This post is part of our ongoing series on climate, economics, and “green capitalism.” Read the rest of the posts here.
From the boardrooms of global energy conglomerates, a tiny island called Halmahera has been targeted as a key element of the so-called green economy. To use a code-phrase from the arsenal of corporate-state managers, Halmahera is part of a “nature-based solution.”
Where is Halmahera? It is the largest island in the Maluku region, eastern Indonesia, about 2,400 km northeast of Jakarta. With about two dozen smaller islands on its western waters, the island cluster is about the size of Hungary. Previously little noticed, the Halmahera cluster–part of the world’s largest deposit of nickel laterite–is today in the cross hairs of a resource conflict involving mining and manufacturing conglomerates from China, the U.S., Europe, and Australia.
Over the past two decades, dozens of billion of dollars have been poured into this a mega-mining zone for the purpose of island-grabbing, digging mines, and building nickel processing and battery manufacturing plants. Corporate entities involved in the conflict include Tesla, Freeport McMoran, Ford, Volkswagen, Vale, the Tsingshan Group, Lygend Resources and Zhejiang Huayu Cobalt, to name but a few.
For the plutocrat groups above, Halmahera and the whole “nickel bowl” looks even more lucrative than the cobalt field of the DRC. In 2022, Indonesia exported 1.6 million metric tons of nickel, more than all other nickel-producing countries. The region also oﬀers a number of processing plants that produce intermediate components for batteries as well as nickel pig iron for steelmaking. Such humongous, notoriously dirty industrial complexes can only translate into a detrimental living environment.
The pretext for this raiding, of course, is climate change mitigation, which supports a host green, low-carbon economy propaganda in the Global South. The siting of extraction in eastern Indonesia reflects a continuation of the same maxim to relocate dirty industries to the global South, notoriously popularised inadvertently by Larry Summers in 1991. The big set up of the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP) in Sulawesi and its newer sibling, the Indonesia Weda Industrial Park (IWIP) in Weda Bay, Halmahera, is closely associated with the closure of thousands of older coal-fired powerplants, smelters, and cement factories in China since 2010. In the case of the IWIP nickel town, two out of eleven smelters on the Bay are used units relocated from China, so worn that their operation repeatedly caused fire.
The eleven smelters in the IWIP complex deploy the Rotary Kiln Electric Furnace (RKEF) to produce nickel pig iron, which fully relies on burning coal and coal-fired power plants. Each smelting plant feeds on one power plant that consumes roughly 5,000 tons of coal a day and produces over twice as much carbon dioxide. In December last year, the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources announced the plan for the new smelters in the queue to produce battery or its intermediate products instead of nickel pig iron, which generates much smaller revenue for the Government. The catch is that instead of RKEF, the production of battery or battery components deploys the high-pressure acid leach process (HPAL), which just like its RKEF counterpart, needs excessive dirty heat to process low-grade laterite nickel ore. This process also consumes an enormous amount of water and produces highly toxic slurry. In 2021 the North Maluku provincial government canceled the permit for a new HPAL nickel processing plant on Obi Island in close proximity to Halmahera to dump the tailings into the sea. The plant decided to dump the humongous tailings that they produce on the island, instead, which creates a big risk of disaster.
Indeed, the foregoing devastation of Halmahera demonstrates the high casualties attendant to the actual capital processes of fabricating a low-carbon economy. The destruction is on par with Indonesia’s perilous encouragement of geothermal deep mining for electricity generation. Under a 2014 law, geothermal deep mining was excluded from the category of mining in the industrial classification. What’s the rub? More than sixty percent of the potential geothermal sources lie deep in the islands’ protected forests. Multilateral banks and conservation NGOs such as the WWF played an instrumental role in advancing this legislation. This rush to the geothermal bandwagon marks the complete abandonment of precautionary principle regarding both the globally-proven and the under-represented risks of heat deep mining such as induced seismicity, exposure to hydrogen sulfide, and massive loss or contamination of local waterscape.
Does the green economy evoke and exacerbate structural violence? Violence has been ever-present in contemporary Indonesia since the rise of the Suharto regime in the mid-1960s. In this context, extractive industrial projects are structured through the threat of violence, with corridors of logistical infrastructure secured at gunpoint, via their designation as nationally strategic projects, special economic zones, nationally vital objects, and so on.
Certainly, violence has been there since the onset of the Maluku islanders’ contact with the broader market system in the 17th century, as Martine Julia van Ittersum’s important work on Hugo Grotius, the Dutch East India Company’s trusted legal and political advisor, elaborated. In this light, it is not totally inconceivable that the big island of Halmahera may soon evolve into a full-fledged garrison island, not unlike the 17th-century Maluku islands under the nutmeg colonialism of the Dutch East India Company.
Citizenship in the battery factory complex of Halmahera is constrained by the tentacles of multinational corporate power. The privatisation of law-making and regulatory protocols is reminiscent of the regimes that supported Indian Ocean slavery, the carceral labour regime of kettinggangers/chain-gangers, and the Japanese imperial romushas. Again, the IWIP project on Weda Bay offers a chilling illustration. A preliminary assessment earlier this year revealed that in 2022 alone, approximately 10 to 15 thousand younger women and men from the nearby Ceram and Haruku Islands on its south flocked into the labyrinthic dormitory network in the armpits of the smelter complex. With such a massive subsistence to wage-slave exodus comes sex work, professional or casual. Hence, we cannot say anything about nickel sulfate—an essential battery ingredient and a lynchpin of green economy—without mentioning the suffering of the women across Indonesia’s “nickel bowl.” Halmahera is but a landmark in how capitalism produces and reproduces the human body as a commodity frontier. From such a perspective, it is also timely to ask how green capitalism involves and relies on a more complex entanglement of racisms, international fragmentation in commodity production, and multi-scalar labour migration patterns, albeit with surprising similarity with its early form. Ulbe Bosma’s “The Making of A Periphery,” as well as contributions to scholarships in comparative labour regimes and commodity frontiers, have attested to this phenomenon with insight.
Halmahera makes it easier to draw the link between green economy and the violence of colonialism. Alexander Dunlap’s view of the green economy as counterinsurgency sheds a critical light in this respect. Nonetheless, for middle-class city residents being introduced to the physique of green economy in the shape of an electric motor-taxi, it is harder to say no to rechargeable battery. Even when participants in these captive markets can sympathize with the plight of their less fortunate counterparts in Halmahera, the hard part is in seeing critically their own entrapment within the fabricated, bogus green world.
To borrow Zizek’s bid to contrast “subjective” and “objective” violence, to better understand the complacence of citizens, the phenomenon of “industrial urbanism” as such should be called into question. How central is its role in accelerating the global energy crisis and material consumption? From the vantage of Halmahera, industrial urbanism is an epoch-specific form of capitalist regime of conquest and exploitation. Besides its heightened reliance on extractivism, it operates globally as the inclusive face of imperialism. In this light, its cogency lies in maintaining the predacious social relations and mode of life. For ordinary people in Halmahera and throughout Indonesia’s nickel bowl, the rise of industrial urbanism coincides with the colonial waves of mass displacement, the decimation of vital cultural and ecological infrastructure of the individual islands, as well the unacknowledged, organised and systematic violence in its wake.