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In Indonesia’s Aru Islands, a popular eco-defender climbs the political ladder

Mika Ganobal in his civil servant uniform.

Mika Ganobal in his civil servant uniform. Image by Leo Plunkett.

  • A decade ago, Mika Ganobal campaigned to prevent Indonesia’s eastern Aru Islands from becoming a sugar plantation.
  • Mika has since risen from a village chief to the head of one of the Aru Islands’ 10 subdistricts.
  • Mika and his wife, Dina Somalay, are raising their children to understand and value a rich landscape that was almost lost a decade ago.

ARU ISLANDS, Indonesia — More than 10 years have passed since a young official in Indonesia’s eastern Aru Islands saved his archipelago from becoming a monoculture plantation. Today, Mika Ganobal is drawing on his campaigning background as he governs part of the remote island chain he helped preserve a decade ago.

“Right now Mika is the top person to be able to eliminate illegal logging,” said Alo Tabela, head of the Aru Islands’ trade and industry office.

The Aru archipelago comprises almost 100 small islands in the east of Indonesia. The island chain, around the size of Puerto Rico, was part of the Australian landmass until separation occurred 8,000 years ago owing to rising sea levels. Today, the islands are home to around 100,000 people, more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of Australia’s Northern Territory.

Mika was in his mid-30s in 2013 when prospectors from a shadowy company called the Menara Group (menara means “tower” in Indonesian) arrived with the intention of razing the Aru Islands for a massive sugarcane plantation.

In the late 2000s, the district leader of the Aru Islands, a retired army colonel named Theddy Tengko, signed over most of its land area to be converted to a sugar plantation.

Prior to Theddy authorizing the vast plantation, prosecutors had charged him with corruption, alleging embezzlement of almost $5 million from the islands’ annual budget.

Theddy was convicted on those charges in 2012, although his legal team managed to keep him out of prison until he was forcibly detained on arriving in Aru in 2013. Police officers bundled Theddy onto a plane waiting on the tarmac. He died in prison of a heart attack the following year.

However, Theddy had quietly removed the conservation status of Aru’s rainforests while in office — and done so without consulting Aru’s affected Indigenous population.

A part of Aru Islands covered in forests.
A part of Aru Islands covered in forests. Image by Leo Plunkett.


Mika was among a diverse group of Aru islanders to organize against the company’s plans. In a scrum of demonstrators, the normally reserved Mika could be seen clambering aboard a truck with a megaphone to rally the crowd.

Plantation executives had tried to sow their core message among Aru villages, that the project would bring cash and infrastructure to Aru, but few were convinced.

“Their promises were too grandiose,” Mika told Mongabay at the time. “Maybe they’ll build a few things, but if they take our forest we’ll never get it back.”

At the time few people owned phones or used the internet. A church pastor in the provincial capital named Jacky Manuputty, together with Habib Almaskaty, a local blogger, used handwritten notes and SMS messages to coalesce opposition in Aru’s far-flung communities.

Remarkably, this network evolved into an international movement known as #SaveAru. Social media users from Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere showed support for the campaign by posting photographs of themselves with placards bearing the #SaveAru message. This foreign interest spurred influential local institutions such as the province’s biggest church and university to put pressure on government officials to cancel the project.

The Menara Group continued its efforts to obtain the final permission needed to break ground in Aru, even as the campaign’s reach grew. However, in 2014, Indonesia’s then-forestry minister Zulkifli Hasan confirmed that Indonesia’s central government would not allow the project to go ahead.

Environmentalists say the #SaveAru campaign was a rare case of remote communities defying the odds against plantation industry practices that have driven Indonesia’s rapid deforestation since the turn of the century.

#SaveAru became an international movement.
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Political rise

In 2019, five years after the government cancelled the plantation, Mika Ganobal became the head of Siwa Lima, a village in the west of Aru. And last year Mika was elevated to run East North Aru, one of 10 subdistricts that make up the island chain.

On the coast of Mika’s district, a clutch of rivers pours out to sea into a lagoon populated by a dozen small islands, the largest of which is about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) across.

In an interview, Mika told Mongabay Indonesia that his experience as an activist informed how he represented his constituents as they confronted new risks to life on the islands.

“Consultation with the community is here to stay,” he said.

Having fought off an attempted land grab, residents of Aru must now contend with the everyday challenges that afflict many communities in Indonesia’s hinterlands, from logging to overfishing.

Last year Mika was elevated to run East North Aru, one of 10 subdistricts that make up the island chain. Image by Leo Plunkett.

Read more: In Indonesia, a land ‘left behind’ weighs its development alternatives

Mika and his wife, Dina Somalay, are passing down knowledge of the land here to their children. As parents, Mika and Dina have taught their children about the mangrove species that fringe the coast by the family home. Here in Aru, mangroves are called wakat trees.

“The only damaged wakat are in Dobo … due to the expansion of settlements,” Mika said, referring to the capital of the islands. “Elsewhere, as far as I’ve seen, the people really do look after their wakat, because that’s their source of livelihood.”

An expanse of wakat trees encircles the islands near Mika’s home, producing a fruit that’s a staple in Aru kitchens. The roots of the wakat trees are a feeding ground for the crabs, fish and shrimp that the community rely on to meet their protein needs.

When wakat trees begin to rot, the wood becomes infested with tambelo worms, which can be eaten raw or boiled and dried, Mika said.

In addition to safeguarding mangroves, Mika advocates on behalf of local fishers. Large vessels towing purse seine nets, known in Indonesia as cantrang nets, often arrive in the waters off Aru and outcompete local fishers. The cantrang nets are the subject of a contested ban because of their small mesh size, yielding large volumes of bycatch and widely criticized on sustainability grounds.

News of campaigns in remote parts of Indonesia have become more commonplace as internet access has expanded. However, few expected more than a decade ago that the group behind #SaveAru would bring a land dispute in a remote area to an international audience. Today, Mika drawing on that campaigning experience in local government.

Mangroves of Aru Islands.
Mangroves of Aru Islands. Image by Nanang Sujana.

“We may be [civil servants] but when we return to society we are the children of the land, or children of adat [tradition],” Mika said. “It can’t be separated.”

Mika and Dina have four children, all boys, the third of whom, born at the height of Mika’s activism with the #SaveAru campaign, is named Leisava.

“Lei means boy, while Sava is short for Save Aru,” Mika said. “We hope that the name Leisava will be a memory of a lifetime of resistance.”

Read more: Saving Aru: The epic battle to save the islands that inspired the theory of evolution

Banner image: Mika Ganobal in his civil servant uniform. Image by Leo Plunkett.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site in June 5, 2023.

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