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Indonesian fishers opposed to dredging project hit by ‘criminalization’ bid

  • Police have arrested four fishermen and charged them with defacing the Indonesian currency, following their protests against dredging for a new port in Makassar, eastern Indonesia.
  • Environmental activists and supporters of the fishing community say the charge, for which the fishermen could face up to five years in prison, is a spurious one meant to silence opposition to the $6.2 billion project.
  • The fishing community says the dredging activity has disrupted their traditional fishing areas, leading to catches dropping by up to two-thirds since dredging began in February this year.
  • The four fishermen arrested on Aug. 14 were charged after one of them, out of protest, tore a money-filled envelope given to them by the dredging company.

JAKARTA/MAKASSAR — Activists in Indonesia have slammed what they call the authorities’ campaign of criminalization against a fishing community protesting against the development of a port on their coast.

Police arrested four fishermen from the Sangkarrang Islands in the eastern region of Sulawesi on Aug. 14 on charges of “desecrating the national currency.” The head of the local chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), which is advocating for the fishing community, says he has also been subjected to online attacks from anonymous groups.

“This case is obviously a form of criminalization,” said Edy Kurniawan, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi province, who is representing the fishermen.

The Makassar New Port is slated to become a key logistics hub for Indonesia’s eastern region. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Shutting down protest

The charges stem from the fishing community’s opposition to the Makassar New Port venture, a 90 trillion rupiah ($6.2 billion) “nationally strategic project.” Under the project, 1,428 hectares (3,529 acres) along the city’s coast will be converted by 2025 for the new port, including through land reclamation, for which the builders are dredging sand from the nearby Sangkarrang Islands.

But the dredging activity, which began in February this year, has disturbed traditional fishing areas and led to smaller catches and a loss of income for fishers, according to the community and environmental activists. The fishers have staged a series of protests, including blocking a dredging ship and staging an overnight demonstration outside the South Sulawesi governor’s office.

On July 16, dredging contractors PT Banteng Laut and PT Boskalis International Indonesia, a subsidiary of Dutch-based Royal Boskalis Westminster, invited a group of five fishermen to the dredging site for a “location survey.” Once there, they gave them money-filled envelopes, which one of the fishermen, named Manre, tore up in protest.

That prompted police to charge Manre and three others with defacing the rupiah, which is a crime under a 2011 law for which they face up to five years in prison. It’s also a spurious charge meant to mask the criminalization of any opposition to the project, said Edy from LBH Makassar.

“It’s strongly believed to be done to shut down the people’s protests against dredging by PT Boskalis,” he said.

A map showing the offshore dredging concessions in the waters off Makassar. Image courtesy of the South Sulawesi provincial mining department.

Others have called for a halt to dredging activities in the wake of the arrests.

“There can’t be an equal dialogue if mining operations still carry on,” said Merah Johansyah, the head of the NGO Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam). “It’s putting one of the parties at a disadvantage.”

Merah said dredging in the traditional fishing area threatened the community’s livelihood and well-being: with fewer fish to catch in the turbid waters, the fishers have to go farther out to sea, which both increases their operating costs and puts them at greater risk of encountering dangerously high waves.

“Their debts pile up due to the increasing costs, and that burden is coupled with the economic impacts from the coronavirus pandemic,” Merah said.

Susan Herawati, the secretary-general of the NGO Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), called on the police to release the fishermen and drop all charges against them.

“Justice should side with the fishers and the coastal communities that have been impacted by the sea sand mining operation,” she said.

H. Baharuddin, a Sangkarrang fisherman, said he’s seen his catch drop by two-thirds since dredging began in February for the Makassar New Port project.

“When the [dredging] boats operate, the sea becomes murky and muddy; no fish can feed in such an environment,” he said. He added the boats come three times a day to the dredging site, which is about 32 kilometers (20 miles) offshore.

The declining catches exacerbate already hard times for the fishers: measures to combat COVID-19 across Indonesia have dropped sales and demand for seafood.

Fishers block a Dutch dredging vessel in protest against its operation, which they say has reduced their fish catches. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).

Online threats

The Sangkarrang fishers’ defenders have also faced pushback. Walhi, which initiated an investigation in February in response to the fishers’ complaints about the dredging, had to halt its work when the COVID-19 outbreak prompted partial lockdown measures.

Within days of the NGO resuming its research upon the gradual lifting of the measures in July, it came under attack. Muhammad Al Amien, the local Walhi chapter head, began receiving online messages from mostly unknown people telling him to stop spreading false information to the community and provoking them into opposing the project.

In a matter of weeks, Amien said, the messages turned to threats. One message contained a picture of himself with the word “WANTED” printed on top. Amien also said he received calls telling him to meet with representatives from the companies and local authorities to discuss the opposition to the dredging.

“These coercions show that there might be something wrong with this project,” Amien told Mongabay over the phone recently.

Environmental activists in Indonesia are among the groups most vulnerable to violence by law enforcers in their advocacy for human rights and the environment. Walhi recorded 32 activists being victims of “trumped-up” charges in 2018, including destruction of property, incitement and spreading communism.

Amien said he always receives threats whenever he advocates against mining and land reclamation projects, including the Centre Point of Indonesia project that was slated to create five artificial islands through reclamation off the coast of Makassar. That project, notably, also involved PT Boskalis, and was the subject of fierce opposition from fishers and environmentalists. It was eventually scrapped in 2018.

“Reclamation projects typically involve a lot of interest as they need huge capital investment,” Amien said.

Fishers and environmental activists stage a protest against the dredging taking place off Makassar in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Coastal planning

Supporters of the fishing community have called for a review of the provincial zoning plan to address the disputes that arise from projects like the Makassar New Port and Centre Point of Indonesia.

“The problem lies in the designation of the [dredging] concession, which appears to be located in the fishing zone for traditional fishers,” said Yusran Nurdin Massa, a researcher with the Indonesian marine environmental nonprofit Blue Forests.

Sulkaf S. Latief, head of the South Sulawesi marine and fisheries department, said the dredging site for PT Banteng Laut Indonesia and PT Boskalis International Indonesia was in line with the 2019 zoning plan. He said the opposition from fishers stems from the increased rate of traffic of the dredging boats, and not necessarily from the dredging activity itself.

“Due to the area’s heavy traffic, the vessels sometimes stop by near the islands as they wait for the traffic to ease,” he said. “This is what the fishers claim is dredging taking place outside the concession.”

Sulkaf said his office was arranging a meeting between the fishers, the dredging companies and state-owned port operator Pelindo to discuss the issue.

Fishers stage an overnight protest outside the South Sulawesi governor’s office. Image courtesy of the Makassar Legal Aid Institute.

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