Sorowako, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, is the site of one of the largest nickel mines on earth. Nickel is an invisible part of many everyday objects: it disappears into stainless steel, the heating elements of domestic appliances and the electrodes of rechargeable batteries.
It was formed here more than two million years ago, when the hills that surround Sorowako began to emerge along an active fault. Laterites – iron oxide and nickel-rich soils – developed through the relentless erosion of tropical rain. When I rode my scooter into the hills, the ground duly changed colour, becoming red with blood-orange streaks.
I could see the nickel smelter itself, a dusty brown hulk of gnarly ducts, town-sized. Truck tyres the size of small cars lay in piles. The road was cut out of the steep red hills and huge nets held back landslides. Mining company double-decker Mercedes buses passed by carrying workers.
There were company pick-up trucks and off-road ambulances flying company flags. The ground was hillocked and pocked, with smoothed piles of red earth terraced into ziggurats. The site is guarded by barbed-wire fences, gates, stop lights and company police, who are responsible for patrolling a concession nearly the size of London.
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