“There are now a lot of bombs. They are getting farther and farther from the coast. In the late afternoon the sound of bombs can be heard twice or three times,” sigh Adianto (43), the head of the Poasa Asa Fishermen Forum in the Wakatobi islands, Southeast Sulawesi.

Speaking in mid June 2021, Adianto who lives in Liya Togo village in Wakatobi subdistrict of South Wangiwangi, said that fish bombers were taking advantage of hundreds of meters of receding sea water condition to conduct their operations.

This, he said, made it difficult for Poasa Asa members to go after them as the boat they used often ran aground on dry sandbanks and seagrass beds.

Besides the fish bombing, Poasa Asa must also deal with the widespresand mining on the coast. Monitoring by the forum at the end of June 2021 showed that illegal sand mining continued to take place in several locations.

Another community member tells his story. Under the scorching midday sun,  47-year-old La Pane is busy harvesting seaweed from his boat at a jetty just dozens of meters away from the Wakatobi Biosphere Reserve monument that was erected to mark the awarding of its biosphere status in 2012.

Later, La Pane shifs through the seaweed he gathered, patiently separating damaged strands from healthy ones. He blames sand mining activities on the coast for the damaged seaweed plants in the shady strait area where he cultivates them.

“These agar-agar (seaweed) are tainted with dirt. Sticky disease,” sighed La Pane showing off a strand of seaweed that was ruined by the disease.

Sand mining is destroying sea grass beds 

Adiguna Rahmat Nugraha, a maritime researcher from the Trunojoyo University in Madura, in his research entitled “Sea Sand Mining and the Threats to the Wakatobi National Park’ in 2017, said that sand mining was contributing to the destruction of the seagrass ecosystem.

The production of seaweed in areas where sand mining occurs was also lower because many of the seaweed were covered by muddy sediment.

Yani Taufiq, a researcher from the Halu Oleo University in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, said that sand mining activities were causing the erosion of the Sembano Island coastline. The erosion, he said, was also destroying the coastal vegetation and embankments.

In the April 2020 edition of the Geography Education research journal, Yani said that sand mining near Sombano village had reduced the coastal area of the village from 4.7 hectares  in 2012 to just 1.138 hectares in 2019.

A map of coastline area of Sombano Village, Wakatobi, where sand mining activities have taken place.

All along the coast, many trees including coconut trees were uprooted as a result of the erosion.

But sand mining has been the only means of livelihood left for locals as demographic pressures rise with a fast growing population in times of economic slowdown.

Hudiyanto (33), is among those in Sombano who are staunchly opposed to the sand mining activities, both by fellow villagers and outsiders. He said that excessive mining of the sand has led to the erosion of the coastline, which is now drawing close to villagers’ homes.

“These last two years have been the worst. Sand mining is taking place in the mornings, the afternoons and in the evenings,” he said.

When asked to comment on the sand mining activities in the Wakatobi Biosphere Reserve, the Wakatobi National Park authority admits that the community is allowed to conduct traditional sand mining in the ship entryway area. However, sand mining operations are prohibited to use large-capacity mining machines.

A circular issued by the Wakatobi District Chief in 2014 regulating the use of non-local river sand for use in government construction projects and controls the use of local sea sand for the consumption of the community and private sector, also confirmed that traditional sand mining was allowed in the ship entryways.

“The utilization of entryways is a short term solution, while we continue to look for a solution that would satisfy the interests of both sides,” said Darman, the head of the Wakatobi National Park Agency.

Darman also admitted that it has been challenging for his office to supervise the outer islands  of Wakatobi. The archipelago district has 142 islands with total area of about 18,377 km², consisting of 3% of land area (823 km²) and 97% of water area (17,554 km2).

According to UNESCO, the Wakatobi National park covers a core area of 54,568 hectares and home to about 590 fish species, 396 coral reef species, 22 major mangroves species, and 9 of the 12 seagrass species found in Indonesia.

Sea transportation facilities for the supervision of the Wakatobi National Park are limited in number and over several islands, and the weather often stops them from operating.

“We are also affected by the weather, which sometimes can be extreme,” he said, adding that despite such weather, his office would act on any incoming report from members of the community of any illegal activities taking place within the park.

Revocable biosphere reserve status

According to a statement of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2018, the biosphere reserve status is not permanent and can be revoked if during its progress, the area is severely damaged or does not play a significant role in improving ecosystem conditions, its protection and sustainable development, as well as in its logistics, management and coordination.

It also said that globally, 38 areas have seen their status as world biosphere reserve revoked by June 2017.

Wakatobi District Head for the 2021-2026 period, Haliana, said that his administration will continue to respect the zoning of the biosphere reserve, as contained in the district’s spatial zoning plan for 2012-2032.

“This will continue to be maintained and from time to time it could be revised to safeguard a sustainable conservation of the resources as a backbone of the life of the community,” Haliana said.

He said that vandalism is a serious concern for the Wakatobi administration in developing innovative policies that are expected to serve as the basis for eliminating destructive practices that damage marine ecosystems.

“Sand mining, fish bombing, and fishing using poison can still be found in the community’s economic activities,” he said.

Haliana plans to gather valid data from a number of related government offices, including the Wakatobi National Park Agency, the district’s supervision of marine and fishery resources taskforce, Marine Technology Engineering bureau, and NGOs and environmental activists who are the strategic partners of the district administration in the management and conservation of the biosphere reserve.

“Data is very important in preparing a planning or budgeting strategy to support the conservation of the biosphere reserve for the next five years,” he said, adding that equally important to the management of the biosphere reserve is the strengthening of collaborations between the Wakatobi National Park and the indigenous community.

As an example, Haliana said, the co-development of management planning of the biosphere reserve, to be used as a common foothold for all stakeholders in taking roles and joint evaluations to achieve the vision of the biosphere reserve. Ultimately, to become a center of excellence in the world’s coral triangle area.

Haliana hopes there will be funding from third parties or donor countries to help the management of the biosphere reserve. “It is impossible for us to work without a budget. Even more so during the pandemic, where we are practically spending only 30, up to 40 percent on development.”

The district budget for 2021 stands at Rp 1.24 trillion and only 0.16 percent or Rp 1.6 billion ($112,294) is allotted for environmental management.

“We do not have any special budget for the maintenance of the biosphere reserve. We only have [budget] for waste management and spatial planning,” he said.

Jamaluddin Jompa, a marine expert from the Hasanuddin University in Makassar, South Sulawesi, assessed that the sand mining in Wakatobi will damage the coastal topography and change current patterns.

“The islands there are small and it is not at all good to take their sand,” Jamaludin said, adding that sands, that are naturally formed over a long period of time, help to stabilize coastal areas and sand mining would only undermine this stability.

“The impact is much more than what we imagine. This damage can be considered permanent — it will need a very long time to recover,” he said.

Changes in currents can erode coastlines and have major implications for coastal and offshore areas. Rising sea levels can also cause flooding to settlements in coastal areas, if erosion continues.

“In advanced countries such as America or the Netherlands, people living in coastal areas protect their coast by extracting sand from the middle of the sea. Then they build some sort of sand banks on the coastline to protect the land,” he said, explaining a possible solution for coastal areas affected by sand mining.

Sand banks can help overcome the problem of rising sea levels and increasing waves caused by climate change. “Island and coastal protection really depends on the condition of the sand in the coastal areas. So its implication is really big,” Jamaludin said.

He also said the government needs to put in place zoning and special restrictions to provide space and the opportunity for the marine ecosystem to survive.

“The marine ecosystem would provide services to the people, whether services in fishery resources for the fishermen or services in the development of the economy for tourism, “ added Jamaluddin. 

The threat of global warming

Jamaluddin explained that human activities are not the only threat to the ecosystem in Wakatobi. Changes in the earth’s temperature is becoming a serious trhreat as it damages coral reefs.

“The impacts we don’t realize is that climate change has already had serious implications on the reefs,” Jamaluddin said.

He said the Wakatobi cannot escape the pressure of global warming. Many coral reefs experienced bleaching and died, and this has impacts on the productivity of the marine environment and fishermen.

Data by the Betoambari Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics agency in Baubau, Southeast Sulawesi, shows that there has been an increase in the maximum temperature by 0.5 degree Celsius every 10 years because of global warming due to human activities in the city of Baubau, just 50 miles away from Wakatobi. 

Faizal Habibi, coordinator for Observation of the Maritime Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics office in Kendari said that in the past two years a significant change has taken place in the weather pattern in Southeast Sulawesi.

The wind now predominantly blows from the east to the west every month and causes increased rainfalls and high wave intensity in the coastal areas that face the east, including Wakatobi.

“So, the increase in extreme weather on land and at sea is really felt by people whose activities are on the coast and the sea,” Faizal said.

The increasing frequency of high waves and changing wind directions occurring over a long period of time can already be categorized as a change in the characteristics of climate in a particular region.

“When high rainfall occuers, this lowers the the salinity of the surface of the sea and this is not good for marine culture.”

Jamaluddin suggests that the Wakatobi administration move to halt activities that are damaging the environment and endangering life. It is paramount to take firm action against those responsible for the destruction of the biosphere reserve.

“Law enforcement is very weak so there is an opportunity for the people to still engage in these illegal activities,” he said.

“The regulations are very clear. What remains is how much do people care and are willing to challenge this. Why does the parliament or the legislative remain silent? They are the representatives of the people. Why don’t people talk? Because they do not trust the government!” he said.

He further explained that the Ministry of Maritime and Fishery Affaris, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and other related ministries have warned the Wakatobi administration that maintaining the biosphere reserve is not just a mandate but its optimization has to be sustainable.

Jamaluddin hopes that when the COVID 19 pandemic ends, tourism in Wakatobi can help increase efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change and maintain the national park as part of the world’s network of biosphere reserves.

“This is really sexy to promote,” Jamaludin said, referring to tourism in Wakatobi.

For Haliana, it is important to protect the balance of biodiversity in Wakatobi so that it can be enjoyed by future generations.

“We want Wakatoi to be a region that is comfortable to live in for the next 50 to 100 years. Not just a tourist destination,” he said.

About the writer

Riza Salman is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker who focuses on reporting on environmental, social and cultural issues. He started his career as a television journalist in 2008. In 2018...

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