Animals and humans alike have been caught by surprise the excavators, roads and factories that have appeared in the last few years in this port city in North Sulawesi, a remote corner of Indonesia.
Erna Tumbelaka only found out when a photo was stuck to her front door. It set a value on her home — compensation she says she never received — and told her to move elsewhere. She and her family, like many in Indonesia, lacked official rights to the land they’ve occupied for more than a decade, making it easy for the state to take it over.
Officials planning to build a 39-kilometer (24-mile) highway between the port of Bitung and the provincial capital of Manado wanted to raze her community, including the school where Erna spent a decade selling snacks to students.
“We don’t know why it’s there, but if the government says build it, we must follow,” the 71-year-old says from the wood-plank shelter she built after she was evicted in 2016. Outside, the highway lies in a 200-foot (61-meter) wide gash, down a ravine. Now in the final stages of construction, it is set to open at the end of the year.
Behind Erna’s home rises Mount Klabat, the highest volcano on Sulawesi Island. Klabat borders Tangkoko Nature Reserve, the home of endemic macaques, hornbills, tarsiers, cuscus and owls. Decades of creeping residential and agricultural development have squeezed the animals inside the reserve and surrounding forests almost to the point of overcrowding. As the road progresses, they are likely to lose their last chance to travel safely from the reserve to other stretches of forest they once roamed.
“In some places, there will be a corridor to for species to pass through,” says John Tasirin, a biodiversity researcher and adviser to the governor. “But I think no macaques would dare pass through the villages to meet with other macaques in the south, for example.” Tasirin has been involved in the road’s planning and approved its environmental impact assessment. Despite his concerns about the road’s effect on local wildlife, he says the economic benefits outweigh the risks.
For a toll, travelers will be able to travel from the urban tourism hub of Manado to a planned port and industrial area in lesser-known but geostrategic Bitung. It’s just one element of plans to turn this peninsular tip of Sulawesi into a metropolitan hub on the scale of Singapore, planners say. Four of Indonesia’s 37 priority infrastructure projects lie in this area the size of Berlin.
The goal is to create one of eight national industrial areas called a special economic zone (SEZ), which includes new power plants, a seaport, airport, bridges and roads stretching around the area.
According to Tasirin, a quest for local and national pride was part of the motivation behind the project. He says he and others from North Sulawesi watched with “jealousy” as Jakarta and Surabaya, home to the country’s two biggest ports, tapped into the country’s wealth in global trade networks.
“We wanted to create something that attracts the economy to come to North Sulawesi,” Tasirin says. “Otherwise people will start to say we are not in Indonesia, because we’re far at the border.”
The goal is to connect this corner of Indonesia to a globalized trade network, says Noldy Tuerah, a regional economist for the Finance Ministry and the original planner of the metropolitan hub idea beginning in 2001. Hence a seaport on the scale of Jakarta’s. But many residents, Noldy says, only focus on the immediate realities of their rice and coconut crops.
“They don’t think they should know the price of coconuts in the Netherlands,” Noldy says from a cafe he frequents in Manado that looks out over the bustling city.
Halfway across the 30-kilometer-wide (19-mile) peninsula, Erna sits beside her daughter Truly. If the government had asked what her family needed, Truly says she would have requested equipment for farming. As an alternative, Truly and her husband have joined an independent group of farmers that shares tools and techniques.
“The government would rather meet their own needs, not ours. If we built our own homes, we could be happier,” Truly says.
Roads not traveled
At present the main road between Manado and Bitung runs a single lane in each direction, built in the 1840s by Dutch colonists seeking easier access to a port in what was to become Bitung.
It’s still the most used road, but in the last 15 years, a parallel road to the north, called the Soekarno road, after the country’s founding president, has added an additional two lanes in each direction.
The plan to build the new toll road surfaced while the Soekarno road was already under construction. In 2014, when Jakarta adopted the Bitung SEZ plan as a national project, officials were skeptical about the value of the toll road, considering the small population and the fact that an alternative highway was already being built.
“A very simple question, they asked me,” Noldy recalls of his discussions with Jakarta-based officials. “‘Whose cars will drive on the toll road?’ I said, ‘Guys, I’m thinking 50 years in the future, you’re thinking five years.’”
A parallel assessment, conducted in 2015 by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), looked at Bitung as a possible example for low-carbon development. That assessment concluded with the recommendation to maximize railways, which would reduce emissions and avoid residential sprawl and depletion of natural resources by limiting development to specific centers. The advice wasn’t taken, citing costs. And construction of the road was already underway.
“In Indonesia, once you put in a budget, you have to finish it, even though some people may say the railroad is more efficient,” Tasirin says.
If the Soekarno road didn’t stop the movement of wildlife between forested centers, the new toll road will, says Billy Gustafianto, manager of Tasikoki Animal Rescue Center in Bitung.
“Let’s assume that the population in Tangkoko is good and keeps rising, then the forest in Tangkoko will not be able to hold them, so some of them will need to move,” Billy says. Like Tasirin, he doesn’t believe the available space under the highway will serve as a suitable corridor for wildlife to roam freely.
Crested black macaques (Macaca nigra) are critically endangered species endemic to Sulawesi, but Tangkoko is believed to be close to its carrying capacity for the species. The 80 in Billy’s rehabilitation center can’t be released back into Tangkoko because of overcrowding. For other species, such as a recently identified tarsier species, the reserve is one of the only places for their conservation.
Government planners hope they can turn this peninsula into a buzzing metropolis, but wildlife traffickers have already used it as a gateway to Asia for decades.
At the edge of the planned industrial SEZ, Billy has worked for roughly a decade to keep the Tasikoki center as close to natural habitat as possible. It is Sulawesi’s sole wildlife rescue center, and one of a few dozen in the country.
When trafficked animals are caught at the port an hour away, they are rehabilitated here. Gibbons from Sumatra, slow lorises from Java, cockatoos from Maluku, hornbills from Papua, and macaques from Borneo were being cared for at the center when Mongabay visited in October. In September, an orangutan was transported back to Borneo following months of rehabilitation after it was discovered in Bitung on a boat bound for the Philippines.
Billy has noticed increasing noise disturbance from construction each year since the SEZ was announced in 2014.
“We try to put [the animals] into their natural habitat and behavior to make them no longer used to humans, but with this kind of noise, it’s not suitable,” Billy says from outside a black macaque enclosure. “Before the [SEZ] wasn’t too busy, and now it’s just vroom vroom all the time.”
In the five years since the national government officially adopted the plans as a national project, he has heard nothing about what will happen to Tasikoki. Through informal discussions, he’s found that the road outside the center will be widened, bringing traffic to the borders of the enclosures. The center, Billy says, will definitely need to move.
Planners, however, told Mongabay that the center would remain in its current location. The SEZ is legally required to designate at least 30 percent of the developed zone as “green space,” so keeping the rehabilitation center in place suits planners, even if it may not suit rehabilitating wildlife.
In April 2019, President Joko Widodo visited the gates of the SEZ Bitung project, a 5-square–kilometer (2-square-mile) plot of land south of the city, to officially announce the highway and SEZ. He was surrounded by security and cheering crowds, but Welmi Kiraohe, 54, wanted to meet him personally.
At the same location in 2016, security forces fought off punches and projectiles from Welmi and other locals as excavators destroyed almost 700 homes, including hers, to make way for the main road in the SEZ.
“I wanted to show him how we are living, and ask him why this is happening,” Welmi says outside her ramshackle home in a region locals call Masata. The home she built after the eviction looks like the jerry-rigged shelters built after natural disaster. After the first eviction, families lived under grass roofs before getting tarpaulin after a few weeks, then wood planks to build homes. Water comes from the wells they’ve had to dig, and electricity comes when they can afford to pay for the diesel to run a generator.
Vempi Makalew, 64, a community leader, remembers when the government first asked for land in Masata. They sat in a mosque, even the Christians among them, so that “there would be no deception between us.” Officials told them that only 73 homes would be relocated, Vempi says, and families would be compensated for the land.
Locals say 340 families still reside inside the proposed SEZ area, with nowhere else to go and no compensation given. The government offered six months of free accommodation in apartments, after which they would be required to pay rent. The coconut, corn and chili pepper farms that Vempi and others once had would be gone. The governor’s office has not responded to interview requests.
“The government says the project is a way to improve the standard of living for the community, blah blah,” says Arya Rahman, a paralegal with the Indonesian NGO Legal Aid Institute. In a 2016 case, she represented Masata residents who had been left homeless and landless, living without electricity or access to schools for their children. “Whose prosperity is actually the goal?” she asks. The case was not successful, but Rahman says she is thinking of restarting it.
Under Indonesian law, land title should be granted to residents after they have lived in a location for 25 years. But there’s debate over just how long the Masata residents have lived there. Tasirin, the adviser to the governor, says they may have only been living there for 10 years, but Vempi believes they first began settling there in the 1950s. Aside from land law, Arya says, Masata residents have an argument that prolonged eviction prevents children from going to school — a right guaranteed by law.
“The national government chooses to support projects after a cost-benefit analysis, but that process doesn’t include all the value experienced by everyone affected. The value of land to locals, for example, is ignored,” says Delphine, who uses one name and researches Indonesian megaprojects at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Noldy, the primary planner on the project, recognizes that planning proceeded with little community input. In Indonesia, a required annual meeting between citizens and the government to discuss development plans lasts at most three days. That is enough time to bring up problems, but not solutions, he says.
“The process of ‘bottom-up’ [planning] takes time. I find that the local government is not really patient [enough] to do that,” he says, adding that he didn’t make efforts outside the annual meeting, called musrenbang.
In creating a new metropolitan area, Noldy says the government aims to ensure locals have quality health and education facilities. However, there are no specific plans in the megaproject to devote funds to health or education facilities, nor funds to mitigate the effects on the environment.
“The megaprojects tend to develop the skeleton first, meaning infrastructure and industries. The rest, health and education facilities, are expected to come later as a multiplier effect,” Delphine says. She studies the policies that guide funding and direction of the 37 projects around the country.
“Megaproject promoters only talk about the people, but not with the people,” she says.
Erna received 1.5 million rupiah ($107) last year when workers built a road behind her flimsy home to transport supplies. They told her they would clean up afterward, but with every rain, she fears that the accumulated dirt could result in a landslide, taking her home with it.
“How do you develop an area? Hold a forum,” she says. “We have never been involved and we don’t know why.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.
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