The Jokowi administration embarks on a quest to making Indonesia the centre for electric vehicle industry. But villagers in East Halmahera are not convinced the industry is environmentally friendly.

After spending five days at Maba Pura village in East Halmahera district, it was still difficult to imagine that the village was once an economic paradise for fishermen and their family. There were no mobile fishing platforms, locally known as bagan, berthed at the village’s jetty.  Not much seafood could be seen sold at the morning markets. Mostly vegetables and fruits.

Every morning and late afternoon, there’s notable traffic of people wearing uniform, an indication that they work for a mining company. They are employed by state mining company, PT Aneka Tambang (Antam), that is currently running two nickel mining projects in Moronop Bay and Tanjung Buli, not far from Maba Pura. Some are for the bus, others are on their motorcycle.

The economic changes in Maba sub-district was reported in an ethnographic publication titled “The Robbing of the Living Space: The Story of the People of Halmahera (2015).” The book explained how the expansion of nickel mining in Maba has lead a major shift in the livelihood of the villagers, from planting sago trees and fishing, to becoming mine workers. In short, there has been a change in the relation between man and nature.

Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) shows how the production of nickel in East Halmahera soared. In 2006 nickel mining produced only 728,460 tons of the mineral. In 2013, production stood at 9,871,689 metric tons. The rise in production was in response to the increasing demand for nickel.

Above: Nickel produciotn in East Halmahera from 2006 to 2013. Source: Central Statistics Agency (BPS).

A local fisherman, Iqbal Djurubasa is a witness of the socioeconomic changes in Maba Pura since the arrival Antam two decades ago. He could still remember how in the 2000s, residents of Maba Pura still willingly and readily helped each other. This was a routine.

When someone was holding a wedding feast, for example, villagers would help by contributing whatever they had at the time, for free.

This culture, however, was slowly eroding after many villagers started working for mining companies and consequently, earning more money. This change in earning was soon followed by a change in how the local people think, Djurubasa said.

“The voluntary nature of support waned. We now have to discuss [money] first as family earning has become a tool of measurement. For example, ‘if you already have an earning from working with a company, how come you can’t give money?’” he said.  “In the past, this was not the case.”

These days, he adds, villagers tend to ‘commercialize’ things.

Above: Satellite imagery of Tanjung Buli, 18 years after state-owned Antam started its mining activities.

The dream of electronic cars

Antam is not the only nickel miner in East Halmahera. There are at least 14 nickel mining corporations operating in that district according to official data gathered by Tirto.

Nine mining permits were signed by several district heads, one was signed by the then Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, Ignasius Jonan in 2017, and two were signed by North Maluku Governor Abdul Ghani Kasuba in 2016. Tirto was not able to obtain details of permits given to two mining companies, PT Priven Lestari (Nikel) and PT Weda Bay Nickel.

Most of the mining licenses will expire in 2030 although Antam holds the right over its concession until 2040.

Antam is part of PT Industri Baterai Indonesia (IBC), a consortium of four state-owned enterprises that also includes Mining and Industry Indonesia (MIND IND), oil and gas company PT Pertamina, and utility firm PT PLN.  The Joko Widodo administration has given the consortium the mandate to manage the entire production chain of the electric vehicle battery industry.

On April 29, 2021, the consortium signed a cooperation agreement with the LG battery consortium from South Korea, with a total investment of $9.8 billion.

Antam Corporate Secretary Yulan Kustiyan says that under the development of electric vehicle batteries ecosystem scheme, the company is involved in the processing and refining of nickel as the raw material for the batteries and the production of battery cell packages.

“Antam is committed to supply the raw material,” Kustiyan said in a written statement sent to Tirto, on June 4, 2021.  “This time, Antam, through IBC, plays a role with a wider coverage and a bigger opportunity, in managing one of Indonesian strategic sectors, namely the nickel commodity.”

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Since 2019, the Joko Widodo administration has its eye on making Indonesia a center for the electric vehicle industry, especially after he signed a regulation for the acceleration of the battery-based electric vehicle program.

“We want that in two to three years, there is a nickel derivative that can be processed into lithium batteries because we have nickel, cobalt, manganese and other raw materials that can be used by the industry to build a lithium battery plant, and Indonesia has the largest nickel reserve in the world,“ the president told a forum of corporate leaders in November 2019.

Jokowi also said in the forum, there are two special industrial zones producing batteries for electric vehicles. PT Weda Bay Nickel currently holds the permit to operate a nickel mine in East Halmahera, while the second zone is in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, being operated by Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), a Chinese-led consortium that includes South Korea’s LG Corporation and Tesla, with total investment of $4billion.

A report by the Energy and Mineral Reources Ministry cited that Indonesia has the world’s largest nickel reserve, reaching 72 million tons, or 52 percent of the world’s total reserves of 139.4 million tons. Ninety percent of Indonesia’s nickel can be found in Central, South and Southeast Sulawesi as well as North Maluku.

Jokowi envisioned that the electric vehicle market will quickly become a revenue-generating industry for the country. Minister of State-owned Enterprises, Erick Thohir  believes that Indonesia can become a main player in electric vehicle production.

Meanwhile, Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan envisions that Indonesia could export electric cars to Australia and Africa.

Electric vehical is reportedly more environmentally friendly and can reduce carbon emission, while the majority of Indonesia’s electricity is still produced using fossil fuel, mainly coal.

‘We need the environment to live’

The central government’s ambitious plan concerning electric vehicle, does not seem to carry weight or echo in East Halmahera, especially in the bay area of the Maba sub-district.

In May this year, waste from Antam flowed into the sea in the Bay of Moronopo. The head of the East Halmahera Environment agency Harjon Gofur said that this was due to the ineffective waste management at the top of the hill, where the mining activities are, leading to the burst of the safety dam.

 “Cases of bursting safety dams often happen in the world of mining,” Gofur told Tirto at the end of May. “However, sometimes they are negligent and when there is a high level of rainfall, under certain [weather] condition, the waste will flow over.”

Antam attempted to slow down the damage in the coastal area by planting mangroves a couple of years ago. Gofur said that the attempt was not effective as waste continued to flow into the sea. “Antam is in a difficult position,” he said.

Gofur adds that his agency will invite Antam to brief the company about the results of his agency’s monitoring in the first quarter of 2021.

“Categorically, there are two levels of environmental impact, light and heavy. There is no tolerance if the consequences to the environment is heavy.  It will have consequences on their business permit.”

Above: Satellite imagery of Moronopo Bay, 13 years after state-owned Antam started its mining activities.

Kustiyan claims that PT Antam has made sure that its mining practices were in line with environmental policies. “We are committed to meet our obligation to implement our social responsibility towards communities around our operational areas,” Kustiyan told Tirto.

For a villager like Djurubasa, he could only laugh it away when hearing that the nickel mined in the area will be processed into batteries for electric cars that are environmentally friendly. “Around the mine is not just people but there is also the environment that should be considered.”

“We need the environment to live: soil, water, fish and so forth. The government must use its conscience when looking at us who live around these mines,”

Iqbal Djurubasa, resident of Maba subdistrict, East Halmahera

Said Marsaoly, a villager from Buli in Maba subdistrict, also aired the same grievance. How can electric car be claimed to be pollution-free and environmentally friendly in the cities when the production of its raw material is polluting the environment in rural areas?

“Urban people enjoy clean air without pollution (with electric vehicles) people in the villages bear all the risks,” he said. “Seawater pollution, bare forests, people becoming mine workers.”

This story by Harris Prabowo was first published in Indonesian on 9 June 2021 by and was produced as part of the “Journalist Fellowsea” program supported by the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ and EcoNusa Foundation.

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