DIVING or MINING?
The island of Bangka, in the Celebes Sea in North Sulawesi, already has two strikes against it. First, it’s not the island you are thinking of. This Bangka is not the tin haven off the coast of Sumatra, ravaged by mining, it’s an idyllic dive spot atop North Sulawesi, home to flamboyant cuttlefish, mystifyingly rare pontohi seahorses and throngs of pink pygmy seahorses. Second, it’s about to be ravaged by mining.
Back in 2008, when PT. Mikgro Metal Perdana, strolled into the tiny fishing village of Kohuku on the west side of the 3,800 square kilometer island with talk of buying land from villagers for Rp 1 million a square meter and creating some 700 jobs, William Hadinguang’s jaw dropped.
William, a 65-year-old coconut farmer who plants corn and cassava when they are in season couldn’t believe his ears. The whole thing sounded too good to be true. It wasn’t long before he realized, it was. “The friends I have that want the mine don’t really know what it will bring,” William said from his porch in Kahuku. “Some people think it will bring jobs and money, but I know it will only bring destruction. What the people are pro-mining don’t know is that they are going to set fire to this island. The issue has divided the village. Well, not divided. William believes that the island—and Kahuku in particular are 15 percent pro-mining, while the other 85 percent are against the mine.
This was made clear when on Independence Day this year, Mikgro was met with villagers welding machetes as the company tried to bring equipment on land. “The 15 percent are looking for fast money,” says William. “They don’t think of the future generations. What will they eat? Where will they live?” William, and the others who have filed a suit against the bupati of Manado, fear granting permission to Mikgro to come and take iron ore from Bangka will not only destroy the island, but leave it desolate for generations.
The controversy surrounding the tiny resort island is muddled in rumor and hearsay, the villagers who are fighting against the island claim that the mining company wants to relocate thousands of villagers and only pay them Rp 7,000 a square meter, while the resort owners who have poured their lives into the resort claim that if the mine opens the resorts will have no choice to close. One thing is clear, the people of Bangka have little to gain and an amazing amount to fear.
If the allegations are true the open-pit mining will turn the soil on the island toxic and release tailings and sediment that will cover the coral destroying one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. If Mikgro gets its way, they will be in and out in a few years. And the island is so small that they wouldn’t have to invest in any infrastructure. They would simply place a barge off-shore and bring the ore straight to the ship, where it would head straight to China.
But Bangka is zoned for tourism, and the suit, which went undecided in Manado before being won by the people in Makassar and appealed by the bupati (regent) of North Minahsa and the governor of North Sulawesi is currently on the docket of the Supreme Court, with a decision expected in the next month.
But what will become of Bangka?
“The main issue we have here is with the local government, the bupati and the governor—it’s a tourism zone and they want to turn it into a mining zone,” says Angelique, a local dive shop owner born in Manado. “The bupati essentially wants to cut the island in half, mining on the north side and tourism on the south side.”
The problem is, the mining company has convinced officials in Manado that mining and tourism can live side-by-side. So the members of the North Sulawesi Watersports Association, the group spearheading the Save Bangka campaign, look like the bad guys when they try and convince villagers that if there is a mine you can forget about tourism.
Open-pit mining on an island the size of Bangka would be cataclysmic, not only to the rich biodiversity of the corals surrounding the island, but to the soil and water table on Bangka itself. That is why Indonesia has Law No. 27 of 2007, which protects Coastal Areas and Small Islands. The law states that it is llegal to mine islands under 200,000 square meters, protecting tiny islands like Bangka, which isn’t even 48,000 square. With 53 dive-related resorts employing more than 3,000 local people supporting 10,000 dependents ecotourism is thriving in North Sulawesi. The international airport in Manado, welcomed more than 25,000 international tourists last year. But all that is at the risk of disappearing if the people of Bangka lose their case in the Supreme Court.
Bangka is nothing if not idyllic. It’s no wonder the Coral Triangle Initiative decided to build the CTI-CFF Regional Secretariat Building and CTI Center, in Manado, just an hour from Bangka. The Coral Triangle comprises 76 percent of all known coral species and is home to 53 percent of the world’s coral reefs. If the mining permit goes through on the island of Bangka, representatives from the six countries involved will have a front row seat to the devastation of one of the earth’s most pristine reef systems.