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Indonesian fishers face livelihood threat from tourism project

The coastal district of Majene on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is being developed to attract tourists. But local fishers have opposed the project, saying it will damage the ecosystem that they depend on for their livelihood.

On a breezy afternoon, fishermen are preparing to set sail from a beach on the western coast of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island. Not far off, two excavators dredge earth from the coast as part of land reclamation project for a municipal development.

For the past two years, the government of Majene district in West Sulawesi province has been developing the Waterfront City project on 18 hectares (44 acres) of land here. District head Fahmi Massiara has spoken of the need to turn the area into a modern coastal city featuring tourist attractions.

Environmentalists and fishers are largely opposed to the project, saying it will destroy the coastal ecosystem and deprive fishing households of their main source of livelihood.

“Many oppose, but are afraid to speak out. Afraid of being intimidated,” said Ridwan Tajuddin, 32, a fisherman from Cilallang, one of the villages that will be subsumed by the Waterfront City project.

‘We could die’

Ridwan lives in a shack with his wife, two children, and the rest of his side of the family. From his door, he can see part of the reclaimed land. Ridwan is one of the fishermen who has been vocal in his public opposition to the project, even though others have warned him that his stance could lead to him losing access to government aid for low-income households.

As villages go, Cilallang is relatively new, established in the 1990s by impoverished migrants moving to the area for the fishing. Most still depend on fishing and related activities to buy food, send their kids to school, and patch up their houses.

Those homes — shacks of wood and corrugated tin — don’t fit into the plan for the Waterfront City project, which will have a museum, park, floating mosque, hotel and tourist attractions. The project has also been designated part of the City Without Slums (Kotaku) initiative by the administration of President Joko Widodo, hich means it gets funding from both the district and national governments.

While much of the project is about reclaiming new land on the coast, the plan also includes building dikes. Ridwan said it’s this aspect of the project that will create problems for fishermen: the dikes, he said, will amplify the power of the waves crashing on their small stretch of beach.

“Kids can’t play by the beach anymore,” Ridwan said.

In the neighboring village of Parappe, fellow fisherman Abdul Rifai is also against the project. “We’ve gone against it, but what can we do when the government wants it?” he said.

The fishers of Parappe say they’re already experiencing the impact of stronger waves, deflected to their area by the ongoing construction of one of the dikes. In response to calls to stop the project, the government said it would build a wave breaker instead.

“We could die. Our boat already broke. It’s deep here, about 3 meters [10 feet]. Plus, the waves in this area are very choppy,” Rifai said.

Fishing as heritage

Environmental activists have also called for an end to the reclamation activities for the Waterfront City project. Part of the plan calls for new land to be created over a 4.5-hectare (11-acre) area that currently hosts a coral reef and seagrass meadow.

A study led by the Alliance to Save Coastal Fishers (ASNP), a local NGO, found environmental degradation at the reclamation site, including increased sedimentation in the seagrass meadow, during observations in August and September 2019. The group concluded the reality of what was happening on the ground was far different from what the project developers’ environmental impact analysis (EIA) had predicted.

“We think [the EIA] was a supporting reason why the location [was considered] reasonable for land reclamation,” said Dicky Zulkarnain, a researcher at the ASNP.

Last August, environmentalists and fishers staged a protest demanding the Majene district government stop the Waterfront City project. They also demanded compensation for the losses incurred by the fishers throughout the ongoing development.

The district head and his deputy were out of town that day, and the protesters went on to shut down activities at the reclamation site in Cilallang. The government responded by sending police to protect the construction workers.

In October, ASNP filed a formal complaint alleging maladministration in the development of the Waterfront City project to the office of West Sulawesi’s ombudsperson. In March this year, the office presented its findings of maladministration to the Majene administration, but the government has yet to respond.

Opposition to the project hasn’t waned. Activists and fishers continue calling on the Majene government to stop the project and prioritize the interests of local fishers and environmental protection.

“We think the WFC is only positive in one aspect: aesthetics. Nothing more than that,” said Yusri, a coordinator at the Sulawesi chapter of the NGO People’s Coalition for Justice in Fisheries (KIARA).

“The planner, the developer and the government may not understand that fishing isn’t just a profession, but it’s a heritage,” he said.

For its part, the Majene government says the opposition is “only from one side.” District head Fahmi says the project is a solution to the district’s high population density. He says he also consulted with the ministry of public works, which he said advised him to promote the project’s goals of tourism, urban planning, and protection.

“When this is completed, it’ll be very beautiful,” Fahmi said.

This story was published with permission from

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