Mining Comes, Halmahera Coast Perishes

On Obi Island, the fishing village of Kawasi is being squeezed by the development of a nickel industrial area owned by the Harita Group. Dozens of nickel ore processing plants stand in the hilly area surrounding the village. The surrounding forest area has been cleared and mined.
Photo & Text:
Adlun Fiqri
Thursday, 26 January 2023

That afternoon a number of women gathered on the coast of Kampung Waleh, Teluk Weda, Halmahera Island. They carry baskets full of shells taken from the mangrove forest, not far from the settlement. The mangrove shells were cleaned of their shells, then washed using sea water. “The sea water on this beach is not the same as it used to be. It used to be clear, now it’s like this,” said one of them.

For the past three years, the sea water along the coast of the village has been brownish in color. This condition is caused by the river that empties into the coast of this village flowing and carrying thick silt. The sludge comes from a sediment basin owned by PT Bakti Pertiwi Nusantara (BPN), a nickel mining company that exploits forest areas upstream.”[1]

As a result of the pollution, residents have to suffer. “Because of the company, the village has become like this,” said the resident. The mining company was later reported to have been sanctioned. However, environmental restoration does not seem to be underway.

Two fisherwomen in Weda Bay, Central Halmahera. Weda Bay is a development area for one of the nickel mining industries in North Maluku.
Women wash shells using seawater on the beach of Waleh Village, Central Halmahera. Unfortunately, the beach there has been polluted by mud from PT Bakti Pertiwi Nusantara (BPN) mining.
Activities in Waleh Village, Central Halmahera.

The Weda Bay region is a nickel industry development area included in the government’s national strategic program. Indonesian Weda Bay Industrial Park (IWIP) is a company that manages a 5000-hectare area in which there are dozens of nickel ore management and refining plant infrastructures. Although only established in 2018, this area is integrated with a number of mining companies that have been operating long before.

Large-scale land clearing for mining causes loss of forest cover[2] and results in deteriorating environmental conditions. Major flooding is common and degradation of living space is getting worse.”[3] Apart from Weda Bay, similar conditions also occur in Buli Bay, East Halmahera Regency, and Obi Island in South Halmahera. These three areas are the epicenter of the nickel industry in North Maluku Province.

Workers at PT IWIP (Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park) coming home from work crowd the road in Lelilef village. It is currently estimated that more than 30,000 employees work for the IWIP project.
People do activities behind their houses facing the sea in Lelilef Village, Weda Bay, Central Halmahera. Lelilef village is directly adjacent to the location of PT IWIP (Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park).

North Maluku is within the Wallacea Line, a biogeographic region of the Maluku Islands, Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara, which has high biodiversity. The region is home to 10,000 plant species, 15% of which are endemic, as well as 126 mammals, 99 reptiles and 58 amphibians, all of which are also endemic. The Wallacea region is dominated by small islands. Its geographical condition, which is bounded by oceans and seas, makes this region a paradise for marine biodiversity known as the Coral Triangle.[4]

However, this biodiversity is threatened by the massive mining industry. Data from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources[5] shows that there are 106 active Mining Business Licenses (IUP) that control approximately 612,000 hectares of North Maluku territory, including these small islands. The Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM) organization said that islands in Indonesia continue to be territories that are friendly to extractive industries – industries that erode environmental safety with human rights violations. Small islands, especially in Eastern Indonesia, have witnessed the ferocity of extractive industries. They noted that there are 55 islands that have been controlled by mining companies. Of these, 29 islands are controlled by nickel mines.”[6]

Kawasi Village, Obi Island, North Maluku, is surrounded by the nickel mining industry. The river and sea water in Kawasi have been polluted by mining mud. The company offered relocation but was rejected by the community.

On Obi Island, the fishing village of Kawasi is being squeezed by the development of a nickel industrial area owned by the Harita Group. Dozens of nickel ore processing plants stand in the hilly area surrounding the village. The surrounding forest area has been cleared and mined.

The small rivers, swamps and waters in Kawasi are brownish-red in color mixed with mud. A recent investigation by The Guardian reported that the only source of clean water consumed by Kawasi residents was contaminated with hexavalent chromium (Cr6+). Hexavalent chromium is said to cause liver damage and stomach cancer. Laboratory tests showed the contamination exceeded the threshold.”[7] The investigative report also revealed respiratory infections suffered by toddlers due to the poor air conditions there.

The condition of Obi Island's polluted marine waters due to the mining industry.
A channel created by the company to drain mining sludge waste in Kawasi, Obi Island, North Maluku.

The nickel industry on Obi Island is the first to produce and export raw materials for electric vehicle batteries in Indonesia. Nickel, as a raw material for electric batteries, is very abundant in Indonesia – there are deposits as much as 52% of the world’s reserves, and spread across Central Sulawesi, South Sulawesi, Southeast Sulawesi, and North Maluku.[8] Electric vehicles are now a global trend because they are believed to be environmentally friendly vehicles, which can reduce carbon emissions and climate change. Unfortunately, this claim is inversely proportional to the conditions in which the raw materials are mined. Residents in the vicinity must endure prolonged suffering.

Pipes for clean water delivered to residents' homes pass through a swamp polluted by mining mud in Kawasi, Obi Island.
A resident crosses a swamp polluted by mining sludge waste in Kawasi, Obi Island, North Maluku.

In mid-2021, a number of anchovy fishermen in Teluk Buli, East Halmahera, complained about the passing of nickel mining vessels. Ronaldo Riung (49), one of the fishermen, said that the condition of the surrounding waters was repeatedly polluted by ore (mining soil) that fell into the sea from the transport ship.

Ronaldo lives on Belemsi Island, one of a cluster of small islands in Buli Bay. The island is adjacent to Pakal Island and Gee Island, which are the mining sites of PT Aneka Tambang (Antam). Antam began mining on Pakal Island in 2010 after dredging Gee Island since 1997. The traffic of ships carrying mining products, Ronaldo said, has a huge impact on the activities of bagan fishermen. “It is indeed very much felt [the impact]. For example, last week, there were several bagan units that were hit by dirty oil discharge,” he said.

Gee Island in East Halmahera that was damaged by mining by a subsidiary of ANTAM.
Activities of anchovy fishermen on Belemsili Island, East Halmahera. They complain about the activities of large nickel transport vessels in their fishing areas. The surrounding islands are mined by PT ANTAM.
The condition of one of the islands in East Halmahera after mining.

About 9 miles to the west, Moronopo Hill on the mainland of Halmahera Island was also mined, leaving the coast polluted with mud. The company’s control dam repeatedly broke, allowing mud runoff to flow into the river and coastal sea, disrupting mangrove and aquatic ecosystems. The local Environment Agency recorded that the area of silt reached 4 hectares.”[9]

Fishermen there admit that their catches continue to decline. “In the past, we could get an average of 1500 kg of dried anchovies. That was from 1995 until the early 2000s. In the last five years, the average is only 300 kilograms a month,” he complained.

Marine waters in Moronopo Bay, East Halmahera, are polluted with mud due to mining activities of PT ANTAM.

A study entitled “The Impact of Nickel Mining on Fishing Areas in the Waters of East Halmahera Regency” states that nickel mining has a major influence on the decline in water quality and a decrease in the size of catchable fish, especially for bagan fishing gear.”[10] The fishermen asked the government and the company to guarantee the sustainability of their lives.

“They [the mine] look for it on land, we look for it in the sea. We don’t pollute the land, they also don’t pollute the sea so that we can live again,” he hoped.

Christina, 56, a farmer in Gemaf Village, whose farm borders PT IWIP. Her farm is affected by mining industry activities. Until now, Christina has maintained her garden because she feels that the compensation money is too cheap and not worth the yield of her garden.
Residents process sago on the riverbank of Waleh Village, Central Halmahera, North Maluku. They complain about the condition of their river, which is now silted up due to mining activities upstream.
A number of residents gathered at Lelilef Village Pier, Weda Bay, Central Halmahera, to spend their leisure time in the afternoon.


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