Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Cancellation of Nickel Project in Raja Ampat Islands Means a Brighter Future for the Development of Marine Tourism

by Charles Roring in Manokwari West Papua

Last month a giant metal company, BHP Billiton, aborted its $US 4.8 billion nickel smelter project in Gag island of West Papua. Although it has spent $US 75 million for nickel study, it just walked away from it.

That cancellation is seen as a good news for scuba divers and marine biologists who have opposed the plan since the beginning. Gag island and other surrounding islands are part of Raja Ampat regency of West Papua. This new regency was administratively formed a few years ago. To accelerate the development of the region, local government officials try their best to invite investors. Any investors who are interested in opening their businesses in the Raja Ampat islands are welcomed. However, different investors mean different interests.

When exploration activities were conducted in the region, geologists found a huge laterite nickel deposit in Gag island. Similar deposit had also been found in Buli of Halmahera island in North Maluku province.

On the other hand, scuba divers have proclaimed that the coral reef of Raja Ampat is the best in the world. Marine biodiversity in these islands is the highest. Such announcement can trigger multi billion investment in marine tourism industry. Located around the equator, Raja Ampat islands eco-tourism potentials offer exotic culture, all year round sun-shine, tropical rainforest mountains, white sandy beach, clear sea water and pristine coral reef condition.

If well developed Raja Ampat islands can be the next Carribean of the Pacific.

Just one or two weeks ago a girl named Meilina Sulistyawati, who works as an expert staff of the Bappeda Papua Barat, had a conversation with me about Raja Ampat. She is going to Raja Ampat to do some space management works there. I said that if Raja Ampat is to be developed, scuba diving industry cannot be avoided. Then, I recommended her a book released by CORAL entitled, "The Sustainable Tourism for Marine Recration Providers."

Why do I recommend decision makers and planning experts to read this book? The answer is simple. If properly planned and carefully developed, diving and other marine tourism activities can give significant contribution both to the local people and the government.

Developing scuba diving industry doesn't mean that local fishermen will not be allowed to harvest fish in the region. There will be some no take zone areas which we usually call Marine Protected Area (MPA). The development of marine tourism in Raja Ampat should provide rooms for resort owners, and scuba divers and most importantly traditional fishermen who have lived in the region for hundreds of years.

The development of marine tourism in Raja Ampat needs an integrated approach that includes all stakeholders from various sectors, including forestry department. Why forestry? Irresponsible logging will create erosion and run-off of debris to the sea. When huge amount of sands, stones, and plant debris from the land flow to the sea, they will cover sea grass and coral thus blocking sea animals such as turtle and dugong dugong from feeding, and sunlight from reaching the reef. When this happens, coral reef will die, the fish will deplete and the whole diving industry will collapse. That's one of the reasons why environmentalist oppose the Nickel Smelter Project in Gag island.