- After defeating a plan to turn much of the Aru Islands into a series of giant sugar plantations, indigenous people in the eastern Indonesian archipelago are mulling how to raise their standard of living without sacrificing their rich environment.
- Time may be short: Indonesia’s minister of agriculture appears to be pushing another corporate-backed agribusiness plan in Aru involving Andi Syamsuddin Arsyad, an up-and-coming tycoon better known as Haji Isam. The two visited Aru together last year.
- Some Aruese believe development focused on tourism or fisheries would be a better fit for the delicate, small-island ecosystem, home to some of Indonesia’s last best rainforest and famous for its birds-of-paradise.
ARU ISLANDS, Indonesia — In one of this country’s most isolated places, Ipus Apalem believes he has finally found a way for his village of 400 to improve its lot.
Ipus is the head of Popjetur village, which is particularly remote even by the standards of Aru, a small archipelago near Indonesia’s maritime border with Australia. Last year, Indonesia’s agriculture minister, Amran Sulaiman, joined a group of businessmen who traveled here as part of a plan to build a cattle ranch. They offered at least 10 cows per household if the village lent them lands on which to operate.
“Of course I accepted, because we are also looking for prosperity,” Ipus tells Mongabay. His home is a rocky, two-hour motorbike ride from the nearest port. Phone service is another half-day’s trip by boat. “We could drive cars here, not just motorbikes. We could live like that.”
Popjetur was not the only village approached by the minister’s delegation, but it was the only one of eight to accept. The next-closest village, Marafenfen, rejected the same deal. Not only were its residents unfamiliar with raising cattle, but memories of their fight half a decade ago against another industrial agribusiness project, a plan to set up a series of giant sugar plantations, were still fresh.
“We don’t know how to care [for cows], and even if we wanted to sell them, who would buy them?” says Uco Galegoy, the head of Marafenfen. “We only use what we find [in nature]. Without help from the government our lives are still fine. I get suspicious when they come.”
In the early 2010s, lands in Popjetur, Marafenfen and most of Aru’s 117 villages were licensed out to a shadowy conglomerate known as the Menara Group. The firm had proposed to set up sugarcane estates covering more than half of Aru’s land area, saying it would bring jobs and growth to one of the nation’s most cash-poor places.
Like Ipus, many Aruese desired some form of development. But a popular movement ultimately arose against Menara, led by locals who were alarmed at how much forest the company planned to clear, and by a cohort of activists in Ambon, the provincial capital, who made deft use of social media to gain supporters around the world and pressure the government at home. In the end, Indonesia’s forestry minister declined to green-light the project, citing environmental concerns.
Half a decade later, Aru is one of the only places in Indonesia whose forests remain largely intact. But even as the “Save Aru” movement succeeded in repelling the Menara Group, it thrust one of the most pressing questions facing Indonesia into the spotlight: How can indigenous communities such as those inhabiting Aru raise their standard of living without sacrificing their rich environment?
Today, Save Aru veterans are examining alternative paths of development, even as they work to stave off new attempts to turn their homeland into a corporate agribusiness hub. Distrust of outside investors, whether deserved or not, runs deep. It has not helped that the cattle project appears to be backed by an Indonesian tycoon named Andi Syamsuddin Arsyad, better known as Haji Isam, whose record of environmental degradation as a coal magnate is well documented.
“They are offering words of prosperity, per capita income, ‘community members can own cows,’” says Collin Leppuy, a 29-year-old Aruese who campaigned against the Menara Group. “But as an investor, they have their own reasons for coming here.”
Some believe the path to prosperity lies with developing Aru’s rich fisheries, though a recent modern-day slavery scandal involving Thai fishing companies here showed that sector could be fraught as well.
Others support ecotourism, though Aru’s far-flung location and lack of infrastructure can make it a difficult place to visit.
“Aru is a hidden paradise, a promised land,” says H.A.S. Benamen, the head of Aru’s tourism office. “People say it’s also backward, left behind, peripheral. But with all of its natural resources, I believe there will be a time when Aru is no longer neglected.”
Surveying the landscape
Recent geological history has cast Aru as if it were the middle of a Venn diagram. Though it lies within the territory of Indonesia, it is home to birds-of-paradise, wallabies and colorful, emu-like cassowaries, animals more closely related to the fauna of New Guinea and Australia than to the tigers and orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo. The languages and ethnicities of Aru reflect a history of trade from around the region, with children in the archipelago speaking Indonesian at school and Chinese or one of 14 indigenous tongues at home.
For centuries, merchants from across Europe and Asia traveled to Aru in search of birds-of-paradise feathers, pearls, sea cucumbers and other exotic goods. More recently, though, the rise of pearl farming elsewhere has created competition for Aru’s pearl divers, while the rise of a poorly regulated mass fishing industry has benefited few locals. Poaching to supply the pet trade has thinned out wild populations of cockatoos and other birds.
As elsewhere in Indonesia, corruption has exacted a toll on the resources available for development: Theddy Tengko, the former Aru district chief who signed off on the Menara Group’s sugar plantations, was later imprisoned for siphoning off millions of dollars in state funds.
Today, Aruese in the interior tend to derive their livelihoods from subsistence farming and foraging and from selling locally harvested products to traders in Dobo. Some seek work as laborers on construction projects in Dobo or on plantations or fishing ships farther afield. Money is generally used only for imported products like gasoline, rice and processed foods. As with many small-island ecosystems, clean water is often a problem solved with expensive shipments from outside.
“Development has been focused in Java this whole time,” Benamen said, referring to Indonesia’s most populous island some 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) away. “We’re thankful that with [President Joko Widodo], the government can pay attention to eastern Indonesia.”
Some Save Aru veterans who favor tourism say they want to show Aru’s natural wonders to travelers while avoiding the pollution of places like Bali and ensuring that revenues flow to locals. They note that some of Indonesia’s most popular tourist attractions are rooted in indigenous culture, such as the elaborate funeral rituals of Toraja and the conical straw houses of Wae Rebo.
Kutuh, a village in Bali, invested funds from the nation’s village development program to turn itself from a community of mostly seaweed farmers into a destination for “sports tourism,” with soccer and paragliding fields. Last year, Kutuh pocketed nearly $1 million in profit from these ventures, according to villages minister Eko Sandjojo.
In the Arfak Mountains of West Papua, whose governor recently pledged to set aside 70 percent of the province for conservation, local leaders have also expressed optimismthat income from tourism can serve as an alternative to plantations and mining.
The Iban people of Sungai Utik, a village in the heart of Indonesian Borneo, who inhabit a giant communal longhouse, have taken steps to establish their own tourism venture. A famous Indonesian actor paid for a group of them to visit the Bukit Lawang tourism village in North Sumatra, famous for its orangutans, so that they could learn from their more experienced fellow citizens.
Residents of Sungai Utik hope income from travelers will preclude the need to migrate for work elsewhere. “If they can create their own jobs in the village, people stay,” said Mina Setra, a deputy to the secretary-general of AMAN, Indonesia’s main advocacy group for indigenous rights.
Mika Ganobal, who was one of the faces of the Save Aru movement and now works in Aru’s tourism office, cites his home village, Lorang, as a model destination. He says visitors could hike through the rainforest in search of birds-of-paradise and eat mangrove crabs for dinner.
Almascatie, an Ambon native who headed digital operations for the Save Aru campaign, agrees. “There should at least be one village that could become a tourist village example for all the other villages,” he says. Almascatie has seen how tourism revenue from selling traditional textiles in Flores, where he now lives, can distribute income more equitably to women. “[A model village] could show that without business and big investment, development can still happen.”
Some have contemplated setting up a museum in Dobo to commemorate the travels of Alfred Russel Wallace, the pioneering explorer and biologist who visited Aru in the 1800s.
Benamen is looking to the southern Aruese village of Marafenfen as a potential tourism site for its long, underground caves. Other villages specialize in pearls, crabs, fabrics and dance. But tourism chief says each village’s future is in its own hands.
“What I really want in the future is that every village uses its own potential and its own rules so that it can become a tourist area by itself,” Benamen says. “Then the money for sure goes into the village’s pocket.”
But, he adds, “if people want cows over tourism, that’s up to them.”
Charting a course
Despite their high hopes, ecotourism advocates recognize that investment is needed to realize such projects.
Benamen recently received a request from a village on Aru’s southeastern tip. Residents asked him to help tell the world about their culture and pearling grounds. But the village is a day’s boat ride from Dobo, and the journey can be choppy in the wrong season. The village has little available data on potential diving, hiking or wildlife sites.
“We don’t have funds to support these projects,” Benamen says. “We have to request money from Jakarta. It takes a long time and we don’t know whether we will get it in the end.”
The Aru tourism office has tried to fill the gap itself. Travelers who want to visit a small beach near Dobo pay a fee that goes straight to Benamen’s office. But few make the trek to the beach, and the office’s budget remains minimal.
Mufti Ode, a campaigner with Forest Watch Indonesia, a Jakarta-based NGO that helped campaign against the sugarcane project, believes any industrial-scale land-based development poses a threat to Aru’s delicate ecosystems. But he thinks the Aruese would struggle to attract tourists because of competition from other, more accessible sites in eastern Indonesia.
Even if one or two villages fashioned themselves into tourist destinations, he says, what about the rest? Rather, Ode thinks Aru’s rich fisheries offer the best chance for boosting the local economy. Improved access to cold storage facilities, for example, would help communities earn more from selling marine products.
“The [illegal fishing and slavery] problems that occurred with businesses in Aru’s fisheries 10 years ago, or even five years ago, those have to be fixed,” he says. But “we can’t just set the fisheries option aside because of that.”
As for the cattle project, the status of its approvals isn’t clear. Sugiono, the director of livestock breeding and production at the Agriculture Ministry, said it was in the “feasibility” stage but that the ministry had yet to sign off on it. The minister, Amran, did not respond to requests for comment. The project appears to be led by four companies; at least three of them are linked to Haji Isam’s Jhonlin Group, Mongabay has found. The firm did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment.
When he first heard about the cattle project, Collin, the Aruese activist, kept an open mind. He knows how isolated Popjetur is, and thought its people needed a way to develop their village.
But for Collin, the presence of Haji Isam, the notorious tycoon from Borneo, is a red flag.
“Aru is attractive because it has old, extraordinary natural resources in the water and on land,” says Collin, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the provincial legislature in elections last April. “But the direction of development hasn’t focused on that. Instead, the government just sells off the land as soon as there is an investor that wants it.
“So how should we think about sustainability? How can we make sure this place will exist in the future?”
The task of navigating development options is not new to Popjetur. Cigarettes and processed foods are imported as smoothly as images of Indonesians elsewhere in the country driving cars and enjoying air-conditioning. For Ipus, it’s rare that an opportunity comes along to benefit from the rest of the nation’s growth.
“The people who refused [the cows] are those who are already living comfortably, but those who accepted are looking for prosperity,” he says. “But right now with the limitations and deficiencies we have, we have to live poorly.”