Encroachment and speculation

Even more than the bridge itself, conservationists worry about the development of its access road, which has already resulted in the bulldozing of a four-kilometer long, 100-meter wide strip of forest between a mangrove ecosystem and the Sungai Wain Protection Forest.

The borders of the protected forest can be seen clearly from the newly cleared land, sometimes a mere 200 meters away. The strip that has been razed, however, is zoned for “other uses” — a designation known as APL — rather than as “forest area.” The Balikpapan administration has set it aside as a plantation and industrial zone.

Local conservationists have lamented the zonation. “The area is crucial because it’s a corridor connecting the wildlife in the land forest of the Sungai Wain Protection Forest and the coastal forest,” said Hamsuri of the local green group Balikpapan Bay Concerned Forum (FPTB).

The planned access road crosses over four rivers — Puda, Brenga, Tempadung and Tengah — where a garden of seagrass grows on which the Vulnerable dugong (Dugong dugon) feeds. During a visit by Mongabay to the Tengah River, another iconic animal, a saltwater crocodile (Crocodilus porosus) appeared crawling out from the water.

The rivers were visibly contaminated by debris from the work on the access road, while some of the mangrove trees appeared dead from losing water.

The Tengah River, where a garden of seagrass grows. Its water has turned brownish as it is contaminated by debris from the development of the access road. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

Traces of burned vegetation were still visible from a May forest fire that consumed a strip of forest around 2.7 kilometers long, just 140 meters from the protection forest. The burning reportedly was done by locals who wanted to open land for a plantation.

Lhota estimates that, when factoring in indirect impacts like encroachment, the construction of secondary roads, burning, logging and hunting, the development of the access road will cause 5,000 hectares (19.3 square miles) of forest will be lost.

“All in all, the negative impacts from this bridge development will truly be an ecological disaster,” said the primatologist, who launched an online petition calling on President Jokowi to stop the project.

Work on the access road has already attracted some locals to start claiming land ownership in and around the cleared area, presumably in hopes that the arrival of the road will increase the value of property on its fringes. In 2012, Lhota estimated that land prices might shoot up tenfold when development plans for the area are completed.

One of the spots alongside the access road where local interests have staked claims. A sign says the area is owned by Mr. B. Musthofa of PT Agro Cakrawala Perkasa. A banner reads that the area, surrounded by wired fence, is under the supervision of the Dayak Customary Defense Command.

A number of local interests have put up wire fences and signs saying they are awaiting land certification from the city government. These include Kalimantan’s Dayak Customary Defense Commando, a uniformed paramilitary group.

Suryanto, head of the Balikpapan government’s environmental department, admitted that land speculation is taking place in the area around the access road. He said the claims sometimes lacked merit or overlapped with others.

“We are aware of speculators trying to make large profits from these claims, and we know who they are, but they’re going to have to prove it at court and we’ll just have to wait for the verdict. This is particularly difficult for us to deal with,” Suryanto told Mongabay.

A green project?

The local governments concede the project will have negative environmental impacts, but insist they have also implemented a mitigation program to minimize damages to the surrounding ecosystems.

For instance, the North Penajam Paser administration has pledged to replant three times as much mangrove as is cleared for the project, said Riza Indra Riadi, the head of environment department at the East Kalimantan government.

Lhota, however, lambasted this policy as “greenwashing” that would ultimately backfire on the environment. “The extent of mangrove forest will still be reduced with that policy, because replanting mangrove will either be somewhere mangrove trees naturally grow, or on an area where mangroves can’t live,” he said.

In 2016, the city administration also agreed to involve an observer who will monitor the activities of marine mammals, which are sensitive to noise pollution from the bridge construction. The expert will inform the developers of times when the animals are likely to be away from the project site.

“We have agreed to have two people from FPTB to do this task voluntarily,” said Suryanto.

However, Hamsuri of the FPTB said that the bridge-builders seem reluctant to inform his group about their plans.

“We’re pretty disappointed by the developers because they haven’t shown any sign of cooperativeness with us,” he said. “They keep saying they haven’t started any work for the bridge piers, but we have our sources who tell us otherwise.”

Hamsuri said his last contact, which was observed by Suryanto, took place in May.

“But we will still monitor their activities, and report them to the authorities if they continue without our supervision,” he added.

The beginnings of bridgework on the Balikpapan side. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

The current debate within the Balikpapan administration — which on Aug. 2 received a prestigious green award from the Indonesian government — centers on whether or not to elevate the access road, an expensive option some hope will maintain connectivity between the habitats of the coastal forest and the dryland forest, particularly in the Sungai Wain Protection Forest.

“Our decision is clear: we will not approve if the access road is connected by landed road,” said Suryanto. He added that the Balikpapan City Council has been in talks to find an affordable system to have a flyover connecting the access road.

Responding to concerns about increasing illegal logging and forest burning, Suryanto said the access road would be fenced off from the surrounding forests. “The locals won’t be able to open land as they wish,” he said.

Hamsuri, however, criticized the Balikpapan government’s monitoring efforts, especially after the forest fire in May and the growing claims of land ownership in the area.

“Whenever I comment on this, their response is always about the lack of budget for monitoring,” Hamsuri said. “So, what’s really their commitment for this?”

Suryanto referred to a 2014 Law on Regional Governance which has shifted the authority to manage protection forests to the provincial government. “The East Kalimantan government doesn’t set aside funding for [the management of the Sungai Wain Protection Forest] to us,” he said.

Left: two possible routes for the bridge, either via Balang Island or further south. Image courtesy of Stanislav Lhota. Right: work underway on the Balang Island side of the second span of the bridge. Photo by Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

An abandoned alternative

As the project kicked off in 2008, conservationists proposed alternative routes for the Pulau Balang bridge. They suggested the bridge and road be built at the southern edge of the bay, completely bypassing the mangroves and the rainforest. According to projections by Lhota, this alternative route involved higher upfront expenses but would be cheaper in the long run.

The local governments deemed the alternatives unfit for their development programs, especially for the North Penajam Paser district.

“[With the Pulau Balang bridge], Sepaku will be more developed as it’s a transmigration destination. And if we only rely on the ferry service, development will be very slow in the region,” said Riadi of the East Kalimantan government in Jakarta on July 18.

Officials also noted that the high upfront costs for the alternative plans would be a strain on the tight regional and state budgets, and that private sector funding is hard to source while Kalimantan remains so under-developed.

But the local governments’ regional development plans ring hollow to Lhota, who claims that profiting from land speculation was the true motivation for the construction of the Pulau Balang bridge. “The more forested areas that must be cleared, the more lands that will be freed and sold to speculators and companies,” he said.

FPTB’s Hamsuri also suggested that the alternative bridge and road would have required the Balikpapan government to tear down some established houses and factories. “It would’ve cost so much more to compensate the factories, compared to clearing the forests,” he said.

A proboscis monkey, one of the endangered species conservationists fear will be harmed by the bridge and its access road. Photo by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Despite the direct and indirect environmental damages, the project is scheduled for completion in 2019 with the central government setting aside 1.33 trillion rupiah from the state budget.

“We will accelerate the construction works [of the bridge] so that Balikpapan and North Penajam Paser can be connected by 2018,” said Basuki Hadimuljono, Minister of Public Works and Housing, in January 2016.

The local governments have maintained their stance that the benefits from the bridge development will far outweigh the losses.

“Our commitment to protect the environment for our future remains,” said Riadi. “We still want to work on the bridge and this could be an example of an infrastructure project that’s eco-friendly.”

But for Lhota, the local governments have failed to keep the environmental impacts to a minimum, labeling their approach as “highly propagandist.”

“The only way to minimize the environmental impact would be gazetting all the 5,000 hectares of forest along the road as a protected area. But in fact, the government did exactly the opposite thing – they proposed that the area around the road will be developed as an extension of the Kariangau Industrial Zone. This means that all forest and all wildlife corridors along the road will be destroyed,” he said.

CITATIONS:

Banner image: Proboscis monkey, by Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

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Article published by Isabel Esterman
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