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Indonesian authorities nip island auction in marine reserve in the bud

  • Indonesian officials have sought to neuter an apparent bid to auction off private tourism enclaves to foreign investors in a marine reserve in the country’s east.
  • Shares of Bali-based developer PT Leadership Islands Indonesia (LII) had been up for bidding via Sotheby’s Concierge Auctions in New York from Dec. 8-14, but the deputy environment minister said this had now been annulled.
  • LII holds the rights to develop tourism facilities in the Widi Islands, but not to sell off individual islands to foreign investors, which is against Indonesian law.
  • The Widi Islands are part of a marine reserve in the Pacific Coral Triangle, and while most of the islands are uninhabited, they hold high social, cultural and livelihood importance for local fishing communities.

JAKARTA — Indonesian authorities have cracked down on a private developer’s bid to carve out foreign tourism enclaves within a marine reserve in the country’s eastern Widi Islands.

The country’s deputy environment minister, Alue Dohong, on Dec. 6 told local TV news that the government had annulled the auction of shares of the Bali-based developer that had the rights to develop tourism facilities in the Widi Islands. A day earlier, the fisheries ministry said that the developer, PT Leadership Islands Indonesia (LII), did not have the permit required to ensure that development in the islands complies with prevailing zoning plans and guarantees economic and ecological benefits. The military has also weighed in, sending in soldiers to hoist the national flag and paint houses on the islands in the red and white of the flag in protest at the reported auction.

“Based on the laws, the Widi Islands cluster cannot be owned by foreigners and is not for sale,” said Victor Gustaaf Manoppo, the fisheries ministry’s director-general of marine spatial planning.

The archipelagic province of North Maluku, in green, where the Widi Islands are located. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Part of Widi Islands in North Maluku province. Image by Mahmud Ichi/Mongabay Indonesia.

The Guardian reported on Nov. 30 that shares in LII were up for bidding via Sotheby’s Concierge Auctions in New York from Dec. 8-14. The company has sought to develop less than 1% of the rainforest and 0.005% of the entire reserve, with zone restrictions for tourists and limited numbers of visitors. The plan, however, was met with mounting concerns by experts who said it would be essentially selling the islands off to foreigners, which is illegal under Indonesian law.

LII in 2015 signed a memorandum of understanding with local governments to build an eco-resort and luxury residential properties in the Widi Islands. The area is part of a marine protected zone inside the Pacific Coral Triangle, home to the highest diversity of corals and reef fishes anywhere on the planet. The company said the agreement included the rights to develop the area for 35 years with a possible extension of another 20 years.

Indonesia’s home affairs minister, Tito Karnavian, said the developer had seven years to start working on construction, but an apparent lack of funds seems to have prompted it to hold an auction. Tito said foreign investment would be allowed as long as the developer was legally based in Indonesia.

Mongabay Indonesia visited the Widi Islands in May 2022 and spoke to local fishers about the planned tourism development. There’s been hardly any progress in the past couple of years, the fishers said, besides a few gazebos and a wooden jetty built for an international fishing tournament. At the time of the visit, these facilities appeared to be unmaintained and deteriorating.

Amin Hairudin, 50, a fisherman from a nearby village, said LII’s chief executive, Natalia Kira Catherine, would occasionally visit and remind fishers against destructive fishing activities, such as the use of explosives and potassium.

Fishers gather on Daga Island, one the inhabited islands of Widi. Image by Mahmud Ichi/Mongabay Indonesia.

The North Maluku provincial government has called on LII to publicly clarify any misinformation over the auction, permits, and its development plans. The company told local news media that it was not auctioning off the islands, only looking for investors.

This is the latest in a string of cases in which Indonesian islands have been promoted for sale to private entities, including Gili Tangkong Island in West Nusa Tenggara province, Pendek Island in Southeast Sulawesi, and Ayam and Ajab islands in the Riau Islands. Environmentalists say island privatization in Indonesia often results in land and social conflicts between companies and coastal communities.

“What’s happening to the Widi Islands can happen to other islands in Indonesia if the government fails to act strongly against privatization like this,” Yusuf Sangadji, executive director of the local NGO Jala Ina Maluku, said in a statement published Dec. 4.

North Maluku, an archipelagic province in Indonesia’s east, is made up of 395 islands, only 64 of which are inhabited. Experts say some of the uninhabited islands, including several in the Widi chain, are an important source of livelihood and social and cultural importance for local communities, and thus shouldn’t be written off as “desert islands” that can be sold off for development.

The Widi Islands sprawl across 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) with a coastline running a total of about 150 kilometers (93 miles). The marine reserve of which the islands are a part spans some 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres), with nearly 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of coral reef, 85 hectares (210 acres) of mangroves, and almost 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of seagrass beds. The reserve is home to a rich diversity of marine life, including several threatened species.

“Privatization of islands is a gateway for damage that will happen in small islands,” Yusuf said. “Uninhabited islands also have ecosystems and functions that must be protected. Don’t let destruction of the ecosystem and the existence of island communities be destroyed just for the sake of investment.”

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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