JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – On a dirt road, a forked yellow tongue sticking out of its mouth, a member of the world’s largest lizard species sloths on an island in Komodo National Park, eastern Komodo National Park. Indonesia, while tourists take photos. And about 30 kilometers away, on another island in the park that is home to Komodo dragons, trees have been removed and concrete poured for new tourist facilities that have angered locals and environmental activists.
The construction is part of an ambitious Indonesian initiative that has generated tensions between a government that wants to develop natural attractions for luxury tourism and environmentalists who fear the habitat of the endangered Komodo dragon may be irreparably damaged. . United Nations officials have also raised concerns about the potential impacts of tourism on this unique wildlife-rich park.
Encompassing approximately 850 square miles (2,200 square kilometers) of land and sea area, Komodo National Park was established in 1980 to help protect the famous dragons. Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimates that around 3,000 reptiles live there today, along with manatee-like dugongs, sea turtles, whales and more than a thousand species of fish. tropical.
Due to its biodiversity and beauty, the park became a World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1991. And it is one of the gems of the Indonesian crown for tourism, typically attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year.
For years, the government has been trying to figure out how best to take advantage of the park, most recently designating it as part of the country’s ’10 new Balis’ initiative – an effort to attract more tourists, as had been previously mentioned. made the island of Bali before border restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are entering a new era of tourism in Indonesia based on nature and culture, focusing on sustainability and quality tourism,” Indonesian Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Uno told the Associated Press.
Part of this multi-million dollar tourism development is a project on Rinca Island, where more than a third of the park’s dragons are estimated to live in generally hot and dry terrain. Construction includes an expanded ranger station, viewing platform, wharf, restrooms and other infrastructure.
The project worries local environmental activists and residents within the park’s boundaries who say their livelihoods as tour guides, boat drivers and souvenir vendors depend on the area’s lure of natural beauty.
“When we talk about development in the conservation area, we have to ask ourselves whether it is a thoughtfully considered economic effect for the local population – or an environmental effect,” said Gregorius Afioma, member of the local non-governmental organization. Sun Spirit for Justice and Peace organization. “The situation is now like collective suicide.
“We believe this kind of business will end up killing other people’s businesses and even themselves because they have destroyed the environment,” Afioma said, adding that local residents are also worried about not getting jobs. in construction for the luxury tourist destination promoted by the Indonesian government. .
UNESCO – the United Nations body that designates World Heritage Site status – has also raised concerns about the development of the park.
“The State Party has not informed us, as required by the operational directives,” said Guy Debonnet, head of the body’s natural heritage unit. “This is definitely a worrying project, as we believe that the impacts on the universal value (of the park) have not been properly assessed. ”
At a meeting in July, UNESCO expressed other concerns, such as the project’s reduction of the wilderness area of the park to one-third of the previous area, the addition of tourist concessions within the well, the lack of a proper environmental impact assessment and a goal of increasing visitors.
“Third party information transmitted to the State Party indicates that a target of 500,000 annual visitors to the property has been proposed, which is more than double the number of visitors before the COVID-19 pandemic”, indicates a report of the meeting. “This raises the question of how this tourism model fits with the (Indonesian) vision of moving from mass tourism to more sustainable approaches.
At the request of UNESCO, the country submitted more information on the project. But after reviewing it, the UN agency requested in October 2020 that Indonesia “not pursue any tourism infrastructure projects that may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property before a review of the appraisal. relevant environmental impact ”by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
IUCN is an international non-governmental organization that provides the UNESCO World Heritage Committee with technical assessments of natural heritage properties.
After several attempts to obtain permission from government authorities, the Associated Press was unable to gain access to the construction site, which has been closed to the public for months. But satellite imagery shows construction continued after UNESCO requested that the project be suspended. The government did not respond to an email last week seeking comment.
As of December 6, UNESCO still had not received the requested revised assessment, said Debonnet, head of the World Heritage unit.
The Indonesian government has also granted at least two operating permits in Komodo National Park, including for projects on the islands of Rinca, Komodo and Padar, according to an email to the PA from President Shana Fatina. director of the Labuan Bajo Flores Tourism Authority, which helps coordinate government tourism efforts.
Some experts are concerned that the expansion of tourism in the park could disrupt the habitat of the Komodo dragon.
Predatory lizards, which can reach a length of 10 feet (3 meters) and over 300 pounds (135 kilograms), have recently been moved from the status of “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the list of endangered species. IUCN. The organization cited the impacts of climate change and the deterioration of dragon habitat – including human encroachment – as reasons for the change.
Unless carefully managed, tourism projects could “have a big impact, not only because of the number of people disrupting the behavior of dragons and disturbing their prey, but also because of the amount of fresh water siphoned off. “said Bryan Fry, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland in Australia. “It could have a huge impact on the very delicate balance of these islands.”
The opening date of the new facilities on Rinca Island has not yet been announced. UNESCO’s Debonnet said she was in talks with Indonesian officials to organize a monitoring mission to assess the impact of ongoing development on the park and examine its state of conservation.
And while World Heritage sites are typically discussed by the UNESCO committee on two-year cycles, Komodo National Park will be discussed in 2022, Debonnet said. “It’s kind of an indication that we are seeing that there is some urgency in this problem,” he said.
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