Indonesia: Christmas Eve nickel smelter blast kills 20

Vigil with candles Solidarity with the victims of the IMIP nickel smelter explosion (© Jatam Sulteng) Aerial view of Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), Central Sulawesi, Indonesia The site of the disaster: Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (© Aliansi Sulawesi)

Dec 27, 2023

An explosion at a nickel smelter in Sulawesi, Indonesia, on December 24 left twenty dead and dozens injured. This is only the latest disaster in the country's booming nickel industry.

Nickel industry costs human lives

On the morning of December 24, 2023, an explosion in a nickel smelter in Indonesia killed 18 workers, and a further two died of their injuries in the following days. At least 38 people suffered injuries, some of them very serious. The accident at the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP) occurred during repair work on a smelting furnace. Fire broke out when several oxygen tanks exploded.

“This is not an isolated case,” explains Moh Taufik, coordinator of our partner organization JATAM Sulteng, an anti-mining network in Central Sulawesi. “Accidents in nickel plants happen frequently.”

According to the NGO Trend Asia, at least 53 people died in industrial accidents in the IMIP nickel industrial zone alone between 2015 and 2022. The number of unreported cases is high, as operators are likely withholding information.

“Workers are afraid to report accidents because they fear consequences,” says Moh Taufik.

Economic growth at the expense of people and nature

The expansion of the country's nickel processing industry is one of the driving forces of President Joko Widodo's economic policy. Indonesia wants to become the leading producer of nickel products for car batteries. Following the 2020 ban on the export of unprocessed nickel ores, new mines and huge special industrial zones were quickly established in Sulawesi, the Moluccas and even in West Papua.

The first nickel smelter was built in the Morowali district of Sulawesi in 2017, and Sulawesi remains the center of Indonesia's nickel industry. There are now nineteen nickel smelters in operation in Indonesia, as well as plants for the production of nickel steel and battery-grade nickel. Most of the production facilities are in Chinese hands, including the IMIP industrial zone. 

The consequences of the nickel boom: The environment and the livelihoods of local people are being destroyed on a large scale. Forests are being cleared, fields and bodies of water polluted.

“Waste and slag from IMIP power plants are discharged into the sea 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have long since destroyed the fishing grounds of Fatufia, a town near IMIP in Morowali. Fishing is no longer possible. Farmers are also no longer able to grow rice, as the seedlings die when the yellow wastewater reaches the fields,” reports Moh Taufik.

Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP)

Conditions in the industrial zones are intolerable, says Moh Taufik. “These include lack of safety in the workplace, restrictions on religious practice, illegal workers from China, unequal treatment and pay of Chinese and Indonesian employees, and inedible food.”

Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI)

Four days after the accident at IMIP, there was also a fire at Gunbuster Nickel Industry's smelter on December 28, 2023. According to the company and the police, there were no fatalities. Our local partners and media such as Bloomberg Technoz report that the fire at the end of 2023 was the fifth accident at the smelter within a year.

A year earlier, just before Christmas 2022, a fire broke out at the smelter of PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI), a nickel industrial zone in North Morowali district, resulting in two deaths. GNI blamed the victims, which provoked a violent strike in January 2023, in which three more people lost their lives.

“The results of the police investigation still have not been made available to the public. Hundreds of security forces were subsequently deployed, but only to ensure that nickel production continued. We called for a halt to production for a thorough investigation, but our appeal fell on deaf ears,” adds Moh Taufik.

2024 elections a harbinger of further destruction

According to JATAM, the outlook for the future is bleak: Elections will be held in Indonesia in 2024, and all of the candidates are focusing solely on economic growth. Three pairs of candidates running for the offices of president and vice president, and all three have the stated goal of achieving high economic growth through in-country value chains. While this may sound economically sensible, it has its downsides: This type of economic growth is based solely on the exploitation of resources – with massive consequences for the environment, livelihoods and human health in the future. It also remains uncertain how much of the profit will actually remain in Indonesia, as most of the companies are in foreign hands.

The candidate pair Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming promise to also bring the further processing of bauxite, copper, tin and fishery products into the country. This pair has a good chance of winning, which greatly worries environmentalists. Prabowo has a history as an ex-general, a very wealthy businessman, former son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto and the person responsible for the still-unsolved kidnappings of opposition members. Gibran is the 36-year-old son of the current president.

The other two pairs of candidates, Pranowo-Mahfud and Anies-Muhaimin, have similar plans: the further processing of products from mining, plantations, agriculture and fishing, and the expansion of industrial zones for cocoa, nickel and food. All three candidate pairs talk exclusively about growth and profit maximization – none about environmental damage, the loss of people's livelihoods, job insecurity and loss of life.

JATAM demands addressed to President Joko Widodo and the police:

  1. Immediate review of IMIP's attitude toward workers, local people and the environment.

  2. Legal proceedings for IMIP offenses in the areas of labor, the environment and treatment of the affected population.

  3. Compensation from IMIP for environmental and social damage.

Source: Announcements and Press Rilis Jaringan Advokasi Tambang, December 24, 2023

  1. special industrial zones

    The weekly magazine Tempo has recorded the number of industrial accidents in the nickel special industrial zones. In Sulawesi these are: PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (10), Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (25), PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry (9), PT Huadi Alloy Nickel Indonesia (6). In the Moluccas: PT Weda Bay Industrial Park (9)

    Interactive map of industrial accidents in nickel smelters:

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