Fathul Rakhman, Lombok, Indonesia – Environmental activists have called on authorities in Indonesia's Lombok Island to drop plans for a cable car project serving a UNESCO-listed national park.
The government of West Nusa Tenggara, an archipelagic province that includes the island of Lombok, earlier this year revived a proposal to run a cable car part of the way up the slope of Mount Rinjani from a village at the base. Zulkieflimansyah, the provincial governor, promoted the project on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, saying he was "very happy to see the public's response on the upcoming cable car in our place."
The provincial government insists the project will be outside the boundary of Mount Rinjani National Park, and that visitors will still need to hike the rest of the way to reach the volcano's peak and its scenic crater lake, Segara Anak.
But the plan has been criticized by environmental activists and trekking enthusiasts, who warn any changes to the wider ecosystem will ripple into the national park.
"The construction of various facilities for the cable car will change the landscape and damage the environment," said Murdani, the head of West Nusa Tenggara chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
He also said he doubted the benefits would trickle down to small businesses around Mount Rinjani, the centerpiece of the national park and part of UNESCO's global network of geoparks.
"The governor must scrap [the plan]. The people don't need a cable car to help make their lives prosperous," he said.
Local officials say the project could open up new job opportunities for locals as porters and tour guides, for instance. "People who will be interested in using the cable car are mostly middle to executive classes," added Madani Mukarom, the head of the provincial environmental agency.
Investors have deposited 5 billion rupiah ($332,000) for the project with the provincial government and requested 500 hectares (1,240 acres) to develop the cable car line, according to Walhi. The line will run some 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Karang Sidemen village to just outside the park boundary, according to the local government.
Murdani said the cable car project, by enabling more people to visit the park, would also worsen the trash issue inside the park, which has gone unresolved for years, and would be "visually disturbing." He added the authorities were pushing for the project to happen despite there being no feasibility or environmental studies done yet. "This policy is being rushed," he said.
But Madani, the environmental agency head, said the plan had received the approval of the environment ministry because it would be outside the national park, in an area where tourism-related developments are permitted.
The project was first announced in 2016 by Suhaili Fadhil Thohir, the then-head of Central Lombok district, where the national park is located. The governor of West Nusa Tenggara at the time, Zainul Majdi, was among those opposed to the idea, citing the potential for environmental damage.
The issue became a political football in the 2018 election to replace Majdi, with Suhaili making the cable car project a focus of his campaign and rival Mori Hanafi campaigning prominently in opposition to it. Hanafi even commissioned a poll showing that more than 70% of respondents didn't want a cable car to Mount Rinjani.
But it was Zulkieflimansyah who eventually won the gubernatorial election, without ever mentioning the cable car project. Provincial secretary Gita Aryadi, the No. 2 official in the local government, told reporters that construction could begin as soon as this May, in time to open ahead of next year's inaugural Indonesian edition of the MotoGP motorcycle race.
The environmental agency says construction will be carried out with minimal damage to the environment, including through the use of helicopters rather than trucks to bring in material, and a pledge to not clear land for new roads for heavy equipment that needs to be brought in overland. Madani said his office would ensure that the project abides by regulations, has the proper licenses, and involve the local community.
Mount Rinjani National Park is due for an evaluation of its geopark status next year, and the cable car project, if it goes ahead, will be a significant factor in that decision, said Chairul Machsul, the head of the committee overseeing the Rinjani Geopark. "Will it pass and get the green card for the next four years or be dropped?"
Chairul also said he doubted the project would be completed before the 2021 MotoGP race (tour organizers haven't set a date yet) due to the amount of research and work needed to start construction.
"There are strict steps from pre-feasibility study, feasibility study, detailed engineering design to environmental impact analysis," he said.
He also called for an impact assessment for the local economy, noting that many locals in the area work as porters for trekkers or run homestay lodges.
"But obviously the conservation aspect is the top consideration," Chairul said.
Climbing enthusiasts have also criticized the provincial government's rationale for rolling out the cable car to cater to tourists who are not trekkers.
"The excuse that the cable car is for tourists who aren't strong enough to trek is just camouflage," said Dedy Aryo, the head of the Beautiful Rinjani Forum. "This is only to scrape profits while shutting down local businesses."
Dedy said Mount Rinjani was a key source for clean water and air for the people of Lombok, and warned that infrastructure projects like the cable car would disrupt the environmental balance there. Activists and observers say they will hold street protests to emphasize their opposition to the cable car project.
"The government must not only listen to what the investors want, but also listen to the people," Dedy said. "We are the people of West Nusa Tenggara. We voted for you."
[This story was first reported by Mongabay's Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 29, 2020.]