Workers Are Dying in the EV Industry’s ‘Tainted’ City

After GNI rejected their demands, workers called a strike from January 11 to 14. On the last day, more than 500 security personnel were dispatched to the industrial park. Workers who were present during the strike say that security forces fired pellet guns at the crowd. “They fired pellets everywhere. It was chaos,” says one GNI worker. 

According to official reports, two workers, one Chinese and one Indonesian, died, and 71 were arrested. A 100-room dormitory was burned down, and vehicles and machinery were destroyed.

Huayue Nickel-Cobalt, Gunbuster Nickel Industry, Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, Tesla, and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But a statement from GNI’s general manager, Teh Cha Les, published on the company website on February 15, said there “are still things that are not optimal” regarding work safety. “We strongly request instructions and guidance in order to improve a better, healthier, safer and more comfortable work environment for the entire workforce,” he added. 

The labor issues at IMIP sit alongside severe concerns in Indonesia about the environmental impact of the nickel industry. According to a Brookings Institute report in September, Indonesia’s nickel sector is “particularly carbon-intensive and environmentally damaging,” due to its reliance on coal.

More than 8,700 hectares of rain forest have been destroyed in the North Morowali Regency, where IMIP is based, since 2000, according to an analysis by Greenpeace Indonesia carried out on behalf of WIRED, as trees have been cleared to make way for mines, smelters, and the infrastructure needed to support them.

The erosion of the landscape has made it prone to natural disasters. In June more than 500 houses in the area were hit by flash floods. Land clearance has made those an annual occurrence, leading to drownings and the destruction of homes, bridges, and government buildings. “The floods are now unavoidable due to massive land clearing that has occurred,” says Kasmudin, an environmental activist.

At Kurisa, a village on the southeast edge of IMIP, indigenous Bugis Wajo people told WIRED that the pollution has destroyed their livelihoods. “There’s no fish here anymore,” says Jus Manondo, a 45-year-old fisherman sitting on the wooden decking of his stilted home. “The waste from IMIP has killed them.”

In June 2021, a massive pile of coal fell into the hot water disposal of IMIP’s steam power plant and flowed directly into the sea, turning the water black, according to Manondo. Dumping of waste is common too. WIRED observed polluted water flowing directly into the sea a few hundred meters from Manondo’s home. 

Manondo’s hauls are now less than 20 percent of what they were a decade ago. The village’s fishermen are now forced to travel farther offshore to find fish, but with the high cost of fuel, it is a case of diminishing returns. “Sometimes we catch only enough to feed ourselves,” Manondo says. “Soon, we won’t even have that.”

However, despite the evidence that the rush for nickel, driven by the demand for EVs, has already pushed beyond the boundaries of social and environmental sustainability, the industry is still expanding in Indonesia.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk set out the goal of selling 20 million EVs per year by 2030—an increase of more than 13 times its expected sales in 2022. The company’s competitors are also scaling up production of EVs. The automotive research consultancy Virta forecasts that there will be 140 million EVs on roads worldwide by 2030, up from 16 million in 2021. 

According to analysis by research company Rystad Energy, demand for high-grade nickel will outstrip supply in 2024. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which makes 11 percent of the world’s nickel, has tightened the market further and sent prices on the London Metal Exchange to a 35-year high

To take advantage of the coming squeeze, IMIP’s owners are doubling the size of the site and are in the middle of building a second park, Weda Bay Industrial Park (IWIP), on the neighboring Maluku Islands, which will eventually span 5,000 hectares.

“Whatever profits this brings in, it won’t be enough,” says WALHI’s Hakim. “We can’t save the planet by destroying it.”

This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center.

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