A nickel mining site on Indonesia's Halmahera island, part of a mining project that is devastating the homeland of indigenous peoples, according to environmental groups. Photo: Survival International

‘They Will Die’: Tesla-Linked Mining Project Is Devastating One of the World’s Uncontacted Peoples

Indonesia is the world’s leading nickel producer, propping up the globe’s electric battery supply. But the industry is increasingly coming at a high cost for indigenous groups.

Kumbang’s family are members of one of the world’s few remaining nomadic tribes living in voluntary isolation. For centuries, the O Hongana Manyawa tribe, one of these last indigenous groups, have roamed the forests of Indonesia's remote Halmahera island in small family bands tied closely to rivers in the island’s interior.

But today Kumbang’s family and their indigenous culture face an existential threat—one fueled by an industry widely touted for its green credentials, and often heralded as a panacea to the growing climate crisis. 


Where there was once vast rainforest, today an expanding massive nickel mining venture is clearing the homeland of O Hongana Manyawa, as suppliers in Indonesia race to fulfill a growing global demand for batteries powering the electric vehicle industry.

Kumbang no longer lives with his family in the rainforest, but he fears for their future as he watches the rainforest shrink around them. Their staple foods of carb-rich sago palm fruits have been razed and rivers providing drinking water poisoned by mining run-off; the rattan fibers used for clothing have become harder to find, while resin-producing trees, the sap from which is used for torches, have been obliterated. Mining encampments filled with thousands of men and security forces now occupy the hunting grounds where O Hongana Manyawa once chased deer and wild pigs for food.

“The forest is everything, it is their heart and life,” said Kumbang. The young man’s name has been changed to protect his identity due to what NGOs and activists say are credible threats to his safety for speaking out about the issue. “My parents and siblings are in the forest and without support they will die.”

Environmental groups and indigenous rights activists have sounded the alarm in recent days. They allege that mining company Weda Bay Nickel and other similar projects are destroying the traditional lands of the O Hongana Manyawa, also known as the Forest Tobelo, and are at risk of devastating their forest-dependent way of life. 


The mining projects form part of Indonesia’s emerging electric vehicle battery supply chain, into which major electric vehicle firm Tesla has reportedly invested $5 billion so far, while partnering with several companies connected to Weda Bay in the past year. 

In the last few months, two leading French and German firms have also announced they’re on the verge of pouring billions more into electric vehicle battery production sourced from Weda Bay Nickel, touting its compliance with the “highest international environmental, social and governance standards.” This includes the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance standards, which requires Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from indigenous peoples affected by the project. 


But rather than securing the consent of O Hongana Manyawa, Weda Bay Nickel has ravaged their lands and livelihoods, Kumbang and indigenous activist groups say.

“I will never give consent for the company to use our lands,” Kumbang said.

Weda Bay Nickel's mining operations extending into the interior forests populated with members of the O Hongana Manyawa tribe on central Halmahera in Northern Maluku province, Indonesia on December 26, 2022. The mine is part of the Weda Bay Industrial Park. Photo: Satellite image from Sentinel 2.

Weda Bay Nickel's mining operations extending into the interior forests populated with members of the O Hongana Manyawa tribe on central Halmahera in Northern Maluku province, Indonesia on December 26, 2022. The mine is part of the Weda Bay Industrial Park. Photo: Satellite image from Sentinel 2.

O Hongana Manyawa number around 3,000 people across Halmahera, the largest island in eastern Indonesia’s Northern Maluku province. Many of them, like Kumbang, who is now a Christian, were born in the forest and later adopted via missionary-led interventions or resettled through government policies to integrate O Hongana Manyawa into Indonesian society in recent decades. Many still retain ties to the forest and Kumbang says he visits his parents regularly.

Between 300 and 500 members of O Hongana Manyawa, like Kumbang’s family and relatives, are still considered “uncontacted" because they remain in voluntary isolation in the forests of Halmahera, says Sophie Grig, senior researcher for the indigenous rights nonprofit Survival International. The unsettled members of the tribe hunt and tend to bamboo gardens throughout the forest, limiting their interactions with outsiders.

“They rely on the forest for everything that enables them to live and survive and thrive,” Grig told VICE World News. Without the forest, “they won’t be able to sustain themselves.”

Yet the outside world is forcing itself upon O Hongana Manyawa. 


Weda Bay Nickel’s approximately 45,000 hectare concession was awarded in 1998 by Indonesia’s then military dictator Suharto. After Weda Bay Nickel’s operations stalled for several years due to a nickel market downturn, the project resumed with renewed intensity after Chinese conglomerate Tsingshan Holding Group came on board with a controlling stake through a subsidiary in 2017. As the mining has reached further into the forests of Halmahera, riverways have been filled in with ore to form roads penetrating into the tribe’s territory, cutting off O Hongana Manyawa from drinking water, says Kumbang, who still regularly travels into the forest to visit his family. 

Even when the government later expanded forest protections in 1999, Weda Bay’s concession was carved out by presidential decree in 2004 to allow for tens of thousands of hectares of deforestation from open pit mining. Weda Bay Nickel has since contributed to the more than 47,000 hectares of the estimated 724,000 hectares of natural forest in Central and Eastern Halmahera cleared between 2017 and 2021, according to data from Forest Watch Indonesia and local environmental journalist Christ Belseran. Much more is expected in the coming years as the nickel mining projects expand to meet global demand.


Annas Rasyid, an activist with the Indonesian Indigenous People’s Alliance (AMAN), says that O Hongana Manyawa’s sustainable way of life is under threat from decades-long government policies to “civilize” them, forcing families to live in sweltering and cramped tin roofed permanent homes. Some nomadic O Hongana Manyawa have become dependent on company handouts like instant noodles and rice, while members of the tribe have also become scapegoats for authorities—tortured and imprisoned for crimes they likely did not commit and cleared off their land as a result, he added. 

When the government grants a mining concession there is never consultation with local people, because authorities do not consider them as owners of the land under Indonesian law, Rasyid says. 

"In their perspective, the land belongs to the government,” he explained, adding that Indonesian lawmakers, many with financial links to companies using indigenous lands, have refused to pass legislation that would provide stronger legal rights for indigenous peoples.


Indonesia is the world’s leading nickel producer, and has welcomed foreign investment by courting manufacturers like Tesla to grow its electric vehicle battery production. However, the industry’s development ignores any meaningful recognition of indigenous peoples, says Novenia Ambeua. She’s Chair of the activist group North Maluku Region Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, and a member of the Tobelo, a coastal indigenous group with close connections to O Hongana Manyawa, whose community’s territory has also been impacted by Weda Bay Nickel.

“These are the forests which we guard for the future generation and now they are being destroyed for electric cars, where is the heart of people in the west?” Ambeua told VICE World News. “This is making everything worse.”

A separate nickel mining project in southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.  The site is part of a huge rush to Indonesia, the world's largest nickel producer, a critical component used in electric vehicle batteries. Photo: ADEK BERRY / AFP

A separate nickel mining project in southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. The site is part of a huge rush to Indonesia, the world's largest nickel producer, a critical component used in electric vehicle batteries. Photo: ADEK BERRY / AFP

Many other nickel mining concessions also criss-cross central and eastern Halmahera, “caging” groups of O Hongana Manyawa attempting to retreat deeper into the forest, Ambeua warns.

French-owned Eramet owns a 43% share and Chinese-owned Tsingshan a 57% share in the mining company Weda Bay within an industrial nickel production mega-park in central Halmahera, also managed by Tsingshan. The Chinese group produces 20% of the world’s entire nickel supply and has established multiple industrial complexes for nickel mining and production throughout Indonesia.


Weda Bay’s mining kicked off in 2019 and plans to extract 40,000 tons of nickel every year for the next four decades

Tesla, the world’s second biggest electric car manufacturer, signed deals in July 2022 to source processed nickel from two Chinese suppliers, which in turn get nickel from the Chinese conglomerate Tsingshan Holding Group and are both shareholders of the Weda Bay industrial park. 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has boasted of selling 20 million electric vehicles in 2030, but his company’s promise to shareholders of ethically sourced nickel is “just an empty message,” said  Indonesia’s Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM) in a 2022 report. Despite clear evidence that suppliers like Tsingshan were carrying out destructive actions against indigenous peoples and local communities, this didn’t stop Tesla from signing deals with them, the report highlights.


"Tesla must know that the electric vehicle battery supply chain has negative social impacts on Indonesian citizens,” JATAM director Melky Nahar told VICE World News. “So if Tesla buys nickel from companies in Central Halmahera, indirectly Tesla is involved in these impacts.”

Further foreign investment into the area’s electric vehicle battery industry has just been finalized and more is expected in the coming months. Australian firm Thiess announced last month an $87 million ore-hauling contract for Weda Bay Nickel, declaring it looked forward to “building strong relationships with the local community.” In January, Bloomberg reported that German chemical giant BASF is also finalizing a multi-billion dollar deal with Weda Bay Nickel’s Eramet to develop a smelter for nickel coming from the tribe's forest lands. BASF told VICE World News that it “has not yet decided whether such a project will be implemented.” Activists say this project would also directly threaten the lives of O Hongana Manyawa and their neighbors. 

Survival International and other indigenous rights groups say that despite claims that these projects are in compliance with international standards, nickel produced by Weda Bay is in violation of widely recognized UN and World Bank requirements for FPIC agreements from indigenous peoples.


Weda Bay previously received $207 million in World Bank guarantees for its investment, legally requiring FPIC, though a World Bank audit following a complaint dismissed these concerns in 2011 and urged the company to continue dialogue with affected communities. Many of the surrounding coastal indigenous communities ultimately signed agreements under pressure and threat from police and local authorities, accepting extremely low prices for their lands. But O Hongana Manyawa living in the forests never agreed to cede their lands to the company, Kumbang says. 

Weda Bay Nickel knows that its mining concession overlaps with the territory of nomadic, isolated groups from O Hongana Manyawa who reject mining on their lands, according to an internal company report obtained by VICE World News. 

The 2013 report, funded by Weda Bay Nickel and prepared by the U.S.-based firm Cross-Cultural Consulting Services, found evidence of multiple groups of O Hongana Manyawa living inside the mining concession. The consulting firm verified the report’s existence but told VICE World News it no longer works with Weda Bay Nickel. 

O Hongana Manyawa “do not like to interact with outsiders” and it would be “unethical” to seek to contact them, the report notes. “The critical issue… is how to apply FPIC when a good proportion of the indigenous population does not want to be contacted.” 


While recognizing that it was unethical, the report nevertheless made preparations for how to gradually approach and gain consent of groups which remained in voluntary isolation. 

“It came down to the fact that this [mining project] was going to happen,” Chris Duncan, the lead researcher hired by Weda Bay to produce its 2013 report and an anthropologist who has been studying O Hongana Manyawa since the 1990s, told VICE World News. Duncan said the logic was: “Let's try to make it better, as opposed to just opposing it. In the end we failed—we didn't get FPIC, which was the goal.” 

“These people [O Hongana Manyawa] have been screwed for decades and they will continue to get screwed,” he said.

The company has “good relations” with O Hongana Manyawa and identified 22 of the tribe’s cultural heritage sites inside its concession while implementing FPIC principles, an IWIP representative said in a 2019 statement, citing the same 2013 plan which had “failed” according to its lead researcher. 

The day after VICE World News emailed Eramet CEO Christel Bories, the company posted two statements on its website. Eramet said it had launched a “currently ongoing” study in 2023 with a local anthropologist to research the impact of the mine and “ensure we understand and respect the way of life” of O Hongana Manyawa.

“In the event that indigenous peoples may be affected by our activities, further dialogue is required, leading to the consent of these communities to the company's operations,” Eramet said in another statement posted on April 7, adding the company committed to being “audited” to show compliance with international standards. 

The company also said there are no O Hongana Manyawa in coastal areas and that its planned project with BASF would not directly impact them. But O Hongana Manyawa do not live on the coast, they live in the interior forest, and the smelter would source nickel from that area, indigenous activist groups say.

Eramet did not respond directly to VICE World News’ requests for comment.

Kumbang said he has been approached multiple times in the past few years by Weda Bay Nickel and its hired anthropologist to retroactively gain consent for mining operations on his relatives’ land. Kumbang repeatedly refused. The anthropologist did not respond to requests for comment from VICE World News. 

Given that the company has been mining since 2019, any claims of securing “prior” consent are a charade, Grig points out.

“They cannot possibly have had free, prior and informed consent because these people are uncontacted,” Grig said. “How could you possibly get FPIC from an uncontacted tribe?”

Tesla’s indigenous rights policy requires free and informed consent from its suppliers.

Tesla, Weda Bay, and all other companies named did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE World News. Survival International has called on Tesla to publicly commit to not sourcing nickel from any suppliers mining on O Hongana Manyawa’s lands.

Weda Bay says it will respect indigenous ways of life, but the mine’s destruction has already violated the site of Kumbang’s own birth, he says, where his umbilical cord is buried beneath an ngofa ngoe sapling. In O Hongana Manyawa language, the name means “tree with many children,” and its growth was supposed to symbolize Kumbang’s own future family. 

But the last time Kumbang returned to the area in September, his birth grove had been bulldozed to muddy, red earth for Weda Bay’s mining operations.

“It broke my heart,” Kumbang said. “Everything in the forest is getting destroyed now—the river, the animals, it is all gone.”

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