August 12, 2005
Komodo Park: A future Jurassic tragedy
Henning Borchers, Jakarta
Komodo National Park is a great place to see the famous Komodo dragon but conflict in
the area between locals and conservators is risking the status of this World Heritage Site.
Henning Borchers, a development anthropologist, writes how a new plan involving the
locals is badly needed to avoid future conflict and guarantee sustainable management of
Komodo National Park is internationally famous for being the only place in the world
where one can encounter the Komodo monitor in the wild. Its marine environment is also
destined to become yet another first-class dive destination, alongside Sulawesi's Bunaken
The sea surrounding the park's several islands offers some of the best dive spots in the
country; it provides the diver with a glimpse of more than 250 species of reef-building
corals, some 1,000 species of fish, manta rays, sea turtles and numerous marine mammals
such as dolphins and whales.
The terrestrial part of the park has more to offer than just dragons -- it is a naturalist's
quot;Jurassic Parkquot; for sure; another world that seems to offer little to human habitation. But
appearances can be deceptive. There are humans here too: traditional residents as well as
migrants who have come to the park to try and eke out a living from the area's bountiful
natural resources. But for them, living in the park is fast becoming a non-sustainable
There are roughly 3,300 people living within park boundaries, spread over four
settlements. Their main source of livelihood is the sea surrounding their islands. This has
become a highly contested issue, and the situation in and around Komodo National Park
can now be considered a worst-case scenario, where an international conservation agenda
clashes with the livelihood needs and political rights of the local population.
Since 1995, the National Park Authority has received substantial support from The
Nature Conservancy (TNC), an American NGO. While the work of TNC, the world's
richest environmental organization, has garnered praise from some quarters, its reputation
has also been questioned due to its corporate links -- indeed, General Motors, Exxon
Mobil, and Monsanto are unlikely partners for an organization that claims to be quot;saving
the last great placesquot;.
Conflict between park authorities and local fishing communities in and surrounding the
park was already prevalent prior to TNC's engagement. However, since TNC's
involvement, this conflict has been aggravated.
TNC has largely restricted resource use without providing alternative livelihood
strategies fishermen so badly need to sustain a living without being shot dead as last
happened in 2002.
The incident, in which two fishermen were allegedly shot and killed by a park patrol
when they were trying to catch lobster, caused violent protests, which saw a local
national park branch torched down, and led to an investigation by Komnas HAM, the
National Human Rights Commission. But it did not initiate a critical review of the project
that had provided the circumstances for this incident to happen in the first place.
Instead, TNC hails their Komodo project as an all-out success, and they were thus able to
secure continued project funding, most recently a US$5 million grant from the
International Finance Corporation, although their success rate after a 10-year
commitment is largely limited to improvements in coral reef cover. This is certainly a
worthwhile achievement and one, moreover, which attracts the tourists TNC so badly
needs to make the park self-financing through tourism revenue.
The Ministry of Forestry in July 2004 granted a tourism concession to a joint venture
between TNC and a tourism company owned by Malaysian business magnate Feisol
Hashim to manage the park for 25 years. The JV, P.T. Putri Naga Komodo, is set to take
over this month, but local stakeholders, including local legislative council, have yet to be
informed about its decision-making structure, which puts into question political rights
granted to them through Indonesia's decentralization process.
Feisol seems to be the perfect partner to invigorate the tourism industry by developing
high-end marine tourism. He holds prominent positions in Indonesia's tourism industry
and has bought around 200ha of coastal land surrounding the park over the past 10 years.
According to TNC's Russell Leiman, Feisol's engagement is on a purely philanthropic
basis, but with the JV to go ahead, one can expect large-scale infrastructure development
and a considerable future profit for Feisol.
What is not clear, however, is how local communities, who still rely on the area to
survive, will benefit from the project.
According to TNC, fishermen from further a-field exercise most pressure on resources,
but population pressure within the park also needs to be addressed. TNC thus promotes
incentives for park residents to resettle outside the park, by denying particularly poor
locals a livelihood through restrictions on resource use. In Komodo National Park, the
old-school conservation paradigm of quot;parks without peoplequot; receives a new polish.
The reality for park residents in Komodo is as bleak as the dragon is fierce. There have
been few attempts by TNC to involve local communities in conservation efforts.
Fishermen are considered a threat to resources rather than an asset to conservation and
park management. Ultimately, TNC is spending a considerable amount of money on
quot;holding the fortquot;.
There is a need for transparent and independent review, monitoring and mediation
procedures to ensure sustainable management of the park. Local stakeholders have to be
involved in decisions pertaining to park management, conservation and economic
development, ascertaining their right to prior, free and informed consent. They have the
right and capacity to make their own decisions about their livelihoods.
If TNCs top-down approach is allowed to continue, conflict will prevail and tourists
visiting the park would better stay under water, where the fish won't bother them. For the
communities within and surrounding the park, the last word has not yet been spoken.
The writer is a New Zealand-based development anthropologist and independent
researcher who published several papers on Komodo National Park.