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Chinese-linked nickel miners in Indonesia accelerating deforestation, threatening indigenous Bajau people: report

South China Morning Post - April 18, 2024

Resty Woro Yuniar – A new report alleges that miners in Indonesia's nickel hub of Sulawesi, some tied to Chinese electric vehicles battery manufacturers, cleared protected forests at a rapid rate, causing environmental destruction and threatening the ancient way of life of the indigenous Bajau people, the world's last "sea nomads".

"Nickel mining is dirty, that's just how it is, but there are ways to do it more responsibly," said Amanda Hurowitz, senior director of forest commodities at Mighty Earth, the Washington-based global environmental advocacy group that released the report.

"Indonesia has solved seemingly intractable problems like deforestation in the palm oil [industry], I really think Indonesia can also clean up its nickel supply chain, if it has the political will to do so," Hurowitz said at the report's launch on Tuesday.

The report estimated that nickel miners have cleared nearly 80,000 hectares of forest in Indonesia as of December, with another 500,000 hectares within the country's nickel concessions at risk of deforestation.

Last year, nickel miners cleared 6,115 hectares of forest, double the area of forests cleared in 2022 and 2021, indicating that "nickel related deforestation may be accelerating compared to previous years", the report said, citing data from the watchdog group Radar for Detecting Deforestation.

Mighty Earth urged Indonesia's incoming president, Prabowo Subianto, to clean up the country's electric vehicle (EV) supply chain by adopting a set of international standards and enforcing existing forestry laws to its mining partners, including Chinese firms. EV manufacturers should also audit their full supply chains "all the way back to the mines where the nickel in their EV batteries originates", the group said.

Environmental damage and labour rights violations have been widely documented in nickel mines and refineries across Indonesia. In January, a report by California-based Climate Rights International also alleged China-backed nickel plants had caused "significant" environmental destruction and were an existential threat to the indigenous peoples on the island of Halmahera in Maluku province.

"The first thing to remember is, while China may not be an environment leader, it also doesn't want to be an environmental laggard. We just have to look at China as a complicated partner, but one that is interested in what the international community thinks," Hurowitz said during the webinar.

Robert Blake, former US Ambassador to Indonesia and current senior director at trade consultant McLarty Associates, said the Indonesia government "should not be shy about enforcing stronger environmental and labour standards on Chinese projects".

"China is gradually improving its environmental policies. It's come under a lot of criticism for supporting fossil fuel development in the Belt and Road Initiative. You're seeing more support now for renewable energy projects," Blake said during the webinar.

"I sometimes worry that our Indonesian friends worry that if they impose environmental and labour standards that the Chinese will go away. The Chinese are not going to go away. They need these projects for their own industries."

The green EV supply chain would also benefit Indonesia as more investors, particularly from the US and Europe, would look to tap into investing in the country, Blake said.

Toxic impact

The Mighty Earth report documents how illegal deforestation was done to make way for nickel concessions that took place on the small island of Kabaena, off the southern tip of southeast Sulawesi.

It found that at least 17 hectares of areas zoned as Protection Forests, which were established to maintain biodiversity and ecosystems on the island, had been illegally deforested and at least 841 hectares of Production Forest, in which forestry uses are allowed, were lost to miners that did not have permits to clear the land.

In six villages on the island, which is home to the Bajau people, researchers found that "brown cloudy water in the ocean near the villages" forced the tribe to "go much further offshore to reach fishing grounds" and they had to buy more fuel, putting them further in debt.

The Bajaus, known for their ability to stay underwater for up to 10 minutes on a single breath through the development of larger spleens and greater lung capacity, now also find it hard to teach their children how to swim from an early age because of the contaminated water. Three Bajau children drowned in Baliara village in the last decade, the report said.

Last month, a flood occurred in the village after only half an hour of rainfall, which residents attributed to the soil degradation caused by the two nickel mines. Researchers found villagers in Puununu and Baliara suffered from "itchiness, festering and blistering" skin due to muddy water around the island.

"The unchecked deforestation in Indonesia has tragically cost young lives and further threatens the health and well-being of the Bajau people. Our investigation also suggests the clearing may defy the law, imperilling not just people but wildlife that depend on standing forests," Hurowitz said.

No permits

Among the top 10 nickel mines responsible for deforestation named in the report are Vale Indonesia, whose controlling shareholder is state-owned mining holding company Mind ID; state-owned miner Aneka Tambang; and Bintang Delapan Mineral, which is affiliated with Tsingshan, Chinese stainless steel giant and EV battery materials producer.

The report alleges that large percentages of land area within the three miners' nickel concessions were classified as "high carbon stock forest," or intact forest; 85 per cent of the more than 2,700 hectares of forest that Bintang Delapan Mineral cut were supposedly intact forest, for example.

The group argues in the report that BMW, Mercedes-Benz and VW should remove Bintang Delapan Mineral from their supply chains, as "nearly the entire area of the Bintang Delapan Mineral concession falls within [the International Union for Conservation of Nature]-designated Key Biodiversity Area".

"The EU Battery Regulation requires economic operators to consider taking steps to mitigate biodiversity loss in their supply chains, and to also consider removing from their supply chains companies that do not undertake such mitigating actions," the report said.

Atina Rizqiana, a social anthropologist at Jakarta-based think tank the Center of Economic and Law Studies, said it was unlikely that Indonesia would see more environmentally friendly policies under Prabowo. The former general said on the campaign trail that he would continue President Joko Widodo's downstreaming policy, which bans the export of raw critical minerals such as nickel and bauxite.

"Unfortunately, several policies advocated by his campaign fail to reflect any intention to lead Indonesia in an order that [promotes] democracy and environmentally friendly policies. The downstreaming [policy] has been proven to have a negative impact on the quality of life and economies of the surrounding communities," Atina said.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3259476/chinese-linked-nickel-miners-indonesia-accelerating-deforestation-threatening-indigenous-baja