Electric vehicle demand is booming, and nowhere else in the world is getting hit quite like Indonesia. The country is the number one exporter of nickel in the world—a dear commodity in battery manufacturing. But the workers who live in the shadow of the newly arrived factories in this company town are reporting astonishing levels of environmental degradation, injuries, and deaths.
The dirty business of building clean cars is nothing new. You’ve likely heard of the dangers of lithium mining, which requires water-intensive mining practices in some of the most parched places on the planet. Nickel is no walk in the park either, it seems. Wired spoke to residents and workers of the industrial boom town Labota on the Indonesian coast. The formerly sleepy fishing village is home to the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park—a focal point for nearly half of the world’s supply of nickel.
IMIP is massive; the industrial park is built up with all types of industry—like steelworks and coal plants—on 3,000-hectares of land (7413.2 acres). It employs around 66,000 people, with thousands more pouring into Labota as support workers in restaurants and shops. All that development has come at a steep, agonizing cost for workers paid below the already modest national average of $30 a month. Wired spoke to workers at IMIP who painted a picture of desperate living conditions and a dangerous work environment:
Several say they suffer from breathing difficulties. One 18-year-old employee of HNC, who arrived three months ago from the Toraja region of Sulawesi, says that he receives around $15.75 a day. “Sometimes it’s hard to breathe,” he says. “I’m concerned, but I can’t do anything.”
These are not isolated cases. According to the Bahodopi Community Health Center, a regional clinic covering IMIP, 52 percent of patients last year came in suffering from acute respiratory infections. A number of nickel welders who spoke to WIRED reported eye pain, likely caused by particulates in the air, suggesting their safety gear was inadequate.
Vehicle crashes are common inside the complex, according to one employee of HNC who works in safety administration. An employee of Cahaya Smelter Indonesia (CSI), which refines nickel at the complex, says they witnessed a number of workers fall off buildings because their harnesses weren’t properly secured. While this story was being reported, one man working for the company PT Dexin Steel died after being electrocuted, according to a nurse at the IMIP health clinic. PT Dexin Steel didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Working conditions at IMIP are “dangerous and deadly,” according to Katsaing, regional head of the National Workers’ Union (SPN), which has 300 members across 11 companies at IMIP. “The health and safety regulations now are toothless,” says Katsaing, who like many Indonesians has only one name. “They are putting profits over people’s lives.”
If this operation is running through its workers like this, you can probably guess how big of a damn IMIP gives about the local environment:
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.”
The entire story is chilling, and a solid reminder that consuming so-called green products—be they new electric vehicles or reusable grocery bags—can come with a hefty human and environmental price tag. You can read it here.