruel paw over the fate of their samples. Highlighting the temerity required by field researchers who focus on Earth's less glamorous landscapes, chief researcher Dr. Retno Prayudyaningsih said, "It was very difficult. By the time we got to the airport, we were already struggling to keep our samples in a stable condition."

How did they find themselves here?

A complex, multifaceted project

Obi island is composed of two specific—and diametrically opposite—mining scales. On the one hand, a colossal mining operation several dozen square-kilometers in size can be found on its western coast. This operation aims to extract nickel-cobalt and adjacent metals, with the long-term goal of the large-scale extraction of resources destined for (among other things) battery-powered vehicles. And then there is Obi's northern coast, where gold is mined predominantly by locals, at a scale significantly smaller—to put it mildly—than the one to the west. Reportedly, 800 such artisanal or small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sites are dotted around Indonesia, with Obi being host to a fair number of them. Even though one may proverbially say it's always sunny in Obi, at a socio-economic level, this gold may be the primary driver of both people's migration to the island and their reason for subsisting on it for at least the past 25 years, considering what few other realistic economic opportunities there are.