Nickel Mining in Central Halmahera: Piling Trash, Diminished Water Quality, and Displaced Communities

Nickel Mining in Central Halmahera: Piling Trash, Diminished Water Quality, and Displaced Communities

Jakarta, August 1, 2023 – Indonesia is a key player in the global nickel business. In 2022, Indonesia held 21% of the world’s total nickel reserves and accounted for over 48% of the world’s nickel ore production. The government has been actively promoting nickel downstream through the ban on nickel ore exports since January 1, 2020, as stipulated by the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Regulation No. 11 of 2019. Successfully implementing downstream, Indonesia has become the world’s leading primary nickel producer. The rapid growth of the nickel processing industry and its derivative products is mainly occurring in integrated industrial zones that encompass nickel mining, smelting, and the processing of nickel derivative products for export purposes. One of these nickel industries is located in Central Halmahera Regency, North Maluku Province. The area includes two villages in Weda Tengah Sub-district, namely Lelilef Sawai Village and Lelilef Woebulen Village, with potential impacts extending to two other villages in Weda Utara Sub-district, namely Gemaf Village and Sagea Village.


A social researcher from the Action for Ecology and People’s Emancipation (AEER), Andi Rahmana Saputra, revealed that the arrival of nickel industries has brought significant changes to the social and economic fabric of the affected villages. The residents of Central Halmahera consider that the companies have not adequately and fairly compensated them for their lands. Local farmers have been forced to sell their agricultural lands and switch professions. Besides reducing agricultural land coverage, the companies have also engaged in reclamation and mangrove deforestation, forcing fishermen to venture further into the sea.


“The trigger for tenurial conflicts in Central Halmahera between the nickel industry and the mining community in the four affected villages is primarily due to two reasons: the economic impact when residents lose their livelihoods and the issue of inadequate compensation for the economic value of the affected lands,” said Andi.


According to Andi, although the presence of these companies has indeed opened up new economic opportunities, it has also led to demographic changes that have given rise to various environmental issues. For example, there are piles of waste, dusty roads, and turbid groundwater. Environmental degradation of this kind increases the number of cases of diarrhea and acute respiratory infections (ARI).


“The indirect consequence of the increased population in the villages around the nickel smelter area is a change in air quality, specifically dust pollution. Additionally, the demographic changes and nickel mining activities are suspected to have an impact on changes in water quality and sanitation in the surrounding villages. This condition is exacerbated by the increase in poorly managed plastic waste around settlements. Furthermore, after the entry of nickel smelters in Central Halmahera, there has been an increase in cases of ARI and diarrhea, which are believed to be the result of changes in environmental quality (ARI due to declining air quality and diarrhea due to declining water and sanitation quality),” Andi explained.


An environmental researcher from AEER, Arfah Durahman, highlighted the decline in water quality, as indicated by the detection of hexavalent chromium metal ions at several points in surface water and seawater. Downstream of the Wosea River, which flows through the nickel industrial zone, hexavalent chromium is found with a concentration of 0.017 mg/L, exceeding the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) standard of 0.011 mg/L. This toxic ion is also detected at various points in marine waters near industrial activities. Furthermore, the ambient air quality has also undergone changes. Along the county road that divides Lelilef Sawai Village and Lelilef Woebulen Village, high concentrations of dust are detected. For instance, the concentration of particulate matter with a diameter of less than 10 µm (PM10) reaches 101 µg/m3, exceeding not only the IRMA criteria but also the quality standard set by Government Regulation No. 22 of 2021.


“In Lukulamo Village, residents are complaining about the difficulty of finding fish in the Kobe River. The water is turbid due to sedimentation. Fishermen have also witnessed the death of coral fish in the sea, right next to the industrial area. The high temperature of the hot water discharged through the wastewater channel contributes to this issue,” explained Arfah. He emphasized that companies need to pay attention to these environmental changes. The companies should not only monitor the environmental quality within the industrial zone but also in the affected villages and actively assist the residents in addressing these issues.


The Academics and Environmental Activist from Central Halmahera, Masri Anwar Santuli, agrees with the points raised in the exposition. He urges both the central and regional governments to conduct evaluations of the policies regarding nickel mining and smelting operations in his region. “I also concur that these problems are occurring in Central Halmahera. These are ethical and social issues that are most crucial. The community, both socially and economically, is being displaced from their own territory. PT IWIP conducts exploitation without proper environmental impact assessments (AMDAL), and the community has to endure all of this without prior information. The government and companies should not only prioritize profit and development but also take into account the economic, social, environmental, cultural, and gender aspects of the local community,” he said.


Furthermore, Member of the Regional People’s Representative Council (DPRD) of Central Halmahera and Indigenous Community Activist, Munadi Kilkoda, admitted that they do not have the authority regarding the operational permits for nickel mining and smelting. According to him, that authority lies with the central government. He also acknowledged that the local government has not made social and environmental issues a primary agenda.


At present, the focus is still on economic interests: profit and job creation. Social and environmental effects have not been included in the discourse at all. As a local government, we do not have the authority and strategic position to control PT IWIP, especially when compared to the central government. PT IWIP is part of the national strategic project scheme in the National Medium-Term Development Plan (RPJMN), so we do not have the authority, whether it’s for the positive or negative impacts it may have,” explained Munadi.


The Director of Water Pollution Control at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), Nety Widayati, also stated that they are aware of the environmental burden around nickel industries. That is why the KLHK has been working with several companies to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. This includes technical approvals (Pertek) and environmental monitoring reporting. Regarding the company’s waste discharged into the sea, she believes that it is the company’s responsibility to report the waste data.


“Indeed, many of these smelters have not reported to us. This is a concern for us, and we need to improve the quality of reporting from these companies,” she emphasized.

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