The mountain on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi was once covered in thousands of pepper trees planted by her family, but all that’s left is exposed red soil.
The 54-year-old said she didn’t know her family was about to lose their livelihood — her daughter phoned her at the market where she used to sell their harvest and said the trees had been destroyed.
“I climbed up to the hill and together my neighbors and I tried to stop the heavy equipment,” recalled Masita, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name. When she tried to climb onto the machinery, she said the men tried to stop her and called the police.
She said she kept shouting, “How could you, why did you do this to us, how can we live, how will we feed our families, should we eat stones?”
Masita, along with her entire village in East Luwu regency, was evicted from the lands they were farming in 2015 so that a company could build a nickel mine, she said.
Like Masita, many Indonesian farmers do not have any clear land titles — leading to land disputes and conflicts over territory. It’s a problem made even more complicated by the fact that some regions on the national mapping appear uninhabited even if the land has been cultivated for generations.
Land in East Luwu was seized as part of Indonesia’s push to become a world leader in the surging market for nickel, a crucial element long used in stainless steel. Extra demand has been created by the global push away from planet-heating fossil fuels toward renewable energy. Nickel is also used in lithium-ion batteries found in everyday objects like electric toothbrushes, laptop computers and cellphones. But those batteries are increasingly being used to power electric vehicles (EVs) and e-bikes.
The government’s rush to expand its nickel processing and EV market has come at a cost to women like Masita who rely on pepper farms as their only source of income. Farming is one of the few industries available to women for jobs and economic opportunity.
Masita said she received a one-time payment from the mining company of around $50 million Indonesian rupiah (around $3,223) in exchange for the land. With the farm, the widow and mother of four could make up to 6 million rupiah (around $386) in one month from her year-round harvests. Now she’s lucky to receive a quarter of that selling cooked food like chicken curry from her small stall in a nearby village.
“If we weren’t evicted, we could have still earned millions of rupiahs. We’re not rich people, but it’s enough to cover our daily living costs,” she said. “Today, I borrow money from the bank … My life has become difficult.”
Indonesia’s electric vehicle ambitions
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has mandated the development of the EV industry as a national priority, introducing EV-friendly policies and incentivizing tax breaks aimed at luring foreign investment.
In recent years, he banned the export of raw nickel ore to encourage the development of the country’s own nickel processing facilities. Between 2015 and 2022, the value of Indonesia’s processed nickel exports surged from $1 billion to an estimated $30 billion, according to Reuters.
Widodo has also mandated the development of Indonesia’s own domestic EV industry, aiming to compete against Thailand and India as a viable alternative to China, which hopes to become the world’s leading EV maker. With it comes an ambitious goal to produce 600,000 EVs by 2030.
However, Indonesia’s demand for nickel has meant farms, like Masita’s in South Sulawesi, have been seized to support the expansion of nickel mining operations, smelting centers and refineries, as many don’t hold formal land titles. Now others fear their farm could be the next to go.
Nurhasiyah, a pepper farmer living in the village of Loeha, also in East Luwu, started growing pepper trees as a young girl and continues to work on the farm with her husband so they can afford to send their three children to school.
“I can’t imagine if our plantation were to be taken,” Nurhasiyah said through tears. “There would no longer be any livelihood for us.”
She said representatives for PT Vale Indonesia, one of Indonesia’s largest mining companies and the same company that now owns Masita’s land, have started taking soil samples around the village in recent months, telling residents they purchased the land. “Where is the proof of payment?” she demanded.
CNN reached out to PT Vale Indonesia and the Indonesian government regarding the claims made by residents of East Luwu regency. It has not received a response from the government.
In an email to CNN, the company did not deny that land had been seized. It said it “continues to undertake its operations and activities in accordance with its fundamental license to operate (known as its Contract of Work), and with prevailing laws and regulations, including in respect of land usage.” It said it faces “significant instances of community encroachment by third parties, where land has been cleared for the purposes of community farming and unlawful mining activity” in South Sulawesi.
In the past, it denied accusations it has seized land from indigenous people. “PT Vale has never taken rights from other parties without their consent,” Bayu Aji, PT Vale Indonesia’s Head of Communication, told Indonesian magazine Tempo last year, saying it had acquired land in East Luwu through an agreement with the Indonesian government.
A history of controversial land grabs
In Indonesia, it’s not unusual for residents to find property they’ve harvested for generations has been conceded by the government and sold to big businesses for natural resources.
For decades, human rights and environmental groups have accused Indonesia’s government of land grabs, turning over rainforests and indigenous people’s lands to large companies for the exploitation of resources such as palm oil.
Since assuming office in 2014, Widodo has sought to revitalize Indonesia’s economy and support the development of industries reliant on natural resources, while at the same time pledging to slow deforestation and hasten the recognition of land ownership.
Last December, the government said it had recognized around 100 million parcels of land, which had been uncertified in 2015, and acknowledged that there are still 80 million people — around 29% of the population — who do not own land certificates.
In South Sulawesi, Nurhasiyah, along with dozens of other women, have joined the group “Women Fighters of Loeha,” fighting for the community’s rights to their land.
Hasma, the group’s founder, said pepper farming is a source of livelihood for the village’s 7,000 residents and provides jobs to hundreds of others who work in the fields. If the farms were to be seized, their lives would be miserable, she said.
“This is our only source of life: pepper and land. If that is taken away, then we will have no other income,” she said.
Women account for nearly a quarter of all farmers in Indonesia, with agriculture employing around 29% of the country’s workforce, according to the World Bank. Many juggle the demands of taking care of their homes and children, while also tending to their farms, and are often more impacted than men by environmental changes.
Hasma said her group has sought help from with WALHI, the Indonesian Forum for Living Environment, Indonesia’s oldest environmental NGO.
In a statement to the Group of 20 last year, then chaired by Indonesia, WALHI warned leaders to stop promoting electric vehicles as an “environmentally friendly alternative and solution to the climate crisis.”
The statement called the expansion of nickel mining on Sulawesi “a catastrophe for the community, especially farmers and women.”
In its joint communique, the G20 recognized the need for “diversifying energy mixes and systems” and ensuring “clean, sustainable, just, affordable, and inclusive energy transitions,” but made no mention of electric vehicles or the environmental impacts of nickel mining.
Muhammad Al Amin, executive director at WALHI South Sulawesi, says WALHI wants companies like PT Vale Indonesia to act fairly.
“This company has 118,000 hectares of concession land in South, Central and Southeast Sulawesi. If people ask for 20,000 hectares from the concession for their living space, I think this is a rational request,” Al Amin told CNN.
Al Amin says that since the president declared he wanted Indonesia to be a major player in the electric vehicle industry, the organization had seen an increase in “massive” deforestation on Sulawesi.
“What the government never conveys is the impact of social and environmental damage that occurs around the industry,” Al Amin told CNN. “There are hundreds of families who are living in misery, living in poverty, due to the loss of their farms after being evicted by mining companies.”
And it’s not just the loss of income. Masita says she and her family — including her children and young grandchildren — suffer from dust and noise pollution from the nickel mines. “Often, we have to wear masks and glasses for protection,” she said.
Nurhasiyah said residents in Loeha, which can only be accessed by ferry or through challenging rugged terrain, fear that environmental pollution from nickel mines will also leave them more vulnerable to sickness with limited to no access to medical centers.
CNN reached out to PT Vale Indonesia and the Indonesian government regarding these claims, but has not received a response from the government.
In its email to CNN, PT Vale Indonesia said it conducts environmental impact assessments and “[we] ensure all decisions are well-communicated to stakeholders and community groups.”
On its global website, Vale says it recognizes its activities worldwide may cause “significant environmental impacts” and that it invests in ways to “manage risks and minimize the socio-environmental impacts of our operations in the locations where we operate,” as well as reduce pollutant emissions.
As the world moves toward electric vehicles to cut carbon pollution, the environmental group WALHI hopes consumers will be more aware of where the materials to make their cars come from and how they can play a role in pressuring companies and the Indonesian government to solve the conflicts.
“Green energy needs to be redefined. If green energy is obtained from activities that displace people’s lands, displace people’s farms, I don’t think that’s a green industry,” Al Amin told CNN.
“We don’t want the electric cars used every day to be made based on the suffering and cries of women in this village, built on the hunger and suffering of children in this village, and as a result of eviction.”
This story has been updated with a response from PT Vale Indonesia.
Journalist Masrur Jamaluddin contributed to this report.