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Komodo protesters say no to development in the dragons’ den

A Komodo dragon visits a waterhole on Komodo Island. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

  • Two private developers are set to build a restaurant and accommodation on islands that are home to the rare and threatened Komodo dragon in Indonesia.
  • Residents have protested the plans, however, saying the giant lizards’ island habitat should be kept in pristine condition.
  • They have also questioned the government’s commitment to the conservation of the dragons and their own livelihoods.
  • For its part, the government says the developments will have a minimal footprint and will boost tourism revenue.

JAKARTA — Locals and activists have denounced plans to build tourism infrastructure in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, a string of sun-kissed islands best known for their resident giant lizards.

Developers PT Segara Komodo Lestari (SKL) and PT Komodo Wildlife Ecotourism (KWE) have already pocketed building permits for the park’s three larger islands, Padar, Rinca and Komodo. The latter two are home to the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the world’s largest living lizard and a threatened species on the IUCN Red List.

PT SKL, which obtained its permit in December 2015, plans to build a restaurant and a dragon sightseeing facility on Rinca. PT KWE’s permit, dating back to September 2014, is for accommodation on Padar and Komodo islands.

But residents of West Manggarai district, the administrative region that covers the park, have called for the plans to be scrapped and the permits revoked.

“The local government, together with the national government and tourism businesses, must maintain Komodo National Park as a conservation zone to ensure tourism that’s environmentally friendly and free from exploitation and commercialization,” Rafael Todowela, who heads the West Manggarai Community Forum to Save Tourism (Formapp Mabar), said at a protest earlier this month.

“Conservation is to protect the Komodo dragons, not investors,” he added.

A view of Padar Island from one of its highest points. Image by Basten Gokkon.

Komodo National Park comprises the three larger islands and 26 smaller ones. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the Pacific Coral Triangle, and, as a protected area under Indonesian law, is subject to tight restrictions on development.

However, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which oversees the management of the park, supports the planned developments as part of a bid to boost tourism to the region.

Wiratno, the ministry’s director general for conservation, said the restrictions on development were enshrined in five-year plans that were periodically up for review.

He said the planned developments would have minimal footprints and be restricted to parts of the respective islands that are already zoned for development. PT SKL’s permit entitles it to a concession of 22 hectares (54 acres) on Rinca, of which it will only develop 10 percent. Similarly, PT KWE plans to only build on a tenth of the combined 578 hectares (1,428 acres) it has been granted on Padar and Komodo.

Wiratno said both developers would abide by government building standards to protect the ecosystem and wildlife in the park, including prefabricating their structures elsewhere before assembling them on the islands. He said they would procure environmentally friendly and culturally appropriate building materials from within the region, such as bamboo; use solar panels; and adopt zero-waste management systems.

Under the terms of their permits, the companies are also required to employ locals and to allocate 5 percent of their profits to help small and medium businesses.

A Komodo dragon walking along a beach on Komodo Island. Image by Basten Gokkon.
Part of the concession held by PT Segara Komodo Lestari on Rinca Island. Image by Kris Da Somerpes for Mongabay-Indonesia.

Wiratno said the opposition to the developments was being pushed not by residents of the islands inside the park, but by people from Labuan Bajo on the nearby large island of Flores, the main gateway to Komodo National Park.

“Maybe they have an interest in the tourism industry too,” he said.

But he also indicated that the developers may not have done enough in terms of outreach and communicating with the local communities.

Alimudin, a resident of Komodo village, said there was barely any mention of a public consultation with the developers in the years since the permits were issued.

“We only received an invitation [for a discussion] on July 29 [this year], and I refused to come because I think the consultation should have happened way before, not when construction is about to start,” he told Mongabay-Indonesia.

Alimudin said that allowing the private companies to build inside the park ran counter to the government’s constant refrain to locals to conserve the park’s wilderness to protect the Komodo dragons.

“The locals are banned from doing any development work in any part of the national park for the sake of conservation,” he said, adding he was concerned how the planned restaurant and accommodations would affect the lizards and their habitat.

A village on Komodo Island. Image by Basten Gokkon.
Residents of Labuan Bajo stage a protest against tourism development plans by private companies inside Komodo National Park, citing environmental concerns. Image by Kris Da Somerpes for Mongabay-Indonesia.

Kris Da Somerpes, a researcher with Sunspirit for Justice and Peace, an NGO based in Labuan Bajo, said the planned developments would have an impact on the ecosystem as well as on residents’ livelihoods.

“These companies will have tight control on access to the islands, which can be a threat to local small businesses like homestays, tour guides and rental boats,” he said.

“Allowing the two companies into the park can spark a rush of other private firms grabbing concessions in the area, and limiting development opportunities for the locals,” he added.

Wiratno said the government was ultimately pushing to boost tourist numbers to the area. Komodo National Park is home to some 4,000 people and more than 2,700 dragons, and last year hosted 122,000 visitors, nearly two-thirds of them from overseas. The West Manggarai administration is targeting annual tourist visits of 500,000 to the district, of which the national park is by far the biggest attraction, by 2019.

The park generated 27 billion rupiah ($1.85 million) in tourism earnings in 2017, and is already on track to exceed that figure this year, according to Dody Wahyu Karyanto, the environment ministry’s director for environmental services exploitation.

“If we don’t match this [earning] potential to conservation, then the conservation is pointless,” he said.

Komodo National Park is one of several top tourism priorities for the Indonesian government, which is targeting 20 million foreign visitors to the country by 2019. It projects earnings from these visitors to top 240 trillion rupiah ($18 billion), in the form of foreign exchange income and the creation of 13 million jobs, according to the environment ministry.

But not everyone is as upbeat about the country’s ambitious tourism plans. The overdevelopment of tourist areas has recently been flagged as a growing problem across Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia’s own Bali Island.

“The tourism policy is a form of ‘green grabbing’: grabbing the locals’ land under the guise of conservation and environmental protection,” said Eko Cahyono, an agrarian researcher.

He said his own studies of government-led “strategic tourism policies” enforced on other sites around the country showed that any conservation justifications were overblown: “The fact is that tourism is only an economic resource, to the extent that it only boosts foreign exchange income and earnings,” with little benefit for the conservation side of the equation.

Banner image of a komodo dragon by Jeremy Hance/Mongabay.

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