Nickel Mining Threatens Our Future: Conservationists Alarmed

Nickel Mining Threatens Our Future: Conservationists Alarmed

At night on an Indonesian island, two individuals, armed with torches and homemade arrows, cautiously wade into the ocean. They belong to the indigenous Bajau community, renowned for their freediving skills that enable them to hunt in the dark when marine life is less active. However, they are deeply concerned about the dwindling prospects of their traditional way of life.

Tawing, one of the fishermen, laments the potential consequences of nickel mining on Labengki Island. He explains that although the water is currently clear, the arrival of the rainy season brings nickel waste carried by currents, posing a threat to the island and its marine ecosystem.

Nickel is a vital component of numerous everyday items such as stainless steel, mobile phones, and electric car batteries. As the world embraces greener transportation and the demand for rechargeable batteries surges, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts a minimum 65% increase in nickel demand by 2030.

Indonesia, the world's largest nickel producer, is expected to fulfill two-thirds of this global demand. The country has already secured multi-billion-dollar agreements with international investors keen to establish processing plants and mines.

However, conservationists warn that mining activities could have devastating environmental consequences. The repercussions of mining on Labengki Island trouble Tawing, who fears that without prompt government action, nickel mine waste will contaminate the surrounding sea and damage the island's delicate ecosystem.

Government data reveals the presence of approximately 50 nickel mining companies operating in North Konawe Regency, situated across the water from Labengki Island. The journey to this region takes about an hour by boat, revealing deforested brown patches replacing once-green hills. Excavators and barges dot the landscape, diligently extracting this "new gold." The water beneath the surface now appears reddish-brown.

In the coastal village of Boenaga, Lukman, another Bajau fisherman, expresses his inability to fish near his home due to the degraded conditions. The brown water behind his house obstructs visibility underwater, making it perilous to dive without the risk of injury. Financial constraints prevent Lukman from venturing farther to fish, and he highlights the intervention of law enforcement if the fishermen protest against these detrimental changes.

Nickel mining involves massive deforestation and excavation, resulting in the creation of open pits. The absence of tree roots, which previously stabilized the ground, now makes the soil susceptible to erosion when it rains.

According to government data, Southeast Sulawesi experienced a significant increase in floods and mudslides in 2022, totaling 21 incidents. In contrast, before the proliferation of mining activities from 2005 to 2008, the region witnessed two to three occurrences per year, as reported by the National Agency for Disaster Countermeasure.

Chemicals such as sodium cyanide and diesel further heighten concerns among local conservationist Habib Nadjar Buduha. Improper management of waste material and water leads to sedimentation in the sea. Habib shares a video showing a coral reef "suffocated" by sediment, recorded approximately ten miles off Bahubulu Island. He fears a similar fate awaits Labengki and, in 2009, established a conservation group focused on protecting giant clams, which he believes cannot withstand nickel pollution.

While individual nickel mining companies near Boenaga declined to comment on the matter, representatives from the Indonesian Nickel Miners' Association—an organization comprising around half the mining companies in North Konawe—shared their perspective. Meidy Katrin, the secretary general, states that companies must commit to reforestation or land reclamation upon completing mining activities to obtain licenses. However, she acknowledges the existence of unreplenished areas, attributing the problem partly to illegal mining activities. She calls upon the government to enforce compliance, ensuring that mining reports accurately reflect reality.

Jufri Asri, the head of Boenaga village, holds a contrasting view compared to Lukman and Habib. He believes that mining has benefited the community, citing increased fish prices and the local demand from mining companies. Moreover, his 21-year-old son works at a nearby nickel mining company, and their family, like others in Boenaga, receives monthly compensation of at least $70 from the mining industry. These financial agreements aim to offset any inconveniences caused by mining activities and the passage of heavy vehicles near residential areas. Jufri notes that compensation increases as nickel production rises.

In Jakarta, we meet Novita Indri, a campaigner from the NGO Trend Asia, which advocates for sustainable development. Indri holds the authorities responsible for their perceived weakness and calls for higher environmental standards and stricter regulations. She emphasizes that sustainable mining practices in Indonesia are still a work in progress, necessitating strengthened law enforcement, increased emission standards, and the implementation of comprehensive environmental regulations.

Professor Irwandy Arif, an advisor to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM), acknowledges the government's concern regarding the impact of mining on coastal sedimentation, not only in this region but across Indonesia. However, he attributes pollution primarily to illegal nickel mining, rather than licensed companies. Prof. Arif asserts that legitimate operators adhere to regulations, implementing water management systems to prevent hazardous substances from entering the sea. He doubts their willingness to disregard the rules and risk losing their permits.

Nonetheless, Prof. Arif acknowledges the need for improved supervision, as illegal mining persists nationwide. He states that the government has recently established a national illegal mining task force to address the issue effectively. However, the Bajau people we spoke with express their dissatisfaction, asserting that change is not occurring swiftly enough. Conservationist Habib warns of irreversible damage if the current trajectory continues, lamenting the destruction of their future.

"Their actions are eroding our future," he asserts.

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