Facing the prospect of losing their land and livelihood, around a dozen Wawonii villagers take turns keeping watch from a hut surrounded by clove trees, waiting for trespassers as machinery roars below.
Royani, who goes by one name, joined the effort to safeguard the land after an Indonesian firm cleared hundreds of her family’s tropical spice trees in January.
“When we saw there was nothing left, we were destroyed,” she said.
Royani said she wants to protect not just her family’s land from further encroachment, but also that of her neighbours.
However, the farmers are up against formidable adversaries.
Soaring global demand for metals used in lithium-ion batteries and stainless steel has pushed major economies such as China and South Korea, alongside electric car giant Tesla and Brazilian mining company Vale, to zero in on Indonesia.
Dozens of nickel processing plants now pepper Sulawesi particularly — one of the world’s largest islands — and many more projects have been announced.
Three women with machetes stood guard at their farm hilltop on Indonesia’s Wawonii Island, directing their blades towards the nickel miners working in the forest clearing below.
“I pointed the machete at their faces. I told them: ‘If you scratch this land, heads will fly, we will defend this land to the death’,” said 42-year-old villager Royani, recounting a recent encounter with some of the miners.
The dig site is part of a huge rush to Indonesia, the world’s largest nickel producer, by domestic and foreign enterprises to mine the critical component used in electric vehicle batteries.
Residents and rights groups told AFP the boom threatens farmers’ land rights and harms the environment in areas like Wawonii in the resource-rich Sulawesi region, which is home to black macaques, maleo birds and tarsier primates.