A planned auction to award exclusive license rights for more than 100 protected islands in eastern Indonesia was postponed until the end of January following protests from environmental groups.
The government recently floated a plan to auction the Widi Reserve, an uninhabited protected marine zone in the "Coral Triangle" area covering about 25,000 hectares located northeast of Bali in the North Maluku province's South Halmahera district.
The auction was scheduled for Dec. 8-16 by Sotheby's Concierge Auctions in New York. The agency said on Dec. 13 that it has been postponed to Jan. 24.
The announcement comes amid strong opposition from environmental groups who said it would damage the environment and disrupt the lives of coastal communities.
The outcry also led Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry to reveal early last week that PT Leadership Islands Indonesia [LII], the company managing the islands, had not obtained the necessary permits to proceed with the auction.
In a statement, LII said it was working to fulfill the requirements.
Sotheby's described Widi Reserve as "one of the most intact coral atoll ecosystems left on earth and an animal kingdom of epic proportions, home to hundreds of rare and endangered species."
Under Indonesian law, the sale of islands for foreign ownership is prohibited, except for cultivation rights permits.
Despite the postponement, Jaring Nusa, an alliance of 18 environmental organizations, continues to protest, warning of a threat to "the sustainability of small island ecosystems."
Faisal Ratuela, director of the North Maluku branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, an alliance member, said that the archipelago in North Maluku consists of 395 islands.
Even though only 64 islands are inhabited, he said, the islands play an important role for the local people in terms of their economic, social, traditional, and cultural aspects.
He said that though Widi Islands is uninhabited it still has shelters for fishermen.
Yusuf Sangadji, executive director of Jala Ina, another alliance member, said the government needs to take a firm stance on protecting small islands because "what is happening to the Widi Islands today has the potential to happen to other islands."
"Island privatization is an entry point for the destruction that will occur in small islands. Uninhabited islands also have ecosystems and functions that must be maintained," he said.
Yusuf said that privatization would only increase the chances of damage to various marine biology and ecosystems because there would definitely be development and land conversion that would affect the balance of nature.
"In this case, fishermen also have the potential to be criminalized if the islands are sold because they are used to doing activities around the island making it a source of livelihood," he said.
"The Indonesian government must be firm and review various permits submitted by investors. Don't just do it because of investment, it actually destroys the ecosystem and the existence of archipelagic communities in Indonesia," Yusuf explained.
Melky Nahar, a Catholic environmental activist, stated that the case of selling the Widi Islands was only one of many cases that happened to be revealed to the public.
"In a number of other locations, actually the process of selling the island has already taken place, it's just that the modes are varied. There are those who get around the ban on foreign ownership by using local people. What is clear is that it remains a form of privatization and monopoly," he said.
Nahar also said that what is also far more important in the context of protecting the islands and in the context of justice for local residents is not to create a dichotomy between foreigners and non-foreigners.
"In practice, control and monopoly of resources on islands are with the national corporations. So, let us not be trapped by the terms 'controlled by foreigners and non-foreigners.' Because both are equally damaging," he said.