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Maluku bone collector unearths troubling consequence of coastal abrasion

Mongabay - April 9, 2024

Christ Belseran, Edison Waas, Seram Island, Indonesia – Samadin Samalehu paced up and down the beach in Haya village this past January, gathering human remains into a plastic bag.

A heavy rain had begun and the onshore breeze gathered strength as morning broke and Samadin collected femur bones, ribs and a skull. He darted into the shore break to pick up a bone before it was snatched by the tide here in Indonesia's Maluku province.

"There are probably around 20 graves that have been damaged," Samadin, a caretaker at the Tutuni public cemetery, told Mongabay Indonesia. "Some are also missing."

Like many seaside communities in the world's largest archipelagic country, Haya village faces an uncertain future owing to erosion of its coastline. In Haya, the combined forces of currents, tide, wind and impact from storm surges have pushed back the coastline here by about 20 meters (66 feet).

A study published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2018 found that approximately 28,000 square kilometers (11,000 square miles) of land had been eroded by coastal abrasion globally, an area 10 times the size of Hong Kong.

Further research in the same journal in 2020 projected that losses from extreme coastal flooding would soon accelerate, and that sea level rises would "radically redefine the coastline of the 21st century."

However, residents of Haya village worry that the gradual forces causing their coastline to crumble have been stimulated by new demand for sand.

Coastal retreat

The quantity of sand mined around the world has tripled this century as urbanization, land reclamations and infrastructure construction propel demand for the world's most-used commodity after water.

The United Nations Environment Programme said in 2022 that the volume of sand mined around the world in one year could construct a wall 27 m (89 ft) high and wide that could circle the planet.

In 2021, PT Waragonda Minerals Pratama, a mining company based in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, began work in Haya. The operation is known locally as red sand mining, owing to the presence of reddish iron oxides in the laterite soil.

"The community is very worried because this sand mining activity has resulted in massive abrasion that has threatened settlements," said Farid Samalehu, who has served as the acting head of the village since 2022.

Following his elevation to the local government post, Farid worked to scrutinize the company's operations in Haya. "Because there was massive abrasion on the beach," he said.

The company also faced a review by the provincial government, which shuttered the production for a time owing to a lack of an operating permit. "They were closed for three months, but the company reopened," Farid said.

Roy Syauta visited Haya to check facts on the ground in his capacity as head of the province's environment department. He determined that the company was unlikely to be behind the scattering of graves in the cemetery, and that the cause of the disturbance predated the firm's arrival.

In addition, Roy said, the company was not itself dredging or digging sand in Haya – it was buying sand that local residents themselves were excavating, much like a palm oil mill buying fruit from smallholder farmers.

"This company has not taken sand from the coast, they only buy it from people who take it from their land," Roy said, adding that people had long been taking sand from the beach for use in local construction. "Everyone took sand from the beach there, and no one forbade it," he said.

PT Waragonda Minerals Pratama provided some people with a much-needed income and had contributed around 100 million rupiah ($6,300) to state revenue, he added.

Head in the sand

For Haya fishers like Rahman Ode, earning a living has become increasingly challenging as the availability of local fish stocks has diminished and inflationary pressures raise costs, he said. "It was already hard to find fish," Rahman said.

However, in recent years, Haya's fishers have had to pay higher fuel prices, while having to travel farther out to sea to encounter schools of fish. In addition, anecdotal testimony in the village indicates greater anxiety over extreme weather, with fishers reporting an increase in the number of days when high swells or wind preclude setting sail.

The other source of income in Haya is agriculture. Residents here grow corn, cassava and sweet potato, while cultivating coconut, cloves and nutmeg for sale in nearby supply chains. However, inputs like fertilizer have become more expensive, and a drought last year caused by the El Nino climate pattern proved ruinous for many farmers.

Yusuf Sangadji, an activist with civil society organization Karang Nusantara Maluku, said excavating sand from the Haya coastline had impacted local mangroves, reefs and seagrasses. Bob Rachmat, head of the district disaster mitigation agency, the BPBD, said sand mining also presented risks to communities by destabilizing the local geology in an area already prone to tectonic activity.

Stany R. Siahainenia, a fisheries lecturer at Pattimura Univeristy in Ambon, said dredging coastlines for sand inevitably introduces risks to coastal ecosystems. Sand mining often increases sedimentation, which then interferes with nutrient cycles in the water and restricts the way light penetrates the water column. This can undermine the viability of local plankton, which is a key food source for fish.

"There are fishers in Maluku who because of operational costs such as fuel and so on find it difficult catching large tuna," Stany said.

The company's director, Muammar Kadafi Tehuayo, ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Central Maluku district legislature as a member of the Gerindra Party earlier this year.

Over the course of a week, Samadin, the cemetery caretaker, filled two large bags containing parts of ancestors who once lived by the sea here. He gathered them from the ever-approaching seashore, then piled them under a mango tree for temporary safekeeping.

"When the sand extraction company began operating here was when we started experiencing massive abrasion in Haya, this is what happened," Samadin said. "Most of the graves here were destroyed and damaged by the waves."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/04/maluku-bone-collector-unearths-troubling-consequence-of-coastal-abrasion