- Farming communities in the shadow of Sulawesi’s giant Pomalaa nickel mining area say their fields have been flooded with red water, possibly laterite waste from the mining operations.
- Local farmers blame flooding from the mine for longer harvest cycles and reduced productivity.
- Indonesia’s biggest environmental NGO says the government should review mining permits to safeguard rice fields.
KOLAKA, Indonesia — Ansal grabbed a makeshift raincoat, an empty rice sack, and ran home as the rain began to pound the fields of Pomalaa. A few hours later, after the rain stopped, the 49-year-old returned to his fields.
“Everything is red,” Ansal told Mongabay Indonesia, here in Kolaka district in the province of Southeast Sulawesi.
In previous years, the occasional floods were more manageable, but this downpour caused the river to burst its banks. The ensuing overflow caked Ansal’s field in a layer of knee-deep sludge, drowning the newly planted rice under water the color of clay.
Red mud is typically seen near mining sites as a byproduct of the Bayer process, a chemical reaction used to extract aluminum compounds from bauxite ores. In nickel mining, a process known as high-pressure acid leaching separates nickel from its ores at high temperatures. Waste from nickel mining includes oxidized iron, which gives the waste its bloody tint.
A study conducted in the Philippines and published in February in the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering found that one of the greatest challenges in nickel mining was the “siltation of streams, rivers and estuaries, which has negative impacts to farming and fishing communities living close to the mine sites.”
ForSDA, a local civil society organization, recorded that the flooding inundated 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of rice fields across three villages in Kolaka’s Pomalaa subdistrict. Pesouha village was by far the worst affected, accounting for around 500 hectares (1,240 acres) of submerged land.
Ansal returned to planting the remainder of the rice field the day after the flood, with fellow farmers Yohanis Soba Banten and Thamrin. They used extra fertilizer on the remaining half hectare (1.2 acres) of land. Ansal prayed for prosperity, and after two weeks the plants began to turn green.
Ordinarily, farmers wait around three months after planting to harvest the rice crop. However, flash flooding can disrupt this rhythm.
“If there is any disturbance like this then we have to wait for four months until it can be harvested,” Ansal said.
Anecdotal testimony from rice farmers here indicates drastic falls in productivity are taking place. Ansal estimates that his own yields have declined over time from 80 sacks a harvest to around 40.
The Kolaka office of Indonesia’s national statistics agency, the BPS, recorded rice production across the entire district falling from 61,281 metric tons in 2021, to 55,953 metric tons in 2022.
Through the mud
Production at the Pomalaa-Aneka open-pit mine began in 1963 following nickel prospecting by the Oost Borneo Maatschappij, a Dutch colonial mining company, earlier in the 20th century.
Since then, the Pomalaa work area has expanded to eight companies and the block is classified as a national strategic project by the government in far-off Jakarta.
The scale of the mining area and the number of different actors mean that the Pomalaa farmers aren’t sure where accountability lies.
“Forget about it,” Yohanis said. “Who are we going to blame?”
Whenever dark clouds form over Pomalaa, the threat of flooding causes anxiety among local farmers like Ansal and Yohanis. Yohanis pointed up into hills that were once untouched, but are today the site of a booming national industry.
“There are a lot of companies up there,” he said.
For those farming communities living alongside Indonesia’s newly expanding nickel mining industry, the experience in Pomalaa may offer a glimpse into a challenging future.
Consequently, some in Indonesia are calling for a thorough review of the impact of mining on rural communities poorly equipped to adapt to changing circumstances.
“We have to review the [nickel mining] permits around the rice fields,” said Andi Rahman, the Southeast Sulawesi director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental NGO.
Lives in the red
Toward the end of April, the heavens opened again. A few kilometers south of Pomalaa, the rivers and roads were overwhelmed by mud in minutes. The rivers poured out to sea, dyeing the near shore the same reddish shade.
Usman sat on the terrace of his home and watched the mud flow down to the culvert of a nearby bridge in Hakatutobu village.
“The soil started to erode — ever since there was a mine,” he said.
Older residents of Hakatutobu like Nur recall a youth spent foraging for crustaceans among mangroves growing in translucent water. However, from around 2005 the water turned dark and a layer of red formed over the beaches.
Local fisherman Guntur sometimes gets stuck in the mud as he goes about his work. “Once it came up to my neck,” he told Mongabay Indonesia.
On that occasion, Guntur was fortunate that he was close enough to his boat to lever himself out of the mud before he sank and drowned.
Fishers in Hakatutobu used to patrol the near shore for the catch of the day in rowing boats to feed their families. But once the mines began operating, Guntur began using an outboard motor to travel more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the shoreline just to hunt sea cucumbers.
“Money is tight right now,” Guntur said. “Sometimes I have it, sometimes not, ever since the mine.”
Sirajudin, the head of the Hakatutobu village council, said four out of five fishers in the village have hung up their nets and taken up work in the mines in response to these shifts.
The Kolaka district government denied receiving any complaints from the public over mining waste, either in the farmers’ rice fields or off the coast of Hakatutobu.
“If this is commonplace everywhere, then let there be no mines,” said Abdul Arif, head of the Kolaka Environment Agency (DLH).
Abdul added that members of the community should report any complaints to his office.
“We’ll then see whether this is just negligence, whether the companies are too lazy to dredge up all the sediment, or whether the mining system is in shambles,” Abdul told Mongabay Indonesia.
However, some civil society activists say their warnings about the environmental impacts of nickel mining have been ignored. Walhi has previously monitored the impact of nickel mining on sedimentation around the coast of Pomalaa.
“It’s as if the government doesn’t want to know about the problems that the society has to deal with,” Walhi’s Rahman said.
Back in Hakatutobu, children in the village flock to a wooden footbridge connecting neighborhoods. High tide, they know, is the best time to jump off the bridge.
The grown-ups won’t swim — the dirty water makes their skin crawl — but the kids don’t seem to mind.
“They don’t itch anymore,” one parent told Mongabay Indonesia. Their children are already used to the muddy seawater the color of rust.
Banner image: A paddy field farmer wades through his agricultural land flooded with red mud. Image by Riza Salman / Mongabay Indonesia.