The rush for nickels: “They are destroying our future”

  • By Valdya Baraputri
  • BBC News Indonesia


Mining near Labengki Island in Indonesia threatens the traditional way of life

Two men carry torches and homemade arrows as they slip into the sea at night on an Indonesian island.

They are from an indigenous community of Bajau people – renowned free divers who find it better to hunt in the dark when fish, lobsters and sea cucumbers are less active.

But they fear that time is running out for their traditional way of life.

– Right now the water is still clear, says Tawing, one of the fishermen. “But it won’t stay that way … nickel waste enters our water during the rainy season and the current carries it here.”

Nickel is an integral part of global life, used in stainless steel, mobile phones and electric car batteries. As the world moves to greener vehicles and needs more rechargeable batteries, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that demand for nickel will grow by at least 65% by 2030.

The IEA expects Indonesia, the world’s largest nickel producer, to cover two-thirds of the world’s need for the metal. The country has already signed deals worth billions of dollars with international players looking to invest in processing plants as well as mines.

But conservationists warn that mining can have a devastating effect on the environment.

Here on Labengki Island in Southeast Sulawesi, Tawing fears that if the authorities do not take action, waste from nickel mines will end up in the sea and harm the island and the surrounding marine life.

According to Indonesian government data, around 50 nickel mining companies currently operate in North Konawe Regency, across the water from Labengki Island.


Tawing with his catch

The journey there takes us about an hour by boat. As we approach, the green hills are replaced by brown, deforested patches. Excavators and barges can be seen digging and carrying the “new gold”. The water below us has a reddish-brown color.

In the coastal village of Boenaga, we meet Lukman, another Bajau fisherman, who says he can no longer fish near his home.

“We couldn’t see anything underwater when we dived,” he says, pointing to brown water at the back of his house. “We can hit a rock.” Fuel costs make it impractical for him to travel further afield to fish, and he says if they make a fuss, the police end up getting involved.

In order to extract nickel, large areas of trees are cut down and the earth is excavated to create open pits. With the roots of the trees no longer present to stabilize the ground, when it rains, the soil is more easily swept away.

Government data shows that in 2022 there were at least 21 floods and mudslides in Southeast Sulawesi. Between 2005 and 2008, before the proliferation of mines, there were two to three per year, according to the National Agency for Disaster Countermeasures.

Chemicals such as sodium cyanide and diesel can also be used in the mining process. That worries local conservationist Habib Nadjar Buduha, who says that when waste material and water are not handled properly, sediment ends up in the sea.

He showed me a video he filmed about 10 miles along the coast, off Bahubulu Island, of a coral reef “choked” by sediment.


Bajau fishermen in Boenaga say they can no longer fish near their homes because of the murky water

He is afraid that the same will happen in Labengki and in 2009 he founded a conservation group to protect giant clams. “They would never win against nickel pollution,” he says.

“The sediment will bury and destroy them.”

Individual nickel mining companies near Boenaga did not respond to our requests for comment, but we spoke to the Indonesian Nickel Miners’ Association – about half of the mining companies in North Konawe are members.

Secretary-General, Meidy Katrin, says that in order to get a licence, the companies must agree to carry out afforestation or reclamation of land when they have finished extracting an area.

“The question is, do the companies do it?” she says, admitting that there are patches of bare land that have not been reforested. But she says this may not be the fault of companies with permits: “This area also has a lot of illegal mining.”

She puts the onus on the authorities to check up on miners to make sure they are complying with the rules and ensure that what they put in their reports matches reality.

The head of Boenaga village, Jufri Asri, sees things differently from Lukman and Habib. He believes the mines have brought benefits to his community. “Take the price of fish,” he says. “I don’t bring fish to town to sell because the price is higher here. These companies need fish too.”

His 21-year-old son works at a nearby nickel mining company, and like other families in Boenaga, they receive a monthly compensation fee of at least $70 a month from the mines.

Financial agreements are common and are designed to compensate for any inconvenience caused by mining activity and heavy vehicles driving past homes while going to and from the pits. Jufri notes that if nickel production increases, the amount of compensation they receive also increases.

In the capital Jakarta, we meet Novita Indri, a campaigner for Trend Asia, an NGO that promotes sustainable development. She blames the authorities for being “too weak” – she wants to see higher environmental standards and tougher regulation.

“We don’t have a track record for sustainable mining yet,” says Indri. “Indonesia has a lot of homework to do, strengthening law enforcement, increasing emissions standards and implementing environmental regulations.”

When we convey this to the adviser to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM), Professor Irwandy Arif, he tells us that the government is concerned “about the impact of mining on coastal sedimentation”, not only in this region, but across Indonesia.

However, he believes pollution is caused by illegal nickel mines, not licensed companies.

He insists regulations mean legitimate operators have water management systems in place to ensure nothing dangerous ends up in the sea, and he doesn’t think they want to ignore the rules and risk losing their permits.

But Professor Arif acknowledges that with illegal mines without treatment systems, “the soil will just be eroded”.

He tells us that anyone who does not comply with the regulations has been prevented from selling nickel and that two illegal miners have been brought to justice in North Konawe Regency – the area where Boenaga is located.

But Professor Arif admits that oversight needs to be improved: “Illegal mining is everywhere in Indonesia,” he says. “So far we haven’t been able to regulate it properly … we need to map out which ones are legal and which ones are illegal so that we can minimize this environmental damage.”

He points out that to try to improve the situation, the government recently established a national working group on illegal mining.

But many of the Bajau people we spoke to say change is not happening fast enough. If things continue as they are, conservationist Habib warns that the damage could be irreversible.

“What they are destroying is our future,” he says.

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