POMALAA, Indonesia — Where forested hills dip into the sea, Sahman Ukas scoops up rusty-red topsoil.

His hands hold nickel that is more concentrated than many of the world’s richest deposits.

It’s no wonder, then, that on Sahman’s island of Sulawesi, companies have opened several mines in the past 15 years to feed the global market for stainless steel — made ductile and tough with nickel.

Now, a growing appetite for electric vehicles is creating new demand for nickel, whose chemical derivatives are increasingly used in cathodes of lithium-ion batteries. But the push for clean energy is coming at an environmental cost to forests and fisheries in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

Sahman does not know how much more his fishing village can handle. In the decades of meeting nickel-for-steel demand, the seas have turned red, marine life has left past the horizon, and the exhaust of smelters has triggered respiratory problems.

“We’ve been on the sidelines this whole time,” said Sahman, who is in his 50s. “Villages should instruct companies, not companies instructing villages.”

Down the road from Sahman’s village, the global market has placed what will probably become a main source for the vital nickel component in electric-vehicle batteries. The country’s largest nickel producer, Vale Indonesia, majority-owned by Brazil’s Vale, and Japan’s Sumitomo Metal Mining are in the final planning stages for a mining and smelting operation. Sumitomo plans to double production of battery materials in nine years, focusing on supplying Toyota and Panasonic, supplier of Tesla’s EV batteries.

Toyota said it was working to reduce the amount of metal in its products and the environmental burden. Sumitomo declined to discuss the mine and smelter. Panasonic, Tesla and Vale Indonesia did not respond to questions.

A nickel mine on Indonesia’s Kabaena Island. (Ian Morse for The Washington Post)

A nickel mine on Indonesia’s Kabaena Island. (Ian Morse for The Washington Post)The project is among 25 planned mine-smelter combinations to be opened by 2022 across the country, currently home to 11 smelters. Nickel mines may already number in the hundreds, if not thousands, according to the Mining Advocacy Network, an Indonesian nongovernmental organization known as Jatam.

Electric vehicles will require millions of tons of nickel derivatives in coming decades. Indonesia sees an opportunity that an official has described as potentially larger than its palm-oil industry, blamed for deforestation and forest fires.

“There is a move to increase the amount of nickel and reduce the amount of cobalt in these batteries to improve energy density and, therefore, vehicle range,” said Andrew Mitchell, an analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

To create jobs and attract more investment, Indonesia recently banned most nickel-ore exports. After a similar ban in 2014, relaxed in 2017, the demand for pure nickel led to the spread of energy-intensive smelters, threatening to cause respiratory problems and water contamination. Companies that had relied on exporting ore abandoned hundreds of mines, leaving sediment to wash into waterways.

A harmful legacy

Environmentalists warn that the drive to expand the industry will come at the expense of local livelihoods, forests and seas.

Sulawesi is home to species found nowhere else, including vibrant hornbills, miniature water buffalo, tusked deer-pigs and some tarsiers, a small, nocturnal primate. Nickel developments stretch to the Maluku Islands, where Europeans in search of spices began colonizing the Indonesian archipelago. The biodiversity there inspired Alfred Russel Wallace’s theories of evolution alongside those of Charles Darwin.