Chris Barrett and Amilia Rosa – It has been teased as the chance of a lifetime. An auction in New York this week at which the development rights to an uninhabited, pristine archipelago in far eastern Indonesia are up for grabs.
"Every billionaire can own a private island but only one can own this exclusive opportunity spread across 100-plus islands," says the blurb of auction house Sotheby's, which is running the sale.
A marine wonderland and "an animal kingdom of epic proportions" with 150 kilometres of white sand beachfront, the Widi Islands lie in Indonesia's North Maluku province and are untouched and not easily accessed.
For generations, they have only been visited by villagers from the mainland of the province. The news of the auction in the United States, though, has created a stir well beyond this remote corner of Indonesia, prompting environmental worries and fears that local fishermen will lose their livelihoods.
The islands themselves cannot be sold under Indonesian law. But the vendor, Bali-based British woman Natalia Perry, owns the rights to manage and develop them until 2050 and is going to auction to find an investor with deep pockets.
Her company, Leadership Islands Indonesia (LII), acquired licences and permits for the 315,000-hectare Widi Reserve in a deal with the provincial government in 2015 and has a vision to build eco-lodges and private island estates there. An airstrip would also be laid to make possible flights from Singapore, Bali, Jakarta, Hong Kong and Cairns "one of the world's most sustainable luxury travel destinations".
A marine protected area, the waters surrounding the dozens of coral atolls are teeming with the likes of leatherback turtles, blue whales and giant squid. The islands' rainforests, brimming with bird species, lizards and rare flora, also have protection status.
"It feels like a mix of Avatar and Jurassic Park when you get there," Perry told a magazine produced by Singapore real estate firm Knight Frank this year. She declined an interview with this masthead, referring The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to Sotheby's.
Her company says the development would be conservation focused, limited to 500 "keys", which can range from a single room to an eight-bedroom villa. According to Sotheby's, the "covered roof area" will be capped at 16.5 hectares across 17 islands, with a potential for 20 further hectares if approval can be gained for another eight of the islands.
Environmentalists, however, have raised objections to the project.
"Ecotourism only works on paper. In reality, tourism is just like mining. It will create jobs, and it will bring income to the people, but the destruction of the environment is not worth any income made from it," said Parid Ridwanuddin, the coastal and marine campaign manager for WALHI, an Indonesian NGO.
"We are also concerned with this sale of shares. What kind of shares are we talking about? Is it a controlling interest? The original owner was the one who signed the MOU with the local government. If a new share owner with controlling interest suddenly came into the picture, how would it affect the plan over the islands?"
Ridwanuddin also believes local communities will lose their access to the islands and "end up as outsiders in their own home" with private resorts constructed there.
Fishermen from Gane Luar, a village on the main island in the province, have been among those who have for generations made a living near the Widi Islands, which they can reach by speed boat in an hour.
"The question, if they open it, can fishermen still go there?" said Sagir Kadir, a fisherman from the village. "Can she prevent us from fishing in the area?"
"All we know is fishing, since our ancestors. If beachline [is closed to us] there goes all our fishing area. Where else would we look [for fish] for a living? We might as well go home. We are the ones directly affected."
In a statement, the company did not answer whether fishing communities would have their activities curbed, but said it had set aside $US1.5 million ($2.2 million) in the next year to combat problems such as poaching of endangered species and deforestation and would establish a conservation centre as well as eco-resorts.
It said its master plan would touch less than 1 per cent of the islands' rainforest, "largely overlapping spots already deforested".
"The islands chosen for development were picked not just for their exquisite views and unique features but precisely because they could be developed without disturbing critical habitats," it said.
"The reserve has large areas zoned as no-go areas for tourists (where only scientists on a specific mission can go) and other areas zoned as 'light-footprint' with limited numbers of guests allowed to roam these incredible wild landscapes.
"Compared to the Maldives, which allows for 30 per cent covered roof area, this development represents unparalleled low density and sensitivity, giving priority to Mother Nature at every turn."
The company has included in comments compiled for media a testimonial from Sari Tolvanen, a marine conservation expert specialising in ecotourism and financing, in which he said it had "gone to extraordinary lengths" to listen to his advice.
Perry, who previously founded a foundation to help protect children from abuse, has said she would also like to create an ocean-related special economic zone around the reserve.
But she could lose the rights to the islands if she cannot secure new permits needed under revised laws, according to a provincial government official.
"LII believes the MOU they signed in 2015 gave them the rights to manage the islands. But there are additional permits required as per the new 2020 law," said Syahrudin Turuy, the head of North Maluku province's water conservation bureau.
"We have asked them to complete [the application] within six months and we will review their status. If they can't complete it we might revoke their rights."
He said the rights to manage the islands did not mean the company could block access to locals. "Fishermen can still fish there," he said.
Greenpeace Indonesia ocean campaigner Afdillah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, hopes the islands remain undisturbed.
"To conserve an area, leave it be. No human involvement is necessary," he said. "The building of anything will disrupt the ecosystem."
– With Karuni Rompies