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Why these women are leading the fight against miners to protect a pristine island in Indonesia

ABC News - December 20, 2023

Hellena Souisa, Riza Salman on Wawonni island, and Sally Brooks – In a bra and shorts, a woman stands on an earthmover and fends off attempts by men around her to cover her upper body.

In the video shared with ABC Indonesia, a group of villagers yell and watch on as a second unsuccessful attempt is made to clothe the woman and get her off the machinery.

Footage of the clash between farmers and miners was captured on the Indonesian island of Wawonii, in South-East Sulawesi, in February.

The pristine island is under threat from Indonesia's nickel rush and for roughly six years now locals, led by women, have been fighting back.

"As long as the community has rights over this land, I don't want to sell it because this is my life," said Amlia, who was at the February clash.

Like most island residents, Amlia depends on agriculture-based industries to survive. Many people grow and sell produce like coconuts, cashews, nutmeg, and cloves.

But since nickel mining began on the island, the environment became polluted and women told the ABC they had been impacted the most.

Some now have to walk for some time to get clean water and have less access to food because their crops are covered in dust. While the locals have had some success, their long-running struggle continues.

In the clash in February, the protesters believed the miners were trespassing on villagers' land and illegally clearing spice and nut trees. The company, Gema Kreasi Perdana (GKP), disagreed and said the land clearing was legal.

Mining causes water and dust pollution: community leader

Wawonii Island in the Konawe Islands Regency is a 1.5-hour boat journey off the coast of South-East Sulawesi.

At Roko Roko Raya village, on the south of the island, community leader Ratna is one of the women leading the fight against nickel mining. "The company must leave Wawonii island, that's all, nothing else," said Ratna, who goes by one name.

GKP is part of the Harita Group whose business interests include processing nickel ore for use in electric vehicle batteries.

It is part of a broader trend in Indonesia's nickel industry, the largest in the world, which is shifting its refining focus to meet EV battery demands.

Australia's Electric Vehicle Council estimates 40 per cent of EVs sold in Australia in 2023 had a battery with a nickel-based chemistry.

The global transition to electric vehicles is driving rapid expansion of Indonesia's nickel industry – but do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Some islanders like the jobs boost GKP has created, local media reports, but for Ratna the presence of the company has only brought problems. "The first issue is water ... the water has become turbid, and we can't consume it," she said.

Ratna says open-pit nickel mining, which involves land clearing in the forest areas above the village, has caused contamination of residents' water supply. "Humans need water 24 hours a day ... even animals need water," said Ratna.

In the wet season, brown water runs from a tap in the 67-year-old's house. While she has dug a well to meet her needs, Ratna says other women have to walk kilometres to access clean water.

Ratna also pointed to other pollution problems, like the dust that now coats the fruit and nut plantations.

"It's been two years since I could enjoy the fruits of my cashew tree because of the dust," she said. "If the dust covers the flowers, our cashew fruits can't grow."

Residents win court cases to halt mining operations

Since GKP arrived on the island in 2017, there have been multiple clashes between residents and miners that have led to police intervention.

After rejecting offers from the mining company to buy her land and participating in multiple protests, Amlia recently received a summons from police for a protest years ago, in 2019.

"I'm so confused [why the police called me], and I'm afraid that our land will be seized while we are fulfilling the summons because all those [summoned] are landowners," she said.

The police summons was discontinued after people on Wawonii island reported it to Indonesia's Human Rights Commission.

Amlia was so frightened by the police notice at the time, she decided to hide and live in the forest for two months. The company told her they wanted her land for a "hauling road", she added.

"I don't even know what hauling means. They said I could ask for any amount I want as the price of my land. They also offered my child a scholarship while working for the company, or a salary without needing to work."

GKP is offering significant compensation to people for land use because over the last few years, residents have won three court cases against the mining company, effectively casting doubt over whether nickel mining on this island can continue.

GKP has also mounted a legal challenge against a constitutional court that it hopes will help provide the company with some "legal certainty", according to GKP's strategic affairs manager Alexander Lieman.

"It's very difficult and disadvantageous when we have started exploration, mobilisation, operation, and recruited many employees and suddenly asked to stop," Mr Lieman told CNN Indonesia.

He also denied GKP's activities had caused water pollution in Roko Roko Raya village, saying high-intensity rainfall was the main cause of the turbid water.

"When this turbidity occurs and causes a clean water crisis, we from PT GKP are moved to help find a clean water solution for residents.

"We created a ring well for the community, helped supply water trucks during turbid water, and also helped drain the village's water storage tank."

In response to questions, GKP referred the ABC to Mr Lieman's statements to CNN Indonesia but also added that its mining area was less than 1 per cent of Wawonii Island.

"Many wrongly blame us for environmental issue[s] that are happening across the island, which is impossible because we are only operating in such a small part of the island," Mr Lieman said.

More people in poverty despite mining boom

Indonesia has the largest reserves of nickel ore in the world and the country's nickel rush came after President Joko Widodo first banned the export of unprocessed minerals in 2014.

The ban effectively forced foreign investors, many from China, to refine the metal onshore.

"[It] ushered in a new era of growth and prosperity for the people of Indonesia," according to Indonesia Chamber of Commerce chairman Arsjad Rasjid.

But Wawonii residents have dismissed that argument and say nickel mining on their island has not brought them economic prosperity.

"There's no history of a company prospering the community," said Ratna, explaining only a "few people", who were mostly not local, reaped the rewards.

Another island resident, Dekarno, echoed that sentiment. "Ever since I was born and grew up here until college, it wasn't mining that made us graduates, it was all because of the harvest from gardens like cloves and others," said Dekarno, who also goes by one name.

Unlike top government officials in Jakarta, a provincial government official on the island of Sulawesi does not believe the nickel rush has benefited local communities.

Johanes Robert, head of the Regional Development Planning Agency of South-East Sulawesi province, said poverty rate data showed nickel mines and related "downstreaming" had not brought prosperity to people.

"The mining sector's contribution to state revenue grew from 117 billion Indonesian rupiah in 2017 ($11.2 million) to 4 trillion Indonesian rupiah ($384 million) in 2022, so it's indeed large, but there seems to be no correlation with community welfare," he explained.

South-East Sulawesi has the most nickel mining business permits of any province in Indonesia, and while the economy grew from 2022 to 2023 because of the industry, the number of people living in poverty also increased.

Data from Indonesia's Central Bureau of Statistics showed the percentage of people in poverty in March 2023 was 11.43 per cent, an increase of 0.26 per cent compared to the same time last year.

"What's happening now is that the population or community that has been [earning a] living from the agricultural sector is experiencing job loss problems due to land use conversion," said Syamsir Nur, an academic from Halu Oleo University.

For Ratna, selling her land to the mining company would not bring positive, long-term economic benefits even if it sold at a high price. "Money is only temporary, but if our plants are gone, so are our hopes," she said.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-12-20/women-lead-fight-against-nickel-miners-indonesia-wawonii-island/10318832