"If I had a scale, I can show you how my catch has been decreasing."
— Hersina Loha, fisherwoman in Central Halmahera
Minamin, Indonesia—As dusk settles on this sleepy coastal village in eastern Indonesia, Kristina Hoata and her husband set out for Kao Bay on a 150-horsepower fishing boat equipped with a lift net, a bamboo platform called bagan.
The couple often sleeps on this boat, braving the cold wind at sea with down jackets. Rice, smoked fish, and a steady flow of black coffee keep them company. Upon reaching the fishing grounds more than three kilometres off the coast, they lower the net — part of the bagan — to a few metres below the water’s surface. Powerful LED lights dangling from the boat attract fish, squid, shrimp, into the net.
“During dark phases of the moon, we catch anchovies and others, using the lamp to attract them,” Hoata said. “Squids usually come out during the full moon.”
At dawn the next day, they raise the net to check on their catch. On this trip, their squid catch filled 27 baskets, which they later sold for 600,000 rupiah (37 US dollars) each.
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Hoata called this a good catch — but it is far from what they used to get years ago from the rich waters of East Halmahera in Indonesia’s North Maluku province. The sea around her home has been changing, she says, due to the impact of waste coming from nickel mining operations in East Halmahera and neigbouring areas.
“They dump waste into the sea,” said Hoata, describing how ore piling and use of tailing dumps have polluted the waters. “The fish are gone, we have to go farther out and not many of us can afford to do that. So we have to survive with whatever we get.”
“If I had a scale, I can show you how my catch has been decreasing,” said 56-year-old Hersina Loha, who has been fishing in Central Halmahera’s Weda Bay since she was little. “It’s been a hard time but I have no other options.”
In a small rowboat, with fishing line and hook, Loha goes out to fish at 6 in the morning and returns home at noon. She stays near the coastline to avoid being swept out to sea by the ocean currents. On a good day, she catches five buckets of groupers and anchovies. But more often, the artisanal fisher says, she brings home two buckets, or around five kilogrammes, of fish.
Before the mining companies came to Halmahera in the late 1990s, fisherfolk like Hoata and Loha say their abundant catch were enough to support their families.
But Halmahera’s natural riches also include resources like nickel — and demand for nickel is rising at the time of a climate emergency.
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, accounting for over 48% of global production in 2022. It has over one-fifth of the world’s nickel reserves.
Windfall from nickel
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of nickel, accounting for over 48% of global production in 2022, going by data from the United States Geological Survey. It has over one-fifth of the world’s nickel reserves.
Nickel mining thus presents Indonesia with huge opportunities to reap economic benefits from the transition to cleaner energy and technologies, which countries are carrying out to address the climate crisis.
Halmahera, home to traditional fisher communities like that of Hoata and Loha, is one of the country’s richest and most important nickel mining regions, and one of the largest in terms of mining concession areas.
In East Halmahera alone, the Jaringan Advokasi Tambang (JATAM or the Mining Advocacy Network) reported in November 2023 that there have been 27 mining permits comprising more than 170,000 hectares of land. Central Halmahera has 66 mining permits on more than 142,000 hectares of land until 2022.
While electric-vehicle batteries accounted for just 8% of demand for nickel, according to industry reports, its production and use are fast picking up as it is used in the production of battery cathodes for these vehicles. (About three-fourths of nickel production is used to make stainless steel, and much of Indonesia’s exports have been going to China for this purpose.)
From 2017 to 2022, demand from the energy sector was the major factor in a 40% rise in demand for nickel globally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. In a scenario where the world reaches net-zero by 2050, it projects that nickel will have a 61% share of clean energy technologies (by end-use).
The demand for nickel is also reflected in Indonesia’s skyrocketing production and export of processed nickel ore. Maritime and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Pandjaitan says that exports have increased 745% from 2017 to 2022, valued at 504 trillion rupiah (36 million dollars) and with production reaching three million metric tonnes.
Nickel mining operations have been the subject of protests from local communities and environmental and activists through the years.
But the energy transition brings in another factor — the awareness that nickel’s contribution to climate-frendly solutions cannot be adding to the problem, for instance through the heavy reliance on power from coal (Indonesia’s main source of energy) to support nickel production and processing or by destroying the environment and lives of local communities.
“Production and processing of mineral resources gives rise to a variety of environmental and social issues that, if poorly managed, can harm local communities and disrupt supply,” the IEA said in a brief on critical minerals. “Consumers and investors are increasingly calling for companies to source minerals that are sustainably and responsibly produced.”
In March 2023, President Joko Widodo said: “The most important thing is monitoring. The management control system must be strengthened. Routine evaluations must be conducted.”
Since August last year, residents of Sagea village in Central Halmahera have been protesting against the pollution of the Sagea River — an important source of livelihood and famous eco-tourism spot — that they blame on nickel mining companies.
The residents say that the pollution was due to the deforestation in the upstream area in the forest, based on the analysis of satellite images by Save Sagea Coalition, a grassroots movement of activists, students, and residents.
Adlun Fiqri, a Save Sagea activist and local resident, says that deforestation in the upstream area for mining activities have sent large amounts of sedimentation to the body of water, which then caused the river to turn dark brown.
“We have never seen our river become like that before,” Fiqri said in an interview. “The river turns brownish after the rain but would soon clear up, but recently the pollution is becoming worse and we decided to take steps.”
Satellite data show that there has been an indication of forest clearing to make way for mining roads, he said. At least five mining companies, including PT WBN, operate in the upstream area in Sagea, he adds. The coalition has reported its findings to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and is waiting for the result of its investigation.
A history of protests
There have been other protests and controversies. In 2000, Hoata and other residents of Waijoi, a village some 16 kilometres to the east where she lived before moving to Minamin in 2014, staged protests for months against PT Kemakmuran Pertiwi Tambang, a subsidiary of Harita Group, one of Indonesia’s largest mining companies, for alleged land grabbing and environmental destruction.
JATAM activists have documented how the state-owned mining firm PT Antam, which has been operating in East and Central Halmahera since 1979, left a massive trail of environmental destruction in both regions. The company’s mining for nickel and other minerals led to deforestation and water pollution in small islands, JATAM reported in 2021.
Since banning the exports of ore nickel in 2009 and fully implementing this policy in 2020, Indonesia has pledged to downstream nickel processing by establishing smelters.
The degradation of the coastal area of Central Halmahera, particularly Weda Bay, has been reported since at least the late 1990s, when PT Weda Bay Nickel (WBN), once largely owned by French mining giant Eramet, operated one of the largest nickel mining sites in Indonesia, comprising of more than 76,000 hectares of land. PT WBN was also accused of land grabbing and deforestation of protected forest, due to overlapping permits and regulations.
In 2018, as part of the national strategic project under Widodo to boost the domestic processing of nickel ore, the government established the Indonesia Weda Industrial Park (IWIP), a multi-billion-dollar nickel-processing industrial complex led by three Chinese companies, Tsingshan Holding Group, Huayou Cobalt Group, and Zhenshi Holding Group. PT WBN is now part of IWIP, as well as other local and international companies.
The operation of IWIP, with at least a dozen coal power plants, has caused further environmental degradation, campaigners say. For instance, JATAM said that IWIP’s mining operations have polluted four rivers that locals depend on for water, apart from causing recurrent flooding.
The hot waste water coming from coal power plants near IWIP has polluted the fishing grounds in Weda Bay, Loha explains. This has pushed her to fish farther east, sometimes by as far as five kilometres more along the coast.
“Sometimes the waste is black, sludgy, and oil-like,” Loha said. “I don’t know what that is. I was scared when I saw that. Also, we are now avoiding fishing near IWIP because the security would chase us down and tell us to leave. It used to be our fishing ground.”
In its report, JATAM found that fisherwomen in waters near IWIP’s operations were experiencing smaller catch “because the mining waste from land clearing has made the sea polluted, black and brown in colour.”
“The excuse of the companies and governments in continuing to promote electric cars as a crucial to the ‘global’ competition against climate change — which is supported by many NGOs and activist groups, especially in the Global North — ignores the negative impacts of mineral and ore extraction required to produce such a car, and is simply referred to as a ‘local’ impact,” JATAM said in August 2022.
“The more demand for nickel from the global market, including for the fulfillment of electric vehicle batteries, the faster the expansion of the destruction of people’s living spaces and the environment on land and waters of Indonesia,” it said.
Indonesia’s success story in nickel exports, which is part of its quest to be a global leader in the energy transition, is distant from Hoata and Loha. They worry about how long they can continue to rely on nature for life.
Hoata says operating a bagan is expensive, so she and her husband need to ensure that their income can support this. Every day, Hoata prepares at least 20 litres of diesel fuel and other supplies for their night out on the water. Her per-night costs, which also depend on the distance covered but is about eight kilometres per trip, are between 500,000 to 1 million rupiah (32 to 64 dollars).
In a week, Hoata and her husband catch about 200 kg of fish, squids or shrimps, which they can sell for 6 million rupiah (378 dollars).
She also does farming, which her family has done for generations. A few kilometres from home, the family farm grows beans, vegetables, nutmegs, cloves and fruits such as bananas, coconuts, among others. Hoata owns at least 17 hectares of land in the villages of Waijoi and Minamin, and income from fishing and farming has allowed the couple’s four children to finish university.
While Hoata could rely on farming if the fish catch keeps decreasing, Loha may not be that fortunate.
Loha and her family rely solely on fishing to survive. Loha’s decreasing catch weighs on her as she is her family’s sole breadwinner. Her husband has been unable to work much since suffering a back injury due to an accident some years ago.
But the environmental changes the two fishers describe are not only about their income and food security. The impact of the massive conversion of forest land into mining concessions is making fishing and farming unsustainable — and driving locals away from their traditional ways of living.
Indeed, while the majority of Halmahera’s people were farmers and fishers long before the nickel mining companies came, this has been changing.
“There is a cultural change going on where there is a presence of mining companies,” said JATAM‘s Imam Sofwan. “People lost their land and the environment was destroyed, which forced them to look for work elsewhere. The younger generation opted to work at mining companies or smelters, instead of following in their parents’ footsteps.”
Some farmers in East and Central Halmahera have had little option but to sell their land and farms to mining companies, he adds.
In 2021, the Central Statistics Agency reported that there were 235,736 people working on farms, plantations, and fishery sectors in Halmahera. This number fell to 165,056 in 2022.
Asked if they had received compensation or any form of support in the wake of nickel mining’s toll on their environment, Hoata and Loha say they have not gotten such, whether from the nickel industry, local government or mining companies.
“I won’t complain,” Loha said. “But I hope they do something to protect the sea and stop dumping waste in our fishing grounds because it’s so important for us.”