After eruption of Indonesia’s Marapi, tourism sector faces safety questions

Local tour guide says hikers should never have been allowed on famous peak in West Sumatra.

Indonesia's Mount Marapi erupted on December 3, killing at least 23 people [File: Ali Nayaka/AP]

Medan, Indonesia – As far as local ranger Ajo is concerned, no one should have been trekking on Mount Marapi, one of Indonesia’s most famous volcanoes, on December 3.

For almost a year, the 25-year-old guide, who led tours on the mountain from 2020 to 2022, had been warning authorities about increased volcanic activity at the peak, and his fears that climbers would die if the active volcano erupted.

Unfortunately, his prediction about the volatility of Mount Marapi proved to be correct.

About 75 hikers were on the mountain when it erupted earlier this month, sending a 2,000-foot-high (600-metre) ash plume into the sky.

At least 24 people were killed, the majority of them succumbing to serious burns.

When Ajo heard about the disaster, he was horrified because he had always considered the safety of his guests to be paramount, he said.

“I also always educated guests about basic emergency mitigation procedures. If my guests wanted to go to the peak of the volcano, I would educate them first and pay attention to the weather. If it was not possible, then I wouldn’t allow them to go close to the peak,” Ajo told Al Jazeera.

Ajo, who is from West Sumatra, said that he was strict about other safety measures, insisting that guests only climb near the crater at dawn and leave by 11am to avoid spending too long close to the “danger zone”.

He also used other local knowledge to keep guests safe, such as only setting up camp in areas of thick vegetation, instead of rocky areas exposed to the elements, and where previous eruptions had already scorched the land.

But despite loving his job escorting hikers to one of Indonesia’s most beautiful peaks, Ajo stopped working on the mountain in December 2022, following a dispute with the West Sumatra branch of Balai Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam (BKSDA), Indonesia’s environmental conservation agency, which took over the management of Mount Marapi, and the national park in which it sits, in July 2022.

In Ajo’s telling, the dispute stemmed from an “ambiguous and deceptive” announcement that BKSDA put out about the safety of the mountain at the end of 2022.

According to the announcement, Mount Marapi was to be closed to the public from December 30, 2022 to January 2, 2023 due to “increased volcanic activity since December 25”.

“It was duping the public, because they opened access to the volcano again on January 3. How did they know when the volcanic activity was going to decrease?” Ajo said.

‘Mountain of fire’

Known as “Mountain of Fire” in Indonesian, Marapi – not to be confused with Mount Merapi in Central Java and the identically named Mount Merapi in East Java – has a long and violent history, with its first recorded eruption dating back to 1830.

In 1979, the mountain erupted again, killing 60 people, and one person died following an eruption in 1996.

In 2011, the alert level for the volcano, which sits at 2,885 metres (9,465.2 feet) above sea level, was raised from level one to level two, as part of a four-tier alert system used to classify volcanic activity in Indonesia.

Disaster agency Pusat Vulkanologi dan Mitigasi Bencana Geologi (PVMBG) also banned people from trekking within three kilometres of the crater amid fears of further eruptions, although the agency itself had no authority to enforce the ban, which was at the discretion of the local authorities in West Sumatra.

Before July 2022, Marapi had been managed by locals who organised treks on the peak, sold tickets and banned climbers from venturing onto the mountain when they deemed it unsafe.

After BKSDA took over, the agency streamlined and updated the previous management system, launching a new online booking system for hikers that limited the number of visitors to a maximum of 150 people per day, and charging $0.32 for admission on weekdays and $0.48 on weekends.

Ajo said that BKDSA’s management of Marapi was “haphazard”.

“There was a lot of speculation circulating at that time [of the change of management] that BKSDA did not have the ability, skill, readiness or human resources staff who were competent in mountain management,” he said.

“Ranger teams, management teams and mobile teams are all needed to ensure safety. They had none of those.”

Mount Marapi has a long history of violent eruptions [File: Ardhy Fenando/AP]

Following the December eruption, BKSDA is now officially under investigation by West Sumatran authorities to determine whether there was any negligence involved in the disaster.

Ajo is not alone among local sources who believe that loss of life on the mountain was an accident waiting to happen.

“It was not just negligence, there was actually an element of intention here,” Wengki Purwanto, the director of the West Sumatra branch of the Indonesian Forum for Environment non-profit organisation, told Al Jazeera.

“Officially, the government opened the mountain for tourism and there were price lists set. This was clearly a policy that ignored possible disaster aspects. The government has complete data on the status of volcanoes, but it is not used as a reference for tourism management based on disaster mitigation,” he said.

“The government cannot risk lives for economic reasons.”

He said there should have been officers located at Marapi to ensure the safety and security of climbers, and officials stationed at prohibited locations on the mountain, such as the three-kilometre “red zone”.

According to Ajo, when BKSDA took over management of the area, there were a number of standard operating procedures and rules, including a stipulation that only local guides were allowed to take visitors to the mountain.

Instead, local guides who complained about safety issues were no longer allowed to lead tours, Ajo said, and guides from outside the area were brought in instead, despite not being familiar with the local terrain and the volatility of the mountain.

An official investigation into the allegations is continuing. Authorities have not named anyone from BKSDA as a suspect in a potential case of negligence, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison under Indonesian law.

In a statement provided to Al Jazeera regarding allegations of negligence and questions about the mountain being opened to the public in January 2023 despite warnings from local guides, a spokesperson for BKSDA denied any wrongdoing.

“The accusations of negligence are the opinion of parties who only witnessed a fragment of the incident on December 3,” it said. “The Marapi management policy referred to regulations and information that were sent to our institution by the government.”

“Those who know how the management of Marapi worked will not judge.”

Source: Al Jazeera