October 1996: a helicopter takes off from Ternate, the capital of North Maluku, and heads toward Halmahera, a much larger and more mysterious neighboring island. The twenty-minute flight boasts a breathtaking view of the surrounding volcanoes—including Gamalama (which towers over Ternate City), Tidore, and Jailolo off in the distance, their immaculate cones stretching to more than 1,700 meters above the turquoise waters. From afar, the forest appears over the horizon, like a curtain of greenery. The helicopter begins its descent over a sports field in the small village of Lelilef, where hundreds of people unknowingly witness the beginning of an extraordinary industrial undertaking.
A walk through the jungle
Greg Cock, a thirty-year-old Australian geologist recruited by Strand, a small Canadian company, exits the helicopter. Surrounded by a swarm of jubilant youngsters, the bule is taken to a rental house, where he will spend the next year building a forward camp along the beach in Tanjung Ulie, eight kilometers to the east. During this time, Greg and his team will explore a concession that penetrates 40 km inland. Surrounding the site is a thick jungle whose flora was first identified by none other than Russell Wallace 138 years earlier—a not-too-inhospitable location, despite the snakes, the spiders, the cuscuses, and the hundreds of bird species. In these far-flung lands live the Forest Tobelo, small nomadic communities who, research suggests, either fled the Dutch colonies in the seventeenth century, or took refuge in the forest during World War II, when the Japanese occupied the region.
We are at the edge of the world here, on the border of Asia, with one foot in Melanesia, where New Caledonia is located. Starting in the sixteenth century, and for 200 years thereafter, the region was highly coveted by European powers for its spices (which sold for more money than gold), before it fell into obscurity.
The upcoming exploration phase will put the spotlight back on this corner of the world. The beginning was exhausting, remembers Greg. "There were no trails in the mountain. You had to walk and walk, carrying your own equipment and provisions with you". The mountainous terrain is unforgiving. The first batch of samples is sent to a lab in Jakarta, 2,500 km away. With just those first results, the company knows that the reserves are exceptional. The site is shaping up to be a world-class deposit.
Obtaining and bolstering a license to operate
What happens next? 1998: the Contract of Work is signed with the Indonesian government. PT Weda Bay Nickel is created, and a preliminary feasibility study is launched. 2001: the first crisis hits, and the project is put on hold until 2005. That year, after due diligence is completed by Monique Le Guen, Jean-Jacques Reverdy, and Pierre Epinoux, Philippe Vecten, then Director of Strategy for Eramet, convinces the Board to get involved in the project by purchasing Weda Bay Nickel. The deal is closed on May 1, 2006. At its research center in Trappes, France, the Group has developed a hydrometallurgical process that it wants to develop further at a plant in Halmahera. Exploration resumes and Greg returns to Weda Bay, followed closely by Alain Giraud, the CEO, and Pierre Noyer, Eramet's current representative on the WBN Board. They are later followed by Christophe Thillier, a geologist who, along with his team, helps dig a test pit in 2007 that confirms everyone's hopes about the deposit. Subsequent arrivals include Olivier Béligon, Community Relations Manager; Gavin Lee, Environmental Manager; as well as Yudhi Santoso, Erry Kurniawan, Deky Tetradiono, Suryo Sejati, Marlon Kandow, and Roslina Sangaji. For years, these teams work tirelessly to cultivate relationships of trust with local and national officials and local communities in order to obtain and bolster their license to operate, with environmental permits and a renewed Contract of Work. At Corporate, a small team jumps in and begins cataloging this invaluable experience. Weda Bay Nickel is Eramet's testing ground for developing positive relations with stakeholders - or in other words, for CSR.
A multi-cultural team
In Tanjung Ulie, a modern mineral-processing lab is installed. The camp begins to grow, and the accommodations become more accommodating; no longer does anyone have to huddle around a specific spot with the best Internet connection in order to call their families at night. In Kuala Lumpur, a project team is formed. Indonesians, Australians, Kiwis, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Malays... a whole business culture begins to take shape. In terms of logistics, direct flights finally connect Jakarta to the provincial capital, but travelers still need to take a boat (1hr) to reach the site in Halmahera, then a 4x4 vehicle over 75 km of terrain (7hr), followed by another boat (1hr 20min). After ample time is spent acquiring land for the plant, (a process that was conducted in total transparency), mining operations designed to train the future teams and prepare the site for plant construction begin in 2012.
A project revived
Reality, however, will soon catch up with the team's enthusiasm. Faced with a global economic crisis, the Group decides to mothball the project. In 2013, the teams stand down. As Greg recalls, "It wasn't a question of if the plant would be completed, but when...". Afterward, an ultimately brief period of time is spent finding a partner to complete the project. The Group ends up choosing the Chinese company Tsingshan, which is already present in Indonesia, where it is building the largest nickel and stainless-steel complex in the world, on the island of Sulawesi. With a 43% stake in PT WBN, Eramet retains control over the mining operations and 43% of ferroalloy production. Martin Cézard, who has extensive experience in Asia and speaks Mandarin, is the project director. Greg plans out the 37 km of roads needed to reach Kao Rahai, the crown jewel of WBN, then sets about building them with the sub-contractors. The ink from Christel Bories' signature is barely dry on the joint-venture agreements when our partners begin construction on the pyrometallurgical plant, this time with RKEF furnaces (like at SLN's Doniambo plant in New Caledonia), with the capacity to produce 35,000 tons of ferroalloy a year. This is just a fraction of the enormous Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park (IWIP), which will comprise at least six plants.
Building a mine and plant in less than two years
In August 2018, an armada of ships sail into Weda Bay with equipment and personnel, as the Chinese have decided to build most of the plant on-site, instead of bringing in modules. Thousands of construction workers, most of them Indonesian or Chinese, build the port, the power station, the utilities and the plants, expand the airport and worker accommodations, and add a hotel. The site is teeming with activity as everyone goes about their business as safely as possible. There is work for everyone in the region. The project, which is set to jump start economic development throughout North Maluku, is finally off the ground. One of the top priorities is to train the local teams, in order to cultivate skills and raise standards in a region unaccustomed to industry. Spearheaded by Frédérique Zanklan (General Manager Mining Project), with the assistance of the mining teams led by Kleber Silva (Deputy CEO of the Mining & Metals Division), mining operations are put in place and the first ton of ore is delivered, all in just one year. In twenty months, the first casting is poured from WBN furnace no. 1. It is 9:15 am, on April 30, 2020. Tsingshan's can-do attitude, combined with Eramet's implacable dedication, manage to pull off a miracle.
Less than two years after the start of construction, 2500 employees and sub-contractors usher in the new PT WBN mine and plant, creating value for Eramet and its Chinese and Indonesian partners, as well as for the children in Lelilef (now adults) who first welcomed Greg upon his arrival by helicopter. The nickel trade has replaced the spice trade in the Malukus, perhaps for centuries to come...which offers a wealth of opportunities for Eramet.