Indonesian islanders fight developer with snorkels and homestays

By Reuters   October 8, 2018 | 05:27 pm PT
Indonesian islanders fight developer with snorkels and homestays
A beach on the Indonesian island of Pulau Pari. Photo by Reuters
S yahrul Hidayat's family has lived on the Indonesian island of Pulau Pari for four generations, fishing in its clear blue waters and selling seaweed to supplement their incomes.

But their lives and livelihoods have come under threat in recent years as their customary land rights have been denied, and a developer claims ownership of much of the island off the northern coast near Jakarta.

The 1,200-strong community is already contending with the existential threats of warmer temperatures, rising seas and worsening marine pollution. But the denial of land rights could strike the deadliest blow, said Hidayat.

"We have adapted to smaller catches of fish and smaller volumes of seaweed, because of climate change and pollution," said Hidayat, who is leading the campaign to reclaim the community's land rights.

"But how can we cope with losing our homes and land? Where will we go, what will we do?"

Indonesia, an archipelago of thousands of islands, has about 81,000 km (50,000 miles) of coastline, with millions of people dependent on the sea for their livelihood.

Across the country, many have already been forced to move because of eroding coastlines.

Others face pressure from developers keen to build hotels and apartment blocks on its acclaimed beaches, activists say.

"The coastal communities have always had customary rights, but few have formal titles, and this is being used as a way to evict them," said Susan Herawati, secretary general of the People's Coalition for Fisheries Justice, KIARA.

"We are an island nation, yet so many coastal communities are struggling without rights. They are forgotten even in the push for agrarian reform in the country," she said.

Seaweed and snorkels

President Joko Widodo last month signed a decree on agrarian reform, with an aim to issue titles and distribute land to peasants and indigenous people.

Officials distributed more than five million land titles last year, and plan to issue seven million titles this year.

But the effort is hampered by the government's insistence on providing titles only if ownership can be considered "clean and clear", which excludes areas where land is disputed, activists say.

That affects residents of Pulau Pari, who say that local officials promised a few years ago that they would receive land certificates after submitting the old papers that were informal records of the land they occupied.

They handed over their documents, but never did get the certificates, said Hidayat.

In 2014, signs went up on the island declaring that much of the land belonged to a private firm.

"We were tricked into giving up the only proof of ownership we had, and were not informed of the plans to sell our land," Hidayat told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We paid taxes on the land, yet many of us were charged with trespassing, and some threatened with civil and criminal suits. Some were scared and left the island," he said.

The company Bumi Pari Asri did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The 95-hectare island was uninhabited until the early 1900s, when dozens of people from the large island of Java decamped there to avoid forced labour under Dutch colonialists, according to historians.

The first residents named it Pulau Pari for the pari, or rays swimming in its clear waters.

Residents mostly made a living from fishing, then cultivated seaweed as warmer temperatures led to diminished catches.

But the seaweed was affected by pollution from reclamation of land in Jakarta Bay, said Hidayat.

As residents discussed livelihood options, a few non-profits suggested they try eco-tourism.

Nearly all households on the island have been involved in the effort since about 2010, offering homestays and activities such as snorkelling, canoeing and cycling for visitors.

"Residents are able to be self-sufficient while also conserving the island's eco-system with their traditional knowledge," said KIARA's Herawati, who assisted the community in the project.

"It was the best possible solution."

'New Balis'

Tourism is a major source of revenue for Indonesia, accounting for more than 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product. The country, famed for its beaches and volcanic craters, aims to draw 20 million visitors a year by 2019.

Key to this goal is the creation of "10 new Balis", as the president has vowed, referring to the country's most popular tourist destination.

Among the proposed new Balis are islands that will be spruced up with new airports, wider roads, resorts and other tourist facilities.

But officials risk damaging fragile eco-systems and excluding local communities from livelihood opportunities and access to their land, say analysts and activists.

That is becoming a common complain across the region.

From Thailand to the Philippines, authorities have come under fire for allowing unchecked sprawl on islands and denying coastal communities their "right to island".

"Instead of a resort that occupies the land of the residents and may damage the ecology without much benefit to the people, a community-led effort is a far better option," said Herawati.

"Our thirst for fancy beach resorts must not come at the cost of the land and livelihoods of coastal people," she said.

Following petitions by Pulau Pari residents to the Jakarta governor, an ombudsman conducted an inquiry.

The ombudsman said earlier this year that there had been violations in issuing certificates of ownership and building permits to the developer. He advised an audit by the National Land Agency.

"I have asked for detailed reports on the dispute. I will check all the facts and make a decision," Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan told reporters in May after the ombudsman's report.

In the meantime, residents of Pulau Pari will keep fighting, said Hidayat.

"This is our home," he said.

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