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Environmentalists squirm as Jokowi eyes Lake Toba tourism bonanza

Indonesia's enormous Lake Toba. Photo by Jo3f/Flickr

  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo has established a special authority to revive tourism in Lake Toba, North Sumatra.
  • Environmentalists worry the plan could lead to forest clearance and exacerbate a worsening pollution problem.
  • Government officials argue tourism could actually be a boon for the lake’s environment — trees included — as well as the local economy.

Driving down a winding road here in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, one finally arrives at the sweeping vista of Lake Toba.

Ringed with pine-studded hills, the volcanic lake was thronged with tourists back in the 1990s. Now, the hotels’ paint is peeling and many kiosks are shuttered closed.

Starting this year, the government plans to whip the sleepy lake region into the “Monaco of Asia.” It’s an ambitious tourism initiative, and one that promises to boost the economy. The tourism minister has said he aims for the country to earn $1 billion annually from the lake’s foreign visitors.

But local communities and environmentalists are worried the ramped-up tourism will further harm Lake Toba’s embattled ecosystem.

In the last 30 years, endemic trees have disappeared from around the 1,130-square-kilometer lake, converted into small farms or industrial estates for production of pulpwood and other crops.

Meanwhile, the lake is struggling to cope with pollution from household sewage, agricultural runoff, and an explosion of fish farming.

On June 1, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo signed an edict establishing a special authority to revive and manage the lake’s tourism industry.

The presidential decree mapped out a 600-hectare development zone in the lakeside district of Toba Samosir. Already, the tourism ministry has confirmed plans to build five luxury hotels, a convention center, and a 100-hectare golf course.

“We will develop ecotourism,” the president said during a visit in August to the lake, a five-hour drive from Sumatra’s biggest city, Medan. “Lake Toba is known internationally. This tourism needs to be supported, and it absorbs more labor force than any other sector.”

A postcard-style image of a sunrise over the lake, which is 19 times the size of Manhattan. Photo by Wilson Teo/Flickr
A postcard-style image of a sunrise over the lake, which is 19 times the size of Manhattan. Photo by Wilson Teo/Flickr

Pining for a revision

Though the plan remains in its early stages, environmentalists and community leaders have lodged protests.

Despite promises of “ecotourism,” Jokowi’s edict itself provides no specific guidelines on environmental protection, other than simply that any development must follow existing rules.

More concerning, the government failed to conduct a strategic environmental impact assessment, known as a KLHS, prior to issuing the decree.

Image courtesy of CIA Factbook/Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of CIA Factbook/Wikimedia Commons

Karliansyah, the environment ministry’s pollution and environmental degradation chief, told Mongabay that an assessment was now being prepared. But the law suggests it should be the first step, as the assessment is a required basis for any spatial-planning policy like the one laid out for Toba.

Critics also take issue with a controversial part of the edict that might spell forest clearance around the lake.

Currently, the entire designated project zone is classified as “protected forest,” with swaths of it canopied with pine trees. The presidential edict mandates that it be rezoned and for the process to be fast-tracked.

This has sparked fears that trees might be slashed to pave way for resorts.

“Why cut down protected forest to build a gigantic tourism investment project?” said Saurlin Siagian, a researcher at the Peoples Forest Institute, a local NGO. “There are many other areas that no longer have forest cover that can be developed.”

That forest, he added, had formed over thousands of years, and it could take just as long to reform if cleared. “It’s very vulnerable,” he said. “The topsoil is so thin, it’s not easy for it to grow back.”

From 2001-2014, the lake area lost about 43,000 hectares of tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

A coalition of church leaders similarly protested Jokowi’s forest-conversion decree in a joint statement published in June. Far from resolving Toba’s existing environmental and social problems, the tourism plan only introduces new troubles, they said, demanding the edict’s revision.

Satrio Wicaksono, forest and landscape manager at Washington-based thinktank the World Resources Institute, which has an office in Jakarta, said the fast-track approach could set a bad precedent for both Lake Toba and the country as a whole.

“If we refer to existing laws on the environment, for instance, many requirements have to be met before changes to the legal status of forest estates may take place, which would take time,” he explained.

“If not implemented carefully, it is possible that some due process will be bypassed with this fast-track approach. This could mean losing our existing pristine forest cover.”

Pine trees are seen on Samosir Island in Lake Toba. Photo by Aria Danaparamita
Pine trees are seen on Samosir Island in Lake Toba. Photo by Aria Danaparamita

The pollution problem

Then there’s the waste problem. Here in Toba, wastewater treatment facilities are severely lacking. Many homes and hotels simply pour sewage untreated into the lake.

Even now, in the absence mass tourism, scientists have found the lake is increasingly polluted, with rising levels of phosphorus, nitrates, ammonia and solid waste.

The phosphorus content in particular has tripled since 2012, and exceeded quality standards, according to a 2014 report by the province’s environment agency.

“The highest levels are found in tourism areas,” said the report, which called for further research to confirm the trend.

Fish farms at Sualan in Lake Toba. The aquaculture is a major contributor to the lake's pollution. Photo by Aria Danaparamita
Fish farms at Sualan in Lake Toba. The aquaculture is a major contributor to the lake’s pollution. Photo by Aria Danaparamita

Water treatment pipes have been laid out in Toba Samosir, but only about 10 percent of their capacity is under use, according to North Sumatra’s water authority. Only three of the area’s dozens of hotels are connected to the system.

While the government has built storage for hotel sewage in Parapat, a lakeside town in Toba Samosir district, nothing like that exists in neighboring Samosir district, said Harianto Sinaga, a facilitator at a tourism ministry arm called the Toba Destination Management Organization.

“Samosir district is especially densely populated,” he said. “We need to lay out a system for hotel and household waste.”

Curse or blessing?

Despite these concerns, officials say tourism could be a boon for Toba’s environment, with the industry offering an economic incentive to keep it clean and pretty.

“The success of tourism is highly determined by the environmental quality of the tourism area,” said the environment ministry’s Karliansyah. “Because of that, the designation of Lake Toba as an international tourism destination is in fact beneficial from an environmental standpoint.”

The tourism ministry agreed, saying it was exploring several ecofriendly policies as part of the design, although those plans remain vague.

“We want the development to enhance the existing beauty, paying attention to eco-friendliness and environmental conservation,” Arie Prasetyo, the ministry’s point person for the Toba project, told Mongabay.

“For example, maybe we can use sustainable energy like solar power. We would still need to examine the use and potential, but we can explore it.”

2. A family takes a photo in Parapat on Lake Toba. Photo by Aria Danaparamita
2. A family takes a photo in Parapat on Lake Toba. Photo by Aria Danaparamita

The tourism ministry is also considering a policy requiring developers to maintain existing trees and plant new ones, in line with the government’s ongoing tree-planting program in Toba.

The economic lure of tourism is also pushing the government to advance slow-moving infrastructure projects like waste treatment.

“We are currently preparing various programs to improve water quality in Lake Toba, including improving community sanitation and requiring all hotels to treat their domestic waste,” Karliansyah said.

The ministry of public works plans to build 19 new wastewater treatment facilities as well as 12 garbage disposal centers across the lake’s districts.

And despite the early protests, construction projects are already underway.

The government aims to complete a toll road from Medan, the provincial capital, and pave a road circling the lake. The smaller Silangit Airport just south of the lake is being renovated to host more regular domestic flights.

Local governments have rushed to clean up the area, including evicting fish farms and limiting pollution-prone aquaculture to certain districts.

And investors are already signing up. The tourism ministry confirmed that at least three Medan businessmen have committed to developing the area, and expects more to show up.

As for the environment, tourism minister Arief Yahya insisted that the plan would stay true to the principles of ecotourism.

“The golf course is attractive, it’s built as part of ecotourism,” he said.

Follow Aria Danaparamita on Twitter: @mitatweets

Banner photo: Indonesia’s enormous Lake Toba. Photo by Jo3f/Flickr

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