Sixteen years ago, Aiyen Tjoa was exploring a small mining town of Sorowako in the heart of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Sorowako once had been a home to immense diversity of plants, and most of them were found nowhere else. But then the small town became the hub of one of the largest nickel mining areas in the world, with one company alone extracting 5% of the global nickel supply.
When Tjoa, a soil biologist and lecturer in Tadulako University in Central Sulawesi, arrived in Sorowako in 2004, most of the lush vegetation had already been cleared for mining, leaving barren soil and dusty roads in its place.
But some bushes and young trees survived. Back then, Tjoa was eager to find those rare plants that were adapting well to their new, nickel-rich surroundings. These, she reasoned, could be “super plants” capable of taking up high levels of nickel from the soil and storing it in surprisingly high quantities. As well as cleaning the soil, these nickel-rich plants could be “mined” to provide an alternative source of the metal, allowing nickel to be harvested without destroying the ecosystem.