Why are Jakarta residents against “environment-saving” artificial islands?

Photo: Midori/Wikimedia Commons

By Ardi Wirdana

Despite being dubbed by the governor of Jakarta as the best solution to Jakarta Bay’s water pollution problem, the controversial reclamation project of 17 small artificial islands off the coastal area of the Indonesian capital has been strongly opposed by the city’s residents themselves, for a host of different reasons.

The Jakarta Bay reclamation project will see private developers creating 17 man-made islands – eight of which have already acquired permits and their construction have begun – and develop them into sites consisting of high-end residences and commercial facilities.

A by-law on zoning coastal areas and small islands, however, states that the companies carrying out the land reclamation project have to hand over 15% of the reclaimed land to the city administration.

According to Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”), the 15% contribution of land would benefit Jakarta residents as it would add 5,100 hectares, half the size of Bogor city, to Jakarta’s total area.

Environment saviour or spoiler?

Basuki has also stressed that land reclamation was needed to counter the problem of land subsidence, a major worry for Jakarta. The capital is sinking by an average of 7.5 cm per year and 25 cm annually in the city’s coastal areas, and the governor has warned that Jakarta could be submerged in 10 years unless the city reclaimed new lands off the north coast.

The most recent argument given by the governor claims that the reclamation would help overcome pollution problems. The land reclamation in the Jakarta Bay, he said, would absorb the toxicity of the heavily polluted waters there.

The environmental arguments put forward by the governor contradict the views of environmental experts and activists. Jan Jaap Brinkman of the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) told The Jakarta Post that the easiest way to stop Jakarta from sinking is just to stop the use of deep groundwater. There is no need, he said, for new land to be reclaimed.

The deputy director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Zaenal Muttaqien, even warned that the land reclamation works could change and increase ocean currents, causing sea water to flow onto land and cause flooding.

Furthermore, the chairman of the Indonesian Traditional Fishermen’s Association (KNTI), Riza Damanik, said the reclamation project would harm the sea biota, as the toxic sediment in Jakarta Bay would enter the sea during the construction of the reclaimed islets.

Regulatory obstacles and corruption

The biggest obstacle for the reclamation project is regulatory and legal issues, which has put the projects under massive scrutiny.

Based on a 1995 presidential decree issued by the late president Suharto, the Jakarta governor has the authority to issue reclamation permits. However, a 2012 presidential regulation stipulates that reclamation permits must be based on the ministry’s recommendations, as Jakarta was included in the national strategic areas.

Marine and Fishery Minister Susi has refused to give her approval for the Jakarta reclamation, because of the absence of a bylaw on the matter. She has criticised the Jakarta city administration for letting some of the reclamation projects start, despite the lack of Jakarta’s coastal area spatial planning by-laws.

Deliberation on the by-law in the City Council had been started, but it has recently been put on hold after the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) recently uncovered a case of alleged bribery linked to the Council deliberation.

KPK investigators recently arrested Jakarta city councillor Mohamad Sanusi of the Gerindra Party and another suspect, identified as Geri, at a shopping mall in south Jakarta. Both of them received money from an employee of PT Agung Podomoro Land (APL) that was intended to purchase the councillors’ support, during the City Council’s drafting of a by-law on the zoning of coastal areas and small islands.

The bribe was intended to lower the requirement of 15% contribution to the city administration down to only 5%. PT Agung Podomoro Land president director Ariesman Widjaja has been named a corruption suspect also.

Because of the alleged bribery case, both the by-law deliberation and the ongoing reclamation island constructions have been put on hold, and will only resume once the case has been settled.

The public fears enormous social gap

While regulatory issues have been the subject of debate by observers and activists, among the general public, it is the social repercussions of the reclamation projects that has caused much aggravation.

It has been much documented in the media that the poor coastal communities and fishermen will be the ones worst affected by the reclamation projects. Fishermen in particular has had their routine source of livelihood disrupted, as they are now forced to sail further to catch fish as some of the areas they used to catch fish in has been turned into islets.

According to KNTI, around 17,000 fishermen families had suffered a drop in income following the construction of islets C, D, and G. Reportedly, fishermen can now only catch 50 kilograms of fish, a stark contrast to their previous catches of one ton .

On social media, many netizens have shown great concern over the huge social gap that the development of luxury islands could cause. One of the most buzzed posts on social media is by Indonesian novelist Tere Liye, who highlighted the dangers of the Jakarta Bay land reclamation.

Tere Liye has said that developers are determined to make the reclamation plan work as there are massive potential gains to be reaped from the projects. The cost of reclaiming an island would be around Rp 3 million (US$ 228,000) per meter, which is considerably cheaper than the price of land in Jakarta which now ranges from Rp 10-15 million per meter, he said. Once the island is developed, the developers could sell the land for over ten times its actual cost.

“With a land price that can reach Rp 40 million/meter, who will be buying these artificial islands? Will it be the poor fishermen? No! It will only be enjoyed by less than 1 percent of the super rich people in Indonesia,” Tere Liye wrote on his Facebook page.

He called on Jakarta residents to be more cautious about supporting the development of the man-made islands, as it is likely that in 20 years-time, when the island have become posh and luxurious, the children of most Jakarta residents would only be able to enjoy the beautiful islands from afar, as they would never be able to afford the facilities there.

“Stop coast reclamations for the sake of justice, for the sake of our children and grandchildren in the future,” he said.