Electric vehicles are supposed to support a healthier environment, but in Indonesia, home to some of the world’s largest reserves of nickel, a key component in EV batteries, the burgeoning industry is doing the opposite. Fueled by China’s appetite for EVs and contracts with companies like Tesla, pockets of Indonesia are facing environmental and social devastation, including health problems that the story’s author suffered herself:

Data shared with Rest of World by the community health center of Bahodopi shows that, since 2018, upper respiratory infections have been at the top of the list of diseases in the district — nearly 7,000 cases in total — with health workers claiming that the dust from the industrial complex is the main culprit. There were 928 upper respiratory infection cases in 2021, higher than the 855 cases reported the year before. Health workers told Rest of World that in 2018 and 2019, as IMIP expanded to add more steel factories and coal-fired plants, the construction had led to even more dust. In those two years combined, they counted a total of 5,153 respiratory infections.

A few days before leaving Sulawesi, I experienced first-hand some of the consequences of the industrial activity that villagers had spoken about. It started with an intense pain in my left eye, which I initially brushed off. But the pain only grew, and rapidly developed into a severe eye infection. 

Later, in Jakarta, doctors said that the infection was likely caused by the dust and other air pollutants that I had been exposed to in the industrial areas I had visited. The infection was so severe that it damaged my cornea, and I was bedridden for weeks, unable to see. Today, months after our visit, I’m still waiting to fully regain the function of my left eye, which can only be restored by a cornea transplant.