‘The trees were all gone’: Indonesia’s nickel mines reveal the dark side of our electric future

“I want to send my child to college but now where can I get the money from?”

Royani is not alone in her desperation. Many villagers in Wawonii, Indonesia find themselves in this impossible situation. Like many, Royani relied on farming clove trees for her income. Until she was “devastated” to find a whole swathe of trees had been torn down to make way for nickel mining.

Nickel is one of the main components in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, amongst many other uses. The EU is pushing member states to rapidly transition to EVs to cut the vast emissions load of combustion engine vehicles. But EVs come at a cost to the communities, mostly in developing countries, where materials are extracted from.

What are the environmental impacts of mining nickel?

Indonesia is the world’s largest nickel producer. The Sulawesi coastline, in the south-east of the country, has borne the brunt of environmental destruction from the mines.

Contaminated soil from nickel mines – including one by state-owned firm PT Aneka Tambang Tbk (Antam) – runs off the hills when it rains. It has turned the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean a deep red colour.

In a village in the Pomalaa region of the island, stilt houses sit above rust-red sludge where children swim in murky waters.

“When there were no mines, the water was not like this. It was clean,” says villager Guntur.

“If we bathe here, our skin gets itchy. […] We don’t get clean by bathing but dirtier.”

Fishermen have also suffered from the impact of nickel pollution, having to travel further and further afield to find their daily catch.

“We are only just able to survive,” says fisherman Asep Solihin, who has been involved in protests against the mining projects.

“Up there it’s mined, down here is mud.”

We don’t get clean by bathing but dirtier.

Nickel mining: Locals on watch to stop more land being cleared

Some locals have taken matters into their own hands.

“I pointed the machete at their faces. I told them: ‘If you scratch this land, heads will fly, we will defend this land to the death’,” says Royani, recounting a recent encounter with some of the miners.

She is one of a number of women fighting back to try to stop more land from being cleared on Wawonii island.

Facing the prospect of losing their land and livelihood, around a dozen Wawonii villagers take turns keeping watch from a hut surrounded by clove trees, waiting for trespassers.

Royani said she wants to protect not just her family’s land from further encroachment, but also her neighbours’ land.

Several protesters in Wawonii have been detained after the land disputes sparked demonstrations, riots, and in some cases armed confrontations.

‘I will continue to fight to defend our area.’

Hastoma, a 37-year-old coconut farmer, said he was detained for 45 days last year after clashes between villagers and miners.

Other villagers have blocked miners’ vehicles and set heavy equipment on fire, while some held miners hostage, restraining them with ropes for up to 12 hours.

“If I keep quiet… where we live will be destroyed,” Hastoma says, adding that two hectares of his land were seized after his release.

“I will continue to fight to defend our area.”

But the farmers are up against formidable adversaries.

Soaring global demand for metals used in lithium-ion batteries and stainless steel has pushed major economies such as China and South Korea, alongside electric car giant Tesla and Brazilian mining company Vale, to focus their efforts on Indonesia.

Dozens of nickel processing plants now pepper Sulawesi – one of the world’s largest islands – and many more projects have been announced.

Watch the video above to see the nickel mines in Wawonii.

Video editor • Hannah Brown


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *