Nickel in Sulawesi: the price of the green economy

Garry Lotulung
Garry LotulungMore information on Garry’s journalism can be found on his website (www.garrylotulung.com) and in his Instagram account (instagram.com/garrylotulung)
Excavators gather soil containing nickel ore at a mining site operated by PT Hengjaya Mineralindo on 26 October, 2023 in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia

Garry Lotulung is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Jakarta. He was born in Manado, North Sulawesi. Lotulung specialises in stories about the human condition, social change and environmental crises. Lotulung joined the international news agency Anadolu Agency in 2022 and has been a regular contributor and stringer since. Working extensively in Southeast Asia, he has photographed such pivotal events as his long-term project with the rangers and mahouts to protect the lives of critically endangered Sumatran elephants. In 2018, Lotulung documented the Surabaya bombings, a series of terrorist attacks that initially occurred on 13 May in three churches in Surabaya, the second-largest city in Indonesia. In the period 2020-2021, Lotulung worked for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and covered Indonesia’s deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Garry received a Pictures of the Year Asia 2022 award for his photographic reportage on “Indonesia battling the second wave of Covid-19” and was selected as part of the World Press Photo 2022 Contest outreach campaign from emerging Indonesian photographers curated by BicaraFoto. He was also a grantee of the Vital Impacts Environmental Photography Grants 2023, whose founders are Ami Vitale, a National Geographic photographer, and Eileen Mignoni. Lotulung’s photography has also been widely exhibited and published, for instance in #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis, International Center of Photography, New York, USA (2021); The Year Time Stopped, Scopio & Harper Collins Publishers, USA (2021); POY (Pictures of the Year) Asia exhibition, featuring fifty award-winning images; Mindful Art Forum (MAF), Seoul, South Korea (2022); The Everyday Projects: Endangered Species, Oldenburg, Germany (2023); Vital Impacts Environmental Grant Exhibition at Festival della Fotografia Etica in Lodi, Italy (2023), and The Great Indonesia Exhibition at De Nieuwe Kerk, Netherlands (2023). Lotulung studied graphic design and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Universitas Multimedia Nusantara in Tangerang, Banten province. He also studied photography at Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara in Jakarta.

More information on Garry’s journalism can be found on his website (www.garrylotulung.com) and in his Instagram account (instagram.com/garrylotulung)

Photos, text and captions:
© Garry Lotulung


Indonesia is blessed with abundant natural resources. After timber, crude oil, coal and palm oil, now there is nickel. The world needs renewable energy, in particular batteries that emit far fewer greenhouse gases than oil, gas or coal. One of the key components of batteries is nickel ore.

Indonesia is the world’s largest nickel producer and has 15 percent of the world’s lateritic nickel resources, the demand for which is currently high due to the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles (EVs). The nickel business is concentrated on the island of Sulawesi, in the districts of North Konawe and Morowali, where Chinese company Tsingshan operates Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), and in Morosi, where there are two sites, operated by PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry and PT Obsidian Stainless Steel.

While large Chinese companies dominate processing, they are fed cheap ore by hundreds of smaller, mostly Indonesian-owned mines that are dotted around the rainforest.

In just three years, Indonesia has signed more than a dozen deals worth more than US$15 billion for battery materials and EV production with global manufacturers including Hyundai, LG and Foxconn.

On 28 December 2021, Indonesia unveiled a new nickel smelter in North Morowali Regency of Central Sulawesi province. It has been equipped to process 13 million tonnes of nickel ore annually. Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo said that the new ferronickel-producing smelter is expected to increase nickel ore’s value by 1400%.

Employees in traffic during the work shift changeover near Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), that consists of around 66,000 local workers and around 6,000 Chinese workers, on 26 October, 2023 in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Industrialisation has been Joko Widodo’s focus throughout his presidency, as he pushes to turn the resource-rich country’s main export commodities from raw minerals to high-value-added products.

Nickel, used mainly in stainless steel production and now batteries, has been at the centre of it all. “Indonesia will become a leading producer of nickel-based products, including electric-vehicle batteries,” Widodo said in June 2022 at the groundbreaking ceremony for an LG-led consortium’s battery material facility in Batang Integrated Industrial Park, in Central Java province. “This is a golden opportunity to develop a green economy for the future.”

After sunrise in Labota village, I documented thousands of workers in yellow helmets and dust-stained workwear packing its ramshackle, pothole-ridden main road. The mass of traffic crawls toward IMIP, the world’s epicentre of nickel production.

IMIP primarily processes nickel ore for stainless steel but is now increasingly producing higher-grade nickel for EV batteries.

Years ago, Labota was a fishing village; today it’s been subsumed into a sprawling city centred around IMIP, a project costing US$15 billion, fifty factories sprawling across nearly 10,000 acres. You can see the walls surrounding the industrial complex containing steelworks, coal power plants and manganese processors, with its own airport and seaport. Built as a joint venture between Chinese and Indonesian industrial companies, it is at the heart of Indonesia’s push to supply the EV market with nickel, a core component of batteries.

In Labota, there is also an Islamic school called Madrasah Tsanawiyah Al Jaariyah, which has a coal plant operating just behind it. The students learn while breathing in coal-polluted air, which is dangerous for their health.


The belching chimneys of PT Obsidian Stainless Steel, a nickel processing complex in Konawe Regency, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on 28 October, 2023. The transition to electric vehicles relies on this industry.

Chinese workers employed by PT Obsidian Stainless Steel come to a makeshift market or the Chinese roadside restaurant in front of the smelter after their shift, on 28 October, 2023 in Konawe Regency, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

According to a report by German policy lobby group Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, the nickel-processing factories at IMIP pollute the air by spewing out sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and coal ash – particles that are “finer than beach sand and can be extremely harmful when inhaled”.

A student stands outside a school, Madrasah Tsanawiyah Al Jaariyah Labota, looking at the coal plant operating just behind it, in Labota village on 26 October, 2023 in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The agreement was announced in 2013 by Indonesia’s then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and President Xi Jinping of China for Morowali Industrial Park. China Development Bank provided a loan of more than US$1.2 billion.

According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Labour, IMIP had 28,000 employees in 2019 and 43,000 in 2020. That number has now grown to around 66,000.

A view of Fatufia fishing village in Bahodopi district near Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), on 26 October, 2023 in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. They complained about the declining fish yields as their seawater had been polluted by factory waste.

Roughly 6,000 workers from China live in dormitory blocks. After the afternoon shift ends at 5 p.m., workers from China leave the nickel ore processing complex or smelter at Obsidian Stainless Steel in Morosi, Konawe Regency, Southeast Sulawesi. Some are dressed casually or in uniform, others are neatly dressed, while others still are shabby-looking and covered in mud. They head straight for a makeshift market or to eat at the Chinese restaurant on the roadside in front of the smelter.

The International Energy Agency predicts global demand for the metal will grow at least 65 percent by 2030, and EVs and battery storage are set to take over from stainless steel as the largest end user of nickel by 2040.



Trucks driving on a jetty unload nickel ore onto barges that will be towed to refining plants further down the coast of Sulawesi at a mining site in Molawe district, on 27 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The Sulawesi coastline, in the southeast of the country, has borne the brunt of environmental destruction from the mines. Here in North Konawe in Southeast Sulawesi, there are three fishing villages around the mining sites. I saw the activity of dozens of excavators digging up reddish soil, loading the soil onto trucks which then take it to the jetty and unload the ore onto barges which travel for three to four days to the smelting factory. The nickel is taken north to Morowali Industrial Park while some of the barges leaving the nickel mine are destined south, to the district of Morosi. According to data from the Indonesian government, about fifty nickel-mining companies currently operate in North Konawe Regency.

A view of an abandoned school at a mining site in Molawe district, on 27 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The small fishing village of Tapunggaya is home to the Bajau people, an indigenous group known for being brave sailors, formidable fishers and reliable divers who live off the sea.

Children play beside polluted water in Mandiodo village near a nickel-mining site, on 28 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Children play near excavators while gathering soil containing nickel ore near the fishing village of Mandiodo in Molawe district, on 27 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Aqifah, 8 (left), and Mitra, 9, swim in polluted water in Mandiodo village near a nickel-mining site, on 27 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Fishermen have also suffered from the impact of nickel pollution, forced to travel further and further afield to find their daily catch. But fish are harder to catch in the deeper water and fishermen have to spend more money on petrol.

In Tapunggaya, a fishing village in North Konawe where there is a mine, an old man told me that pollution has destroyed their livelihoods at sea. “There’s no fish here anymore,” says Alwi, a 78-year-old fisherman sitting next to the boat, who adds: “Children also suffer from respiratory problems due to the extremely severe air pollution here. It is very disturbing to live in a place surrounded by mines. The waste and pollution from mining have been killing us slowly.”

A woman collects drinking water outside her house in Mandiodo village, on 27 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Another fishermen said: “Now the seawater has not just turned murky but often becomes so hot that it sends the fish away.”

“We have to drive the boat for at least two hours and probably bring home just two kilos of fish after a long day at sea,” Mamat (32) told me during a visit to his village in late October.

The coastline, once dotted with picturesque fishing hamlets, has been abandoned. Sandy beaches are discoloured with a kaleidoscope of ore pigments and dotted with jetties where barges wait to deliver nickel ore.

Mining activities for EV battery materials leave deep scars on the landscape. In North Konawe, it has meant the disruption of local environments and traditional ways of living for local communities, who face their lands being transformed beyond repair.

Government data shows that in 2022 there were at least twenty-one floods and mudslides in Southeast Sulawesi. Between 2005 and 2008, before the proliferation of mines, there were two to three a year, according to the National Agency for Disaster Countermeasures.

In order to mine nickel, large areas of trees are felled and the land is excavated to create open pits. With the roots of the trees no longer present to stabilise the ground, when it rains earth is more easily swept away.

Besides deforestation, other environmental hazards of expanding mining operations include pollution of water streams and fishing grounds. Pollution exists because to transform nickel ore to battery grade nickel complex and less conventional methods are being used, such as high-pressure acid leaching which produces toxic waste.

What’s more, the potential carbon emissions from the expansion of mining operations are significant, considering that the smelting process is highly energy intensive and most smelters in Indonesia are powered by coal.

The expansion of the nickel and electric battery industry must come with appropriate environmental and social standards to minimise environmental and human rights impacts.

Alwi, 78, a fisherman, sits next to a fishing boat in Mandiodo village, on 28 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Fishermen have also suffered from the impact of nickel pollution, forced to travel further and further afield to find their daily catch. But fish are harder to catch in the deeper water and fishermen have to spend more money on petrol.

A fisherman looks at a mining site while carrying a net in an area of seawater contaminated by a nickel mine in Mandiodo village, on 27 October, 2023 in North Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

 

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