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Kai Löffelbein Explores the Underbelly of Tech Manufacturing

If the life-supporting ecosystems of the planet are to survive for future generations, the consumer society will have to dramatically curtail its use of resources. 

- Alan Durning

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From the project, “Ctrl-X - a topography of e- waste." Locations from left to right: Accra, Ghana; Gujyu, China; New Delhi, India.

BANGKA ISLAND, INDONESIA - ”Since 2011, I have been documenting e-waste that is shipped from the western world to impoverished and under-developed regions of the world and the consequences of dumping and recycling it improperly in different countries. Computers, mobile phones, TV sets, and other devices are burned for any valuable metals. Noxious fumes fill the air. Lead, cadmium, zinc, chrome, nickel, and other chemical substances emitted in the process harm the health of all who inhale them with effects such as headaches, dizziness, skin rashes and damages to the nervous system. 

With visits to Ghana, China, and India, I completed the first chapter - the aftermath of our consumption of electronic products. 

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A big open pit mine licensed by state-owned mining company PT Timah. Indonesia produces more than one-third of the world’s tin used for smartphones and other electronic devices. Bangka Island, Indonesia, 2014. 

This year, with the support of Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund, I was enabled to continue this project and start a new chapter focusing on the raw materials that are used in the manufacturing of our electronic gadgets. Mining is wrecking the environment and every year it claims more lives. From Asia to South America the practice of mining is extremely dangerous. 

  Close to the coast, independent miners use suction pumps to hoover the sea bed as they search for tin ore in the water. Bangka Island, Indonesia, 2014. 

Close to the coast, independent miners use suction pumps to hoover the sea bed as they search for tin ore in the water. Bangka Island, Indonesia, 2014. 

   Left:  Workers at a tin ore mine in District Sungai Liat of Bangka Island, 2014. Working conditions in mines like these are extremely dangerous and landslides are common.   Right:  Makeshift rafts on the Indian Ocean are used as mining platforms. Miners dig for tin by sucking the sand from the sea floor with machines. Divers dive eight meters below the surface sucking tin ore from the seabed through a large, plastic tube. Indonesia, 2014.

Left: Workers at a tin ore mine in District Sungai Liat of Bangka Island, 2014. Working conditions in mines like these are extremely dangerous and landslides are common. 
Right: Makeshift rafts on the Indian Ocean are used as mining platforms. Miners dig for tin by sucking the sand from the sea floor with machines. Divers dive eight meters below the surface sucking tin ore from the seabed through a large, plastic tube. Indonesia, 2014.

I started my travel documenting tin mining in Bangka Island in Indonesia, which currently produces one third of world’s tin, used widely by major brands in the electronics and IT industry.

Years of intensive tin mining has left a trail of devastating effects on the environment and the people on Bangka island. Both big tin companies such as PT Timah and informal miners destroy large tracks of forest and as well as the coral reefs in offshore mining.

Since national and international media have turned some attention to the dangerous tin mining procedures, police are supposed to intervene illegal tin mining. But police-corruption is high, and many families mining tin earn significantly more money than they would from other available low-income jobs.

My fixer Jeff and I had to change our accommodations due to unpleasant visits from police officers curious about the western guy who decided to visit Bangka, rather than Bali.

Bangka used to be a beautiful island with white sand beaches, palm trees, coral reefs and everything which comprises the cliché of a tropical island. But now, its beauty is nearly destroyed.

- Kai Löffelbein, 2014 Emergency Fund Grantee

Katerina Voegtle