Lorcan Lovett – Indonesia's plan to auction the development rights to an entire archipelago of more than 100 tropical islands has descended into chaos, with a fisheries ministry official joining conservationists in criticising the sale.
Sotheby's has described the uninhabited pristine Widi Reserve as "one of the most intact coral atoll ecosystems left on Earth", and is due to open bidding on Thursday. No sale price has been stated, but prospective buyers will need to provide a US$100,000 deposit.
However, Victor Gustaaf Manoppo, director general of marine spatial planning at the fisheries ministry, disputed whether the appropriate approvals had been granted to operate in the marine-protected zone in the "Coral Triangle" area of eastern Indonesia.
The sale of islands to non-Indonesians is banned under Indonesian law, so buyers must bid for shares in PT Leadership Islands Indonesia (PT LII), an Indonesian development firm that has licensed the rights to build an eco-resort and luxury residential properties on the reserve.
Manoppo said PT LII lacks full approval from the central government to manage the reserve. "Based on our information, PT LII does not currently have [marine activity approval] for the utilisation of the Widi islands' waters," he told a press conference this week.
"According to our legal regulations, the Widi islands cannot be owned by foreigners and cannot be traded."
Conservationists say the development could cut off local communities and threaten its ecosystems, which feature rainforests, mangroves, lagoons, lakes and coral reefs that are home to vast marine life.
Afdillah Chudiel, a campaigner at Greenpeace, welcomed the stance from the fisheries ministry, saying that it should "act decisively to enforce the rules prohibiting the sale and purchase of islands, which are public rights and state assets".
"[Widi Reserve's] utilisation must prioritise benefits for coastal communities and traditional fishermen around the island, not for a group of rich people and investors," he said.
Home affairs minister Tito Karnavian has defended the sale, telling critics that the firm PT LII was simply trying to raise a capital investment. "The aim is not to auction [Widi Reserve]," CNN Indonesia quoted Karnavian as saying. "The aim is to attract foreign investors, so that's fine."
PT LII stated that the sale would go ahead as planned at Sotheby's Concierge Auctions in New York on 8-14 December.
It defended the sale, saying in a statement: "What LII has is the exclusive licensed rights to conserve, sustainably develop, and manage the Widi Reserve with over 30 licenses, permits, approvals and government recommendations in hand."
Sotheby's has previously addressed the environmental concerns. Charlie Smith, Sotheby's Concierge Auctions' executive vice-president, told the Guardian via email that PT LII would be "actively involved, not just handing over the entire project".
He said the company's plan touches "less than 1% of the rainforest" and "0.005% of the entire reserve", with no-go areas for tourists and spaces that cap the number of guests.
Spread out over 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) north-east of Bali, a Sotheby's representative described the islands as "an animal kingdom of epic proportions, home to hundreds of rare and endangered species," among them blue whales, whale sharks and "species yet to be discovered".
Included in the development plans is a private airstrip that can serve guests from destinations such as Bali, Jakarta, and Cairns.