The livelihoods of Pari Island residents have come under threat in recent years as their customary land rights have been denied. (Antara Photo/Rosa Panggabean)

Pari Island Residents Fight Developer With Snorkels and Homestays


OCTOBER 09, 2018

Jakarta. Syahrul Hidayat's family has lived on Pari Island in Jakarta's Thousand Islands district for four generations, fishing in its clear blue waters and selling seaweed to supplement their incomes.

But their lives and livelihoods have come under threat in recent years as their customary land rights have been denied, and a developer claims ownership of much of the island.

The 1,200-strong community is already contending with the existential threats of warmer temperatures, rising seas and worsening marine pollution. But the denial of land rights could strike the deadliest blow, Syahrul said.

"We have adapted to smaller catches of fish and smaller volumes of seaweed, because of climate change and pollution," said Syahrul, who is leading the campaign to reclaim the community's land rights.

"But how can we cope with losing our homes and land? Where will we go, what will we do?"

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, has about 81,000 kilometers of coastline, with millions of people dependent on the sea for their livelihood.

Across the country, many have already been forced to move because of eroding coastlines.

Others face pressure from developers keen to build hotels and apartment blocks on its acclaimed beaches, activists say.

"The coastal communities have always had customary rights, but few have formal titles, and this is being used as a way to evict them," said Susan Herawati, secretary general of the People's Coalition for Fisheries Justice (Kiara).

"We are an island nation, yet so many coastal communities are struggling without rights. They are forgotten even in the push for agrarian reform in the country," she said.

Seaweed and Snorkels 

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo last month signed a decree on agrarian reform, with an aim to issue titles and distribute land to peasants and indigenous people.

Officials distributed more than 5 million land titles last year, and plan to issue 7 million titles this year.

But the effort is hampered by the government's insistence on providing titles only if ownership can be considered "clean and clear," which excludes areas where land is disputed, activists say.

That affects residents of Pari, who say that local officials promised a few years ago that they would receive land certificates after submitting the old papers that were informal records of the land they occupied.

They handed over their documents, but never did get the certificates, Syahrul said.

In 2014, signs went up on the island declaring that much of the land belonged to a private firm.

"We were tricked into giving up the only proof of ownership we had, and were not informed of the plans to sell our land," Syahrul told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We paid taxes on the land, yet many of us were charged with trespassing, and some threatened with civil and criminal suits. Some were scared and left the island," he said.

The company Bumi Pari Asri did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The 95-hectare island was uninhabited until the early 1900s, when dozens of people from Java decamped there to avoid forced labor under Dutch colonialists, according to historians.

The first residents named it Pari Island for the pari, or rays, swimming in its clear waters.

Residents mostly made a living from fishing, then cultivated seaweed as warmer temperatures led to diminished catches.

But the seaweed was affected by pollution from land reclamation in Jakarta Bay, Syahrul said.

As residents discussed livelihood options, a few nonprofits suggested they try ecotourism.

Nearly all households on the island have been involved in the effort since about 2010, offering homestays and activities such as snorkeling, canoeing and cycling for visitors.

"Residents are able to be self-sufficient while also conserving the island's ecosystem with their traditional knowledge," said Kiara's Susan, who assisted the community in the project.

"It was the best possible solution."

'New Balis'

Tourism is a major source of revenue for Indonesia, accounting for more than 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product. The country aims to draw 20 million visitors a year by 2019.

Key to this goal is the creation of "10 new Balis," as Jokowi has vowed, referring to the country's most popular tourist destination.

Among the proposed new Balis are islands that will be spruced up with new airports, wider roads, resorts and other tourist facilities.

But officials risk damaging fragile ecosystems and excluding local communities from livelihood opportunities and access to their land, analysts and activists say.

That is becoming a common complain across the region.

From Thailand to the Philippines, authorities have come under fire for allowing unchecked sprawl on islands and denying coastal communities their "right to island."

"Instead of a resort that occupies the land of the residents and may damage the ecology without much benefit to the people, a community-led effort is a far better option," Susan said.

"Our thirst for fancy beach resorts must not come at the cost of the land and livelihoods of coastal people," she said.

Following petitions by Pari residents to Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, an ombudsman conducted an inquiry.

The ombudsman said earlier this year that there had been violations in issuing certificates of ownership and building permits to the developer. He advised an audit by the National Land Agency (BPN).

"I have asked for detailed reports on the dispute. I will check all the facts and make a decision," Anies told reporters in May after the ombudsman's report.

In the meantime, Pari residents will keep fighting, Syahrul said.

"This is our home," he said. "We are simply asking the government for our legal right over the land we have lived on all these years. Who else can we appeal to?"

Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.