PALU: The search for people trapped by a deadly landslide intensified on Wednesday, with more rescue workers deployed to search an illegal gold mine on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which has killed 23 people over the weekend.

More than 100 villagers were searching for gold grains in the remote hillside village of Bone Bolango in Gorontalo province on Sunday when tons of mud fell from the surrounding hills, burying their makeshift camps.

The provincial search and rescue agency said Wednesday that 81 villagers managed to escape the landslide, with a number of them pulled out by rescuers, including 18 with injuries. It said 23 bodies were recovered, including a 4-year-old boy, while 33 others were missing.

More than 1,000 troops, including military personnel, have been deployed to intensify the search operations, according to Edy Prakoso, operations director of the National Search and Rescue Agency.

He said the Indonesian air force would send a helicopter because it was the only way to speed up the rescue operation, which was hampered by heavy rain, unstable ground and rough terrain.

Informal mining activities are common in Indonesia, providing a precarious existence for thousands of workers in conditions that pose a high risk of serious injury or death. Landslides, flooding and tunnel collapses are just some of the hazards miners face. Much of the gold ore processing involves highly toxic mercury and cyanide, with workers often wearing little or no protection.

The country’s last major mining accident occurred in April 2022, when a landslide hit an illegal gold mine in the Mandailing Natal district of North Sumatra, killing 12 women who were panning for gold.

Environmentalists have been campaigning for years to shut down such operations across the country, particularly in Sulawesi, where the practice has increased in recent years. Sunday’s landslide reignited their protests.

“The local government, which allowed illegal gold mining in this area, has contributed to this deadly disaster,” said Muhammad Jamil, head of the legal department of the Mining Advocacy Network, an environmental watchdog known as JATAM.

He said gold mining involves many people who share the blame, from those working on the ground to local government officials and even the police.

“This mafia network seems to have protected the miners from law enforcement while destroying protected forests,” Jamil said. “When natural resources such as rivers, forests, land and the sea are damaged, it means a complete loss to the country’s economy.”

Ferdy Hasiman, a mining and energy researcher at Alpha Research and Datacenter, said the proliferation of mines has long caused environmental damage in upstream areas, which in turn has exacerbated flooding and landslides downstream.

“If illegal mining and deforestation continue, floods and landslides will continue,” Hasiman said. “We call on local and central government to step up efforts to stop illegal gold mining across the country.”