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Story Publication logo June 3, 2022

Investigating Rainforest Destruction: The Nickel Mines Clearing Indonesian Forests

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A tropical forest is surrounded by patches of empty land in Indonesia.
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Indonesia has some of the most important and biodiverse forests in the world. But the future of...

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Image by Tempo. Indonesia, 2022.

The Indonesian island of Sulawesi has seen almost 550,000 hectares (roughly 3.5 times the size of London) of rainforest destroyed since 2011 in its Central and Southeast provinces. Large swaths of nickel mining concessions were carved out of the provinces using forged documents, bypassing public bidding processes, and without authorization to clear forest land.

Former Rainforest Investigations Network Fellow Bagja Hidayat, an Indonesian journalist experienced in covering deforestation crimes related to corruption, helped uncover the forces behind this destruction. Working with a team of journalists at TEMPO magazine, Hidayat conducted field reporting, created stakeholder maps, and analyzed satellite imagery during his 2021 RIN Fellowship. TEMPO is an investigative journalism outlet in Indonesia. 

As part of RIN's series on investigative methodology, the Pulitzer Center talked to Hidayat about his reporting process. 

Hidayat obtained information by working with local journalists on the ground and using data to map important stakeholders across Indonesia’s extractive industries such as industrial agriculture, nickel mining, and timber. 

The team usually maps out each case to figure out which stakeholders are involved. Usually, they will reach out to the key stakeholders who were not selected to work on certain projects to acquire information and connect with potential interview sources that local journalists recommended. 

“We are a conventional media company that tends to rely on field findings when writing an issue. But technology is now very important. Usually, we work with NGOs to access satellites and analyze evidence of forest destruction,” he said. 

TEMPO’s journalists mostly focus on stakeholder mapping and reaching out to local journalists in neighboring provinces to cover local stories of deforestation. 

“Our investigations tend to map out the actors who are untouched by technology. We believe that local journalists understand the problem better than those of us who live in Jakarta," Hidayat stated. "Local journalists also usually understand local actors who control natural resources. This collaboration also encourages local journalists to be bolder in writing about an important issue because they avoid having to publish it in their media."

However, Hidayat and his team did face two roadblocks on their nickel mining reportage. First, the team had to find key sources who were willing to provide access to data and documents. Another roadblock was the distance. Many nickel mining exploits happened outside Jakarta. To get around this, Hidayat collaborated with local NGOs and journalists across the Indonesian archipelago. 

With this information in hand, the team’s “reports on palm oil funds prompted prosecutors to trace corruption upstream. The people who we wrote about in the report are now in prison. Thousands of oil palm farmers from all over Indonesia came to Jakarta to protest against the biofuel subsidies,” Hidayat commented on the impacts. 

Hidayat and his team at TEMPO will investigate nickel mining further after President Joko Widodo’s meeting in the United States with Elon Musk this month. Their focus will be “on the concessions that deliver nickel to Tesla or those offered by Jokowi to Mr. Musk,” he stated. 

“We have heard that behind nickel mining are high-ranking officials, ministers and party leaders of the government coalition. Indonesians should know that behind big investments there are always politicians who get profit by selling their policies and political power,” Hidayat emphasized. 

In discussing the impact that followed the release of their reporting, Hidayat spoke of near immediate action from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Indonesia.

“Reports on palm oil funds prompted prosecutors to trace corruption upstream," he said. "The people who we wrote about in the report are now in prison. Thousands of oil palm farmers from all over Indonesia came to Jakarta to protest against the biofuel subsidies. The nickel report prompted the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources to review the licenses of nickel companies in Sulawesi. As a result, dozens of company permits were canceled.” 

On local changes made to the mining license process, Hidayat said, “Now the agency that grants nickel mining permits is also being narrowed down so that it does not become a loophole for corruption. The nickel report also prompted a law firm to file a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court on the grounds that there was a conflict of interest in the nickel mining license that led to deforestation.”

Hidayat’s stories were published in TEMPO. Read the stories that used the nickel mining data Hidayat obtained in the related content below.

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