Azka Namirah, Jakarta – "It is so hard to earn a living as a fisherman today. Years ago, my wife and children never had to ask me to make more money because it was enough. This area used to be wide open. We could fish and get paid. But not anymore. Reclamation is everywhere, we are stranded."
Although Jakarta is a coastal city, this does not necessarily translate into ample opportunities for those in the fishery industry. Zabeni, 55, who goes by one name, has been fishing for over 40 years, but he has only now realised that the glory days for small fishermen like him might already be over.
The reclamation that Zabeni refers to are islets of sand in Jakarta Bay that were built as part of a 17-island deal worth US$40 billion. The plan was abandoned in 2018, following Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan's campaign promise to cancel the project.
But by then, four islets had already been built. Although further reclamation has been halted for now, the project is still a big problem for fishermen like Zabeni and other local residents.
Now, the expansion of the Ancol recreation area, which involves reclamation, has sparked further concern on the ground.
While the city government said that the project will help prevent flooding and result in the development of a premier tourist attraction, fishermen and activists fret about their livelihoods.
Reclamation a politicised issue
The plan to reclaim land in Jakarta Bay can be traced back to the late 1990s. Small reclamation projects had been happening for years before, but in 1995 then-president Soeharto agreed to a proposal to build large scale residential and commercial facilities.
Although the mega project was eventually stalled for decades, smaller reclamation has been happening around the shoreline. Resulting in newly developed areas such as Pantai Indah Kapuk and Pantai Mutiara.
Public opinion has fluctuated over the years. It turned against the project during the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017, when Baswedan pledged to cancel the 17-island project.
Many middle-to-low income residents in the area see the land reclamation project as just another megadevelopment that they won't benefit from. Besides the fishermen who have lost their access route to their fishing grounds, many fear that development in the area will push them out of their homes.
In February 2020, Baswedan, now the city governor, appears to have reneged on his promise, by issuing a new permit for 'land expansion' near the lucrative and privately owned entertainment complex in Ancol, which the government is a majority shareholder.
The reclaimed land, near the four islets that have already been constructed, will house attractions such as a theme park and a museum dedicated to Prophet Mohammed. The latter is touted as the biggest museum dedicated to the prophet outside Saudi Arabia.
The Ancol expansion will make it the biggest and the best tourism attraction in Asia, Baswedan reportedly said.
He also said that the 155 ha reclamation project would use excavated soil and mud from 13 rivers and 30 dams as infill. In other words, the excavated soil is being put to good use.Despite these assurances, the project has led to disquiet on the ground.
Martin Hadiwinata, a member of the Save Jakarta Bay Coalition, voiced his concerns about the reclamation. "Our only information about this new plan is from the media. Although the decree was issued in February, the public was only informed in May. There has been no communication with us regarding this project. Months have been wasted," he said when interviewed by CNA.
According to Hadiwinata, many feel cheated, especially those who campaigned against the original reclamation plan in 2017. He perceives the Ancol expansion as a "discount" from two of the previously cancelled islands.
"This is K and L," Hadiwinata said, referring to islands from the original 17-island plan.
"The one on the West is exactly like the K Island while the one on the East is the L Island, only smaller. It used to be bigger, but now the plan is only for 120 hectares."
Hadiwinata insists that this is a reversal of policy from the government and a broken promise from the governor.
Plan will help reduce floods in the city: Governor's office
From the perspective of the Jakarta City government, however, the Ancol plan is unrelated to the original development of 17 islands.
Irvan Pulungan, an advisor for the governor's office of shoreline management, said that the land expansion is part of a plan to reduce flooding in Jakarta and remove sedimentation from rivers.
"We already have around 20 ha of land in the area, from the Jakarta Emergency Drainage Initiative program," said Pulungan. According to him, this land is intended for public use, hence the 'land expansion' project in Ancol.
The Governor's office has acknowledged the backlash from the public but insists that the plan is a requirement for the city's flood prevention program. It claims that the public misinterpreted the decree issued in February.
"We cannot just stop moving the sediment to Ancol. It has started to rain here in Jakarta. It is going to flood soon, and we need to handle that. There is no other place to dump the sediment."
"We are still in the process of studying and researching what to do with the sediment that we have from the rivers in Jakarta. We can build museums or mosques there, but we are still researching. We have a plan to open a dialogue with impacted locals and concerned citizens," Pulungan told CNA.
According to him, if the research shows that the impact on the environment and the economy of the people in the area is too great, they can cancel the land reclamation. But in the meantime, the flood prevention programme in the city already produces sediment that they need to manage.
The developer for the Ancol project did not respond to requests for comments.
Potential harm to marine life, fishermen marginalised
For the sediment to be utilised as land, however, it needs to be mixed with other materials, and some might be harmful to marine life in the area.
Tarsoen Waryono, an environmental expert working in Jakarta, has his reservations too. "A lot of extra material needs to be added to the existing mud from the rivers, especially if you want to build something on it. Even if you only plan to plant vegetation on the land, you still need to add materials," he said.
"This is a reclamation project. The purpose of reclamation is to convert a previously unusable area, to usable land, and that is the Governor's plan."
According to Waryono, the reclamation will further harm sea life in the area, which is already under a high amount of stress from the waste that is dumped into the sea.
"When you put foreign materials in the sea, sea life must adapt to them. The worst scenario is they will die or flee."
This situation is not only harmful to the local sea life, but to those whose livelihoods depend on it, like the fishermen.
In recent years, fishermen have already found it increasingly difficult to fish in Jakarta Bay. Their small boats can only operate near land, due to the risk of capsizing.
The government has tried to persuade them to fish further from the shore, but the fishermen lack the capital to afford the fuel costs to operate bigger boats, forcing them to stay near the shore.
To make ends meet, Zabeni and his fellow fishermen have resorted to other activities, including diving to find clamshells, and making salted fish from smaller catches.
Hadiwinata, who works closely with the fishermen, claimed that the fishermen have been vilified by the developer, even though they are dependent on the sea.
The fishermen said that even though their only demand is a route to their usual fishing grounds, some developers have refused to grant them access.
"The fishermen are marginalised, and they should get fair treatment from this, more than those who are already privileged. The developers need to consult with them, and find a way out that benefits all parties involved if the plan needs to happen," he said.
He added that in a developing city, change must happen. But how it happens must also be discussed.
Waryono said: "It is perfectly fine to continue the development, but there are some conservation rules we need to obey. Not just any material will work on the shore. It needs to be similar to the materials you usually find there."
He also said it would also be safer to plant mangroves rather than focus on seawalls.
"Twenty-five per cent of the area should be dedicated to mangroves. Sometimes, developers plant whatever they want on the reclaimed land. It is harmful to the ecosystem. They should plant vegetation that can thrive on the coast, like cypress, casuarina, and mangroves," said Waryono.
The environmental expert also believes that the project lacks a proper legal footing. A provincial-level decree from Baswedan, the city governor does not mean that the project can ignore national environmental laws, he said.
"The government should have followed the national law on shoreline management in approving the permit needed for the land expansion in Ancol. This way, the developer is obliged to highlight conservation of the ecosystem," he said.
"The shore needs to be protected, because it holds our land together. But right now, the sole purpose of reclamation is business."
For the fishermen, all they can do now is to bear with the situation.
Suryanto, who moved from Surabaya to Jakarta to become a fisherman in 1991 said: "The sea is where we live. When you fill it with land, our space shrinks more and more."
"And there is no way to negotiate with them. Even when all we ask for is just a clear route to go to our fishing grounds. Small fishermen like me need that route. At least let us through before a dock is built," he added.
Suryanto, who goes by one name, added: "I don't know what to do anymore. That's the government for you. We have asked again and again. They even moved our leaders around, so the movement died down."
"We are powerless. No matter who we talk to, it is all the same for us." (CNA/aw)