- By Valdiya Paraputri
- BBC News Indonesia
Two men carry homemade torches and arrows as they slip into the ocean at night on an Indonesian island.
They are from an indigenous community of the Bajau people – famous editors find it best to fish in the dark when fish, lobsters and sea cucumbers are least active.
But they fear that time is running out because of their traditional way of life.
“For now, the water is still clear,” says Tawing, one of the fishermen. “But it will not stay that way… Nickel waste enters our waters during the rainy season and the current carries it here.”
Nickel is an integral part of global life, and is used in stainless steel, cell phones, and electric vehicle batteries. As the world transitions to greener vehicles and needs more rechargeable batteries, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects nickel demand to grow by at least 65% by 2030.
The International Energy Agency expects Indonesia, the world’s largest nickel producer, to meet two-thirds of the world’s needs for the metal. The country has already signed multi-billion dollar deals with international players keen to invest in processing plants as well as mines.
But environmentalists warn that mining can have a devastating impact on the environment.
Here on Labinjki Island in southeast Sulawesi, Tawing fears that if the government doesn’t take action, waste from the nickel mines will end up in the sea, damaging the island and surrounding marine life.
According to data from the Indonesian government, about 50 nickel mining companies are currently operating in North Konawi Regency, across the waters from Labingki Island.
It takes about an hour to get there by boat. As we approach, the green hills are replaced by brown patches of bare forest. The rigs and barges can be seen digging and carrying the “new gold”. The water below us is a reddish-brown colour.
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 were snorkeling,” he says, pointing to the brown water in the back of his house. “We can hit a rock.” The cost of fuel makes it impractical for him to travel further afield to fish and he says if they make a fuss, the police will end up involved.
In order to extract nickel, large areas of trees are cut down and the earth excavated to create open pits. With no tree roots to stabilize the ground, when it rains, the ground is cleared more easily.
Government data shows that in 2022 there were at least 21 floods and mudslides in Southeast Sulawesi. Between 2005 and 2008, before mines were deployed, there were two to three a year, according to the National Disaster Action Agency.
Chemicals such as sodium cyanide and diesel can also be used in the mining process. The sweetheart worries Nagar Bodoha, a local conservation activist, who says that when waste and water are not managed properly, sediment ends up in the sea.
He showed me a video he shot about 10 miles along the coast, off Bahopulu Island, of a reef that had been “choked” by sediment.
He fears the same thing will happen in Labengki and in 2009 he founded a conservation group to protect the giant clams. “They’ll never get over nickel contamination,” he says.
“The sediment will bury them and destroy them.”
Individual nickel mining companies near Buenaga 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 Konawi are members.
In order to obtain a license, the general secretary, Medi-Catherine, says companies must agree to perform reforestation or land reclamation when they finish mining the area.
“The question is, do companies do that?” she says, acknowledging that there are patches of bare land that haven’t been reforested. But she says this may not be the fault of the companies with the permits: “This area also has a lot of illegal mining activity.”
It puts the onus on the government to vet miners for compliance with the rules and to ensure that what they put in their reports matches reality.
Jefri Asri, the village chief of Buenaga, sees things differently from Lukman and Habib. He believes that the mines have brought benefits to his community. He says, “Take the price of the fish.” “I don’t take fish into 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 Buenaga, receive a monthly compensation of at least $70 a month from the mines.
Financial agreements are common and are designed to offset any inconvenience caused by mining activity and heavy vehicles passing through homes on the way to and from the excavation. Al-Jafri notes that if nickel production increases, the amount of compensation they receive goes up as well.
In the capital, Jakarta, we meet Novita Endre, an activist 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 stricter regulations.
“We don’t have a proven track record of sustainable mining yet,” says Endre. “Indonesia has a lot of homework to do, strengthening law enforcement, increasing emissions standards, and implementing environmental regulations.”
When we brought this up to the Advisor to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM), Professor Irwandi Arif, he told us that the government was concerned “about the impact of mining activities on coastal sedimentation”, not only in this region but throughout Indonesia.
However he believes that the pollution is caused by illegal nickel mines, not licensed companies.
He insists the regulations mean legitimate operators have systems in place to manage the water to ensure nothing dangerous gets into the sea and he doesn’t think they would ignore the rules and risk losing their permit.
But Prof Arif admits that in illegal mines without remediation systems “the soil will erode”.
He tells us that anyone who does not comply with the regulations is prohibited from selling nickel and that two illegal miners have been taken to court in North Konawe Regency – the area where Boenaga is located.
But Professor Arif admits that supervision needs to be improved: “Illegal mining is everywhere in Indonesia,” he says. “So far we have not succeeded in regulating them properly… We need to decide which ones are legal and which ones are illegal so that we can minimize this environmental damage.”
He points out that in order to try to improve the situation, the government recently set up a National Illegal Mining Task Force.
But many Bajau people we spoke to say change is not happening fast enough. If things continue as they are, environmental advocate Habib warns the damage may be irreversible.
“What they are destroying is our future,” he says.
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