Nickel mining in Indonesia: economic prosperity and ecological disaster

On November 15th and 16th, the G20 summit took place on the Indonesian island of Bali. An important moment for the Indonesian government to communicate its ambitions and potential as an economic superpower to an international audience. In doing so, the country is betting heavily on nickel, a key component of electric car batteries.

Header photo: In the formerly green, forested hills behind the village of Mandiodo, nickel mining is in full swing © Galen Priest / AlTO

As the world’s largest nickel producer and the country with the largest nickel reserves, Indonesia is aware of the economic opportunities presented by the energy transition and is trying to attract more and more investors. Indonesia’s largest nickel reserves are in Sulawesi. The Tompotika peninsula was recently selected by the government for at least eight new nickel mines.

Nickel mining on land goes hand in hand with deforestation, and to meet climate goals, we desperately need to conserve our forests. The only way to extract nickel is to bulldoze the whole area and scrape off the top soil layers, along with everything that lives on it. In practice, this means bulldozers razing the rainforest to the ground. Nickel is expected to replace palm oil as the biggest driver of deforestation in Eastern Indonesia. Moreover, processing nickel ore requires huge amounts of energy provided by coal-fired power plants in the region.

“By now, in Sulawesi alone, half a million hectares of primary forest have been cleared for the nickel mining industry, an area the size of Bali.”

Of great importance to over 100 communities

Tompotika rainforest (83,000 ha) on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is of great importance to 107 communities, with a total of 75,000 people ,living in the area.The forest stores CO2, purifies water, prevents floods and provides timber, rattan and damar resin. The coral reefs off the coast also depend on healthy forests on land. Deforestation for mining, and the mining activities themselves, would lead to large-scale pollution of coastal waters, the death of coral reefs and the death of fish, which would bring an end to fishing in the area.

“From Dreams to Dust”, the short film that won this year’s Yale Environment 360 Film Contest, tells the story of 36-year-old Lapola who works as a truck driver in the mines near the Tapunggaeya community.

Rich in biodiversity

The Tompotika forest is home to an enormous wealth of biodiversity. Nine endemic species live here, including a special bird: the maleo bird. For the islanders, this bird is a symbol of cultural pride. The bird’s population has declined by more than 90% due to habitat loss and poaching. As a result, the maleo has the status of Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Tompotika forest is its main habitat and this is threatened by nickel ore mining. Local people’s successful efforts to protect this special bird are now at risk.

Energy transition should be a green transition

The energy transition is fuelling a growing global demand for minerals and metals and therefore a mining boom of unprecedented proportions. The World Bank expects the energy transition to increase demand for metals and minerals very rapidly: for nickel, cobalt, lithium and manganese, for example, by more than 500% by 2050.

To limit global warming, it is essential that we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy as soon as possible. In doing so, however, we must ensure that damage to nature and people is kept to a minimum. IUCN NL is committed to making the energy transition a green transition that does not exacerbate the global biodiversity crisis. This requires that mineral and metal value chains also undergo a green transition.

We need a new approach to meet the energy and mobility needs of the 21st century. This means:

  1. more intelligent, economical and circular use of energy and the raw materials it requires.
  2. much stricter requirements on, and better implementation of, the extraction of these raw materials.
  3. not destroying the last fragile ecosystems and pristine nature on our planet to satisfy our demand for mining raw materials.

Read more

Learn more? Contact our experts

Maartje Hilterman
Project Leader – Forests for a Just Future
Mark van der Wal
Senior Expert Ecosystems & Extractives