Donny Iqbal, Warief Djajanto Basorie – "Recover Citatah Karst, Make People Prosper." That's the call printed in red letters on a huge white banner pinned on a limestone cliff in Indonesia's West Java province.
"We put up the banner so that anyone could read it – citizens, cliff climbers, the government – as a means of our campaign," says Deden Syarif Hidayat, founder and head of the Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum.
The environmental advocacy group operates to conserve a limestone-based karst landscape in four villages in Padalarang subdistrict, West Bandung district. Citatah is one of the four villages.
What sparked Deden to start his conservation drive was the unsightly environmental damage in the area: mountain destruction, groundwater depletion, air and noise pollution, land erosion, animal extinction, and farmland loss. The vicinity was under threat from unsupervised mining and a confusing proliferation of permits.
Much of the mining activity is illegal and ignores the impact to the environment, says Deden, 37, who works as an Islamic studies instructor at Bandung State Polytechnic, a local higher education institute.
Last year, the group received a special recognition for its efforts: the Kalpataru Award, given by Indonesia's Ministry of Environment and Forestry to honor individuals or groups for service in conservation.
Karst is a limestone landscape easily dissolved by rainwater, often making formations of ridges, towers, fissures, caves and sinkholes. This geological phenomenon attracts speleologists – people who study caves – and is great for cave tourism. Karst also serves as a reservoir of clean water from rainwater percolating through the limestone. Another plus lies in its ability to mitigate climate change: karsts are massive carbon absorbers.
However, many karst landscapes are under threat from the cement industry, which craves its mineral content.
Indonesia has some 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of karst, but nearly a tenth of it has been damaged, according to Eko Haryono, a karst expert from the University of Gadjah Mada. On Indonesia's main central island of Java, that figure stands at 20%.
In 2017, nine women from the North Kendeng Mountains in Central Java gained national attention when they set their feet in cement outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta to protest plans for a cement mine and factory there.Environmental advocates have tried for years to get the government to issue regulations to better protect the nation's karsts, with little success.
Today, activists like Deden see a renewed threat to Indonesia's karsts in the form of the so-called omnibus law on job creation, passed in 2020 and which, among other deregulatory measures, eases the path for mining companies to obtain permits easily by loosening requirements for environmental studies.
This deregulation has irked karst protection advocate Deden.
"Licensing is done at the central government level. Thus mining businesses can easily process permits in Jakarta," he tells Mongabay. "We local people have difficulty to access control. The local government would claim they have no knowledge as the permits are issued by the central government."
The karst formation that Deden is trying to protect lies in the Bandung Basin, believed to have been the site of a prehistoric lake and now home to the southern suburbs of Bandung, Indonesia's fourth-largest city.
Today, some 60% of the 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) area has been damaged by mining, according to the Bandung Basin Research Group (KRCB), a group of concerned scientists associated with the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB). The group estimates there are around 100 mining companies operating in the area.
Deden didn't need to read any complicated statistics to see that mining was damaging the area. He worried what would happen to the area's supply of fresh water if the karst was damaged beyond repair.
In 2009, Deden created the Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum, known by its Indonesian acronym FP2KC. It started as a hobby group for rock climbers, but soon took an interest in protecting the karst. It has staged public awareness campaigns, helped build a nascent "geotourism" industry, and engaged mining companies to conserve and restore local ecosystems.
Deden soon learned that challenging powerful interests was not without risk. Once, after a meeting with government officials and mining executives mediated by the local energy and mineral resources agency, he received a death threat from an unknown caller.
"The phone call may have been just a bluff," Deden says. "We continued our actions, but with prudence in the field."
In 2012, after the group demonstrated in front of the West Bandung district legislature, the district administration issued a regional zoning plan designating the Citatah karst as a protected area.
Deden also started a group called Nature House 125. The number refers to a popular feature of the Citatah karst, named Cliff 125 by rock climbers because it stands 125 meters (410 feet) high. Local youth were invited to join the group for common activities, starting with discussions on the environment, to making the karst area into a recreation site.
"What's important is that there's activity," he said. "In every activity we plant a tree as a part of our existence."
Deden and the FP2KC gained further backing for their conservation efforts through the environment ministry's climate village program, known as ProKlim, which helps local communities apply climate adaptation and mitigation measures.
The group also helped establish "tourism awareness groups" under the government's Pokdarwis program, which develops local tourism initiatives.
The first Pokdarwis group appeared in Gunung Masigit village, in West Bandung's Cipatat subdistrict. There, residents were called to manage a "stone garden" rock formation formed more than 100 million years ago. The nearby village of Padalarang in Padalarang subdistrict followed with an initiative to get former limestone miners to cultivate guava.
Only karst landscapes that have been established as geotourism sites in cooperation with local authorities are safe, he says.
Twelve years after its founding, the FP2KC became one of 10 recepients of the annual Kalpataru Award last year.
The award, named for the Sanskrit word meaning "tree of life," comes in four categories: environment pioneer, environment service, environment builder, and environment rescuer. The FP2KC was placed in the environment rescuer category.
The ministry's citation for the Citatah youth forum said its ecological rehabilitation efforts had saved 91 hectares (225 acres) of the protected karst from mining activities, safeguarded water springs, protected biodiversity, enhanced vegetation coverage, and decreased degraded land, air pollution, erosion and landslides.
On the economic front, the youth forum contributed to opening up new employment, building efforts of farmers to develop agricultural cultivation. Increased local income generation was also realized through geotourism management, the ministry further noted.
The Citatah youth forum received a charter of appreciation signed by the environment minister, a gold-plated plaque, and a 12.5 million rupiah ($875) "building fund."
"The award shouldn't make our heads swell," Deden says. "We know our work is still minimal and has yet to achieve anything."
Deden does take stock of the group's inroads with the business community. In the beginning, he says, miners tended to only value the limestone for its extractive potential. Slowly, they began to accept the karst range could offer other livelihood benefits for locals.
Deden says he only cooperates with mining businesses that are willing to carry out karst rehabilitation. This includes planting trees and turning abandoned mines into tourism sites.
Whatever collaboration the Citatah youth forum seeks to develop, the message it put on the banner remains. "Recover Citatah Karst, Make People Prosper." It's the forum's mission statement, established in its signature logo.