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Work on cable car line to Indonesian volcano to begin despite concerns

  • Construction will begin this month on a cable car line to Mount Rinjani on the Indonesian island of Lombok, a UNESCO-listed geopark.
  • Environmental activists have expressed concern about the project, noting that local authorities have still not published the environmental impact analysis and feasibility study for public review.
  • Authorities insist the cable car line won’t cross into Mount Rinjani National Park, and have touted a series of measures to minimize the environmental impact.

JAKARTA — Authorities on the Indonesian island of Lombok plan to begin construction this month of a controversial and long-delayed cable car project for tourists to visit Mount Rinjani, a UNESCO-listed geopark and active volcano.

The local development office announced a groundbreaking ceremony will be held on Dec. 17, to coincide with the anniversary of the establishment of West Nusa Tenggara province, where Lombok is located. The construction of the 2.2 trillion rupiah ($142 million) project, which has been expanded from a cable car line to include a resort, is expected to take two years to complete. The cable car line itself will cost 100 billion rupiah ($6.4 million) and will run 10 kilometers (6 miles), from a community forest in the village of Karang Sidemen to the foothills at the edge of Mount Rinjani National Park.

While the local government insists the park’s ecosystem won’t be affected because the cable car won’t cross into the park, environmentalists remain unsure as officials have still not published the project’s environmental and feasibility assessments for public review.

“We’re not anti-development, but we’re trying to thoroughly examine the project,” Amri Nuryadin, the head of the West Nusa Tenggara chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), told Mongabay by phone.

Mount Rinjani’s crater lake, Segara Anak. Photo by Gugumpermana via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

Amri said critics of the project want to ensure that the public is involved in the assessment and that the project will have high economic value to the locals while keeping environmental impacts to a minimum.

The provincial government says the project will sit outside the boundary of Mount Rinjani National Park, and that visitors will still need to hike the rest of the way to reach the volcano’s peak and its scenic crater lake, Segara Anak. It added that about 10% of the 500-hectare (1,240-acre) concession awarded to developer PT Indonesia Lombok Resort will be developed for the project, while the rest of the landscape will go untouched.

Officials have also said that the environmental impact assessment, known as an Amdal, and feasibility study for the project were already underway before the developer, reportedly backed by Chinese investors, applied for the construction permits.

Amri said this sequence of events doesn’t make sense, especially with the groundbreaking ceremony set to take place in a few weeks’ time.

“The government must be open to the public about these assessments, which we have yet to see any of,” he said. “We’re talking about studies that show how the project would be oriented toward environmental sustainability, not shutting down sources of income for the people, [how it addresses] disaster mitigation and whether the site’s ecosystem can withstand the construction.”

The foothills of Mount Rinjani. Photo by skyseeker via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

Tourists visiting the national park often rely on local independent and small-business guides and porters to help them trek up Mount Rinjani, the centerpiece of the park and part of UNESCO’s global network of geoparks since 2018. Climbing enthusiasts have also criticized the provincial government’s rationale for rolling out the cable car to cater to tourists who won’t be trekking.

Officials have confirmed they’re targeting a “middle to executive class” segment who want to enjoy the mountain without having to hike it.

The cable car project was first announced in 2016 by Suhaili Fadhil Thohir, the then-head of Central Lombok district, where the national park is located. The governor of West Nusa Tenggara at the time, Zainul Majdi, was among those opposed to the idea, citing the potential for environmental damage.

The issue gained political prominence in the 2018 election to replace Majdi, with Suhaili making the cable car project a focus of his campaign and rival Mori Hanafi campaigning prominently in opposition to it. Hanafi even commissioned a poll showing that more than 70% of respondents didn’t want a cable car to Mount Rinjani.

But it was another candidate, Zulkieflimansyah, who eventually won the gubernatorial election, without ever mentioning the cable car project. Provincial secretary Gita Aryadi, the No. 2 official in the local government, told reporters in early 2020 that construction could begin as soon as May that year, in time to open ahead of the inaugural Indonesian edition of the MotoGP motorcycle race in 2021.

The provincial environmental agency says construction will be carried out with minimal damage to the environment, including through the use of helicopters rather than trucks to bring in material, and a pledge to not clear land for new roads for heavy equipment that needs to be brought in overland.

Mount Rinjani National Park is due for an evaluation of its geopark status, and the cable car project, if it goes ahead, will be a significant factor in that decision, said Chairul Machsul, the head of the committee overseeing the Rinjani Geopark. A team from UNESCO visited the park in May this year for an assessment. Mongabay sought comment from UNESCO but did not receive a response by the time this article was published.

Data from the West Nusa Tenggara environmental agency showed the total forested area considered to be in critical condition increased between 2013 and 2019, from 141,376 to 280,941 hectares (349,348 to 694,220 acres). Walhi attributes deforestation in the region largely due to land-use change driven by mining, agriculture and tourism.

“Especially with the climate crisis, everything is vulnerable already,” Walhi’s Amri said. “The risk is too big. Will what is being built really be worth the downsides? And what the people will get out of it?”

Tourists trekking on Mount Rinjani. Photo by Chafidwahyu via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

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

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