“I love Indonesia,” said Julia Elaine Patricia, as she dipped her fingers into the fine, white sand of Galang Island’s exquisite beach. A moment later, a wave licked those fingers clean. Leha, as Julia is fondly called by friends and family, suddenly looked bothered.
Last week, a photographer friend and I accompanied Leha on her second trip to the Karimunjawa Islands, a national park in the Jepara district of Central Java.
About four to six hours north from Semarang or Jepara port by ferry, the holiday destination consists of 27 islands that are but a small but perfect representation of the breathtaking beauty of Indonesia.
We were informed, however, that almost all of the smaller islands in Karimunjawa “belonged” to individuals, some of them foreigners.
“I don’t understand how these islands could become private possessions,” Leha muttered. This question deserved to be asked. Karimunjawa is a national park, for goodness’ sake.
And according to a land administration scholar, who happens to be my father, the latest law states that the right to own or use a piece of land cannot apply to an entire island.
But welcome to Indonesia, where the phenomenon of acquiring the rights to an island for private or business use has been going on for a long time.
These islands were snapped up years ago. In Karimunjawa, the purchase of islands reached a peak in the ’90s. It is possible that village heads had scant knowledge of the purchases and that no title of ownership ever changed hands.
But I had another concern. On the day that we arrived at Karimunjawa’s main port, an environmental group volunteer handed us a flyer on how to dive and snorkel without upsetting the marine ecosystem.
The flyer had the following pointers: 1) Do not drop anchors or moor ships on coral reef beds; 2) Do not touch coral reefs or stand on them unless they are already dead; 3) Don’t let your fins hit the coral; 4) Do not feed the fish.
On our first day of island-hopping, we discovered that the holiday package in which we had enrolled was made up of a fleet of five boats each carrying 10-20 people, all going to the same spots and engaging in the same activities at once. No wonder it was cheap.
There were only a couple of tour guides on each boat so there was no possible way they could monitor the activities of everyone on board.
Underneath the pier of Kecil Island, first-time snorkelers flapped their fins like crazy, touching and slapping live reefs. Later, two boys were seen standing on a coral reef chatting, oblivious to the sounds of the fragile branches cracking underneath their fins.
The unsightly remains of dead, broken reefs were visible near all the islands we visited.
On the second day, the tour guides encouraged visitors to feed the fish with bread around Menjangan Kecil Island.
As I swam around Cemara Kecil Island, I found that a boat operator from a different tour group had thrown an anchor down onto a mass of coral reefs, breaking giant, leaf-like trunks of what was once a beautiful, green species. Choked by a big gulp of salt water, I could hear myself scream: “What the …!”
Could it be that the locals who staffed the tour groups do not exert maximum effort to protect the marine ecosystem around Karimunjawa because they don’t own it?
One tour guide told me that he had once gotten into a fight with a security guard stationed on Cemara Besar Island while fishing near it.
He won using the argument that a foreigner might have “bought” the island, but the beach and the water around it still belonged to the government.
He came back the next night with three boats and large nets to fish and the guard could only watch in silence.
Most of the water around Cemara Besar consists of coral reefs that are home to small, inedible fish but the guide said he did what he did to prove a point.
“It’s only fair. They charge such a high price for boats and visitors visiting to the island,” the tour guide said. “One boat pays Rp 50,000 [$5.55] per docking and one person Rp 10,000 per visit.”
Foreigners may have bought the “right to use” the islands, and Indonesian buyers the “right to own” them — regardless of the law.
But what’s the difference to locals if they don’t have the right to freely step on them? We asked several locals how they felt about the privately owned islands.
Most did not blame the local government and more admitted a shared guilt: “We were stupid.”
For now, it’s equally stupid to directly or indirectly damage the marine ecosystem in Karimunjawa or anywhere else in the world.
I’m talking to you too, holiday packages organizers.
It’s time to start protecting our resources, no matter who owns them.