[Marxism] Mining turned Indonesian seas red. The drive for greener cars could herald a new toxic tide.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 25 06:29:12 MST 2019

Washington Post, November 25, 2019
Mining turned Indonesian seas red. The drive for greener cars could 
herald a new toxic tide.
By Ian Morse

POMALAA, Indonesia — Where forested hills dip into the sea, Sahman Ukas 
scoops up rusty-red topsoil.

His hands hold nickel that is more concentrated than many of the world’s 
richest deposits.

It’s no wonder, then, that on Sahman’s island of Sulawesi, companies 
have opened several mines in the past 15 years to feed the global market 
for stainless steel — made ductile and tough with nickel.

Now, a growing appetite for electric vehicles is creating new demand for 
nickel, whose chemical derivatives are increasingly used in cathodes of 
lithium-ion batteries. But the push for clean energy is coming at an 
environmental cost to forests and fisheries in one of the world’s most 
biodiverse regions.

Sahman does not know how much more his fishing village can handle. In 
the decades of meeting nickel-for-steel demand, the seas have turned 
red, marine life has left past the horizon, and the exhaust of smelters 
has triggered respiratory problems.

“We’ve been on the sidelines this whole time,” said Sahman, who is in 
his 50s. “Villages should instruct companies, not companies instructing 

Down the road from Sahman’s village, the global market has placed what 
will probably become a main source for the vital nickel component in 
electric-vehicle batteries. The country’s largest nickel producer, Vale 
Indonesia, majority-owned by Brazil’s Vale, and Japan’s Sumitomo Metal 
Mining are in the final planning stages for a mining and smelting 
operation. Sumitomo plans to double production of battery materials in 
nine years, focusing on supplying Toyota and Panasonic, supplier of 
Tesla’s EV batteries.

Toyota said it was working to reduce the amount of metal in its products 
and the environmental burden. Sumitomo declined to discuss the mine and 
smelter. Panasonic, Tesla and Vale Indonesia did not respond to questions.

The project is among 25 planned mine-smelter combinations to be opened 
by 2022 across the country, currently home to 11 smelters. Nickel mines 
may already number in the hundreds, if not thousands, according to the 
Mining Advocacy Network, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization 
known as Jatam.

Electric vehicles will require millions of tons of nickel derivatives in 
coming decades. Indonesia sees an opportunity that an official has 
described as potentially larger than its palm-oil industry, blamed for 
deforestation and forest fires.

Skies turn red across parts of Indonesia as crisis from fire-induced 
haze escalates

“There is a move to increase the amount of nickel and reduce the amount 
of cobalt in these batteries to improve energy density and, therefore, 
vehicle range,” said Andrew Mitchell, an analyst at consultancy Wood 

To create jobs and attract more investment, Indonesia recently banned 
most nickel-ore exports. After a similar ban in 2014, relaxed in 2017, 
the demand for pure nickel led to the spread of energy-intensive 
smelters, threatening to cause respiratory problems and water 
contamination. Companies that had relied on exporting ore abandoned 
hundreds of mines, leaving sediment to wash into waterways.

A harmful legacy

Environmentalists warn that the drive to expand the industry will come 
at the expense of local livelihoods, forests and seas.

Sulawesi is home to species found nowhere else, including vibrant 
hornbills, miniature water buffalo, tusked deer-pigs and some tarsiers, 
a small, nocturnal primate. Nickel developments stretch to the Maluku 
Islands, where Europeans in search of spices began colonizing the 
Indonesian archipelago. The biodiversity there inspired Alfred Russel 
Wallace’s theories of evolution alongside those of Charles Darwin.

Indonesia is second to Australia in estimated total resources of nickel. 
But Indonesia’s nickel lies almost twice as concentrated in deposits 
called laterites that are closer to the surface and may be more 
appropriate for the battery market, said Gavin Mudd, an environmental 
engineer at Australia’s RMIT University.

“When you’re looking at laterites, there are major issues with erosion, 
sedimentation in creeks,” Mudd said.

Residents of Hakatutobu, Indonesia, walk through their village, over the 
orange-red sludge that has flowed from the hills, raising the ground at 
least a meter higher than before. (Ian Morse for The Washington Post)
Only recently have studies shown that nickel content in the sea is 20 
times the government’s limit for sustaining life, but Sahman can sense 
it. Part of his village is built on slag, the waste of nickel smelters. 
The danger of such waste to humans has been little researched, but it 
may contaminate waters with toxicants.

Each year, Sahman must travel farther to find fish, his journeys now 
stretching four hours outside the bay. The region, once known for its 
sea-cucumber production, can barely produce these days. For some 
fishermen, it’s more profitable to sell their boats than traverse the 
red seas.

In 2010, at the end of a decade when Indonesian nickel production jumped 
600 percent, Sahman and hundreds of others blockaded barges in the bay 
after an Environment Ministry order that a mining company compensate 
fishermen went unanswered. Each family received roughly $7.50 and a boat 
engine, an implicit message to look elsewhere for fish. The miner, 
state-owned Aneka Tambang, did not respond to questions.

Cobalt mining for lithium-ion batteries has a high human cost

Activists and researchers say enforcement of environmental and social 
requirements is weak. One of the most problematic, Mudd said, is the 
requirement to rehabilitate land after mining.

“If you’re removing forest, you’ll need to restore a forest of equal 
ecological value after mining,” Mudd said. “There are a lot of promises, 
but I’ve yet to see good evidence that [companies] have been able to 
achieve it.”

In the country’s first corruption case that put a price tag on 
environmental crime, Nur Alam, governor of Southeast Sulawesi province, 
which encompasses Sahman’s village, last year was handed a 15-year 
prison sentence and a fine amounting to a fraction of the environmental 
damages, tallied at about $190 million. Another nearby district head, 
Aswad Sulaiman, is under investigation, but a leader of the country’s 
graft watchdog says those cases barely scratch the surface.

“The natural resources industry is one of the most corrupt industries in 
Indonesia,” said Laode Muhammad Syarif, deputy head of Indonesia’s 
Corruption Eradication Commission. “Based on government research, more 
than half — of more than 5,000 mining licenses — are considered illegal 
or not clean and clear.”

Reality of 'zero emissions'

Most of the billions of dollars flowing toward Indonesia’s nickel come 
from China. Morowali, in Central Sulawesi province, has become the main 
nickel hub, thanks to the operation run by China-based Tsingshan, the 
world’s largest stainless-steel maker. There, researcher Arianto 
Sangadji of Toronto’s York University saw the growth in mining activity 
skyrocket last year. Coal-fired plants power the smelters.

“The movement for electric vehicles is for zero emissions, but if you 
see it in the field, the reality is very different,” Arianto said. “It’s 
supposed to be renewable, but is it?”

Vale Indonesia’s best-known site is in Sorowako, an area where people 
are used to seeing promises of prosperity broken, said Kathryn Robinson, 
an anthropologist at Australian National University.

In lobbying battle for electric-vehicle tax credit, it’s carmakers vs. 
the oil and gas industry

Vale’s predecessor there, Canada’s Inco, “destroyed their economy, their 
livelihoods, without any thought about how they were going to 
systematically build them into the economy they were developing,” said 
Robinson, who has studied the region since the 1970s.

New growth presents the possibility that the police, army and government 
will continue to collaborate to evict residents living atop valuable 
minerals, said Melky Nahar, a campaigner at Jatam.

“As a result, many citizens lose their land, increasing unemployment or 
forcing locals to join the mining company or try their fortune in big 
cities,” Melky said.

Hamzah, a schoolteacher who goes by one name, started teaching his 
students about mining’s impacts after he earned a doctorate studying the 
disappearance of marine life in Pomalaa. He also works with companies to 
mitigate those effects.

“You can never guess whether the work you do will be maintained [by the 
company], but all you can do is try,” Hamzah said. He worked this year 
on Gag Island, a place Mudd noted is notorious for its delicate marine 

“If we want to protect our environment and water resources and 
communities in Indonesia and elsewhere, that should be the cost of 
business,” Mudd said. “That should be a minimum.”

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