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Indonesia relocates families to build resorts

Activists say more than 100 islands have been effectively sold to investors in recent years, in bid to boost tourism.

Last updated: 05 Jan 2014 10:42
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Many former residents of Gili Sunut say life is harder since they have been relocated [Jack Hewson/Al Jazeera]

Lombok, Indonesia - As the boat approaches Indonesia's Gili Sunut island, the captain shuts down the engines, letting it drift the final few metres towards the shore. A strange quiet hangs in the air, punctuated by the water slopping against the hull.

Once home to 109 families, this tiny island now lies deserted. Skeletal concrete structures dot the landscape, their door frames and windows removed. Only the roof of the mosque has been left out of respect for Allah, but that too will be razed when a "six-star resort" is constructed here over the coming years.

"The government came to Sunut, to the mosque, and held a meeting with the local people to talk about the development," says Mustiadi, a fisherman, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. "We refused the idea of relocation, but after more consultations they told us that we didn't have any choice."

The People's Coalition for Fisheries Justice Indonesia (KIARA), a sea and land rights advocacy group, says the fate of Mustiadi and his community will become more common under a new government programme to promote investment in islands and coastal areas. KIARA says many more islands will effectively be sold to foreign buyers, trampling the rights of fishermen and threatening traditional livelihoods.

After their eviction in June, the former residents of Gili Sunut were relocated to a new settlement on the other side of the bay. The Singaporean developer, Ocean Blue Resorts, has provided each family with a new bungalow and between 3m and 5m rupiah ($246 to $411) in compensation. But Mustiadi says it's not enough.

"They gave us a bungalow, but the roof leaked and it was very poor quality. I decided to rebuild mine, but not everyone could afford to do that. They still haven't paid us for our ruined houses on Gili Sunut," he said. "Now life is harder because we live further from our fishing waters. In our new village there is no school, and still we have no road and no running water. It feels like the government hasn't taken care of us."

Booming tourism

Tourism is booming on the island of Lombok. In September, the land division of Indonesian media conglomerate MNC reportedly set aside 700bn ($57.4m) rupiah to invest in an "integrated tourist resort" in Kuta on the island's south coast. The completion of a sealed coast road and the opening of an international airport in 2011 are rapidly boosting the number of visitors.

The locals take what they're given and they don't know how to fight the government. Often the police and the army are used to push people out.

- Selamet Daroyni, KIARA coordinator for education

Development promises to bring new wealth to the region, but for many villagers the pace of change has been disruptive. "The biggest loss for the community is their tradition, which has been passed from generation to generation," said Selamet Daroyni, KIARA's coordinator for education. "Fishermen don't know their rights, and in some cases the private sector have been able to get away with paying only 1m rupiah in compensation for their land. The locals take what they're given and they don't know how to fight the government. Often the police and the army are used to push people out."

According to KIARA, more than 100 islands across the archipelago have been "sold" to investors in recent years, including the Alor Islands in East Nusa Tenggara, the Mentehage Islands in North Sulawesi and Maratua Islands and Sebatik Islands, both in East Kalimantan.

Despite the potential long-term benefits to employment and infrastructure, Selamet says developments like the proposed resort on Gili Sunut go against Indonesia's constitution. "The basic laws laid out in 1945 [when Indonesia declared itself an independent nation] said that everything of the land, air and water is supposed to be managed by and used by the Indonesian people. And so if it is being used by the private sector and overseas investors it is clearly a breach of the law. Why isn't the government paying attention to this?"

'Adopting' an island

The sale of islands is prohibited under Indonesian law, but KIARA claims the government will circumvent this issue through its "Island Adoption Programme" announced in November. There is currently no legal mechanism by which private investors may buy an island, but it is possible to "manage" islands for up to 50 years on a renewable basis. "How can an island be adopted? It's not a baby," Selamet said.

They lived [on Gili Sunut] for many years, but their lives have not improved ... Tourism, we believe, will be developed in the future and will get them a better life."

- Gufrin Udini, East Lombok regional government official

For the former residents of Gili Sunut, the legal nuances of terms like "buy", "sell", "manage" or "adopt" are irrelevant. For many of them, the claim that their land has not been sold is a lie. "I don't tell lies," said Gufrin Udin, an official from the East Lombok regional government. "We don't sell islands ... [Gili Sunut] belongs to the government. The company or the investor applies to do some investments on the island. And then we put it into an agreement, a memorandum of understanding, signed by the government and the investor or company."

Gufrin did not disclose how much the transaction was worth, and said no money had yet changed hands. But he confirmed that under the memorandum of understanding, Ocean Blue Resorts would control the island for 30 to 50 years, with the option to renew at the end of the period. On a blog run by Ocean Blue Resorts, the company claimed to have $120m ready to invest in the island, with the partnership of two five-star hotel operators.

He played down the villagers' anger, claiming that he had only received one complaint from them and that they were frustrated because they had not yet seen the benefits of development.

Gufrin defended Ocean Blue Resorts, listing the new homes and facilities that the company has provided for the villagers. "They lived [on Gili Sunut] for many years, but their lives have not improved," he said. "One way to improve their lives is to find them jobs - not just as fishermen but in other sectors - and tourism, we believe, will be developed in the future and will get them a better life."

The Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview by the date of publication. Ocean Blue Resorts also declined to comment.

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Al Jazeera
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