A mine that supplies nickel for the batteries that power electric vehicles is on the verge of a major expansion into a pristine rainforest.
Jeminda Bartolome spends her days at the foot of a lush mountain range tending to her rice paddies. A mother of six, she leads a group of farmers and members of the Indigenous Palawan tribe who believe the crop is endowed with a human soul. “That,” she said on a recent afternoon pointing toward her farmland, “is our source of livelihood.” Bartolome, 56, lives in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, a stunning island that draws legions of tourists to its crystal blue waters and pristine nature reserves. But these days, her livelihood, and the ancient rainforest system it depends on, are increasingly under threat. A nickel mine stretching nearly 4 square miles scars the forest above Bartolome’s farmland. The mine, Rio Tuba, plays a vital role in satisfying the global demand for a mineral more coveted than ever due in part to the explosion of the electric car industry. The raw nickel dug out of the ground here ends up in the lithium batteries of plug-in vehicles manufactured by Tesla, Toyota and other automakers, according to an NBC News review of company filings and shipping records. With the demand for nickel skyrocketing, the Rio Tuba mine is now on the brink of expanding deeper into the rainforest, adding almost 10 square miles to its current footprint. Local environmentalists fear that it will wipe out the forest’s fragile ecosystem and increase toxic runoff into the rivers that flow past the farmland down below, jeopardizing the crops.