Cheap coal, cheap workers, Chinese money: Indonesia’s nickel success comes at a price – by Per Elinder Liljas (The Guardian – April 11, 2024)

Standing chest-deep in the Molucca Sea, just outside the billowing smokestacks of the world’s largest nickel industry, Upin adjusts his mask and dives. Members of his people, the Bajau, have been known to stay underwater for more than 10 minutes but Upin resurfaces shortly. He hauls a rugged disc of metal over the side of his dugout canoe.

“Since the factories arrived, there has barely been any fish to catch,” he says and grimaces towards the opaque water. “The ocean has become warmer and more polluted. It itches on my skin but I have no choice. Collecting scrap metal is the only way for me to survive.”

Nickel has upended life on the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi, Halmahera and Obi. Over a decade the region has gone from modest ore exporter to the world’s foremost refiner of the metal. A rural backwater has been catapulted into modernity.

Today this is the home of about 200 smelters and 200,000 factory workers – and there could be more to come. As demand soars for nickel to power batteries and electric vehicles, Jakarta banks on the industry being its ticket to becoming a developed nation by 2045.

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