Tue, 02 Aug 1994

Concern over reefs

It doesn't seem so very long ago that Indonesian authorities in charge of nature conservation and tourism could rightfully boast of the fact that some of the world's most magnificent coral reefs are found in this country's waters.

In the beginning, there were the "sea gardens" of Maluku, whose wonders were celebrated far beyond the province's borders although few had actually seen them in those days before tourism became an industry.

Then, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when previously isolated areas became more accessible and travel became more affordable, word of new discoveries in other parts of this sprawling archipelago spread. Some of those newly discovered reefs were said to exceed even those of Maluku's famed Banda reefs in natural wealth and beauty.

There were, for instance, Bunaken and a few other small islands just outside Manado Bay in North Sulawesi, whose reefs are reputed to be among the most magnificent in the world. More recently other great reefs have been discovered in the tepid waters of East Nusa Tenggara, Irian Jaya and other areas of eastern Indonesia, not to mention the smaller reefs found elsewhere, including those in the Riau archipelago off mainland Sumatra and even in the Bay of Jakarta.

Now, official news has come that many of those great reefs are being threatened with serious damage. Sure, it has long been known that damage was being done to some of our reefs by people who dismantle entire coral beds to obtain lime for building, or by fishermen who use explosives to catch fish. The advent of modernity also contributes to the destruction by adding pollution as a hazard.

Nevertheless, it comes as something of a shock to learn that a recent survey done by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) found that no more than seven percent of Indonesia's coral reefs are still intact. About 36 percent are in reasonably good condition. The rest have been badly damaged or even completely destroyed.

Perhaps it is because they are not readily seen that most people appear to be so ignorant about coral reefs. And maybe it is because they know so little about coral reefs that most people seem to be indifferent about their fate.

According to study findings published by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, however, coral reefs are vital parts of the earth's coastal ecosystem that constitute the center of all marine fishing. It is believed that coral reefs contain the highest density of unique species in the world's oceans. But because they form in the nutrient-poor waters of the tropics, they rely on their complex food web to efficiently recycle nutrients. And Southeast Asia, in which the Indonesian archipelago is located, is the heart of the world's coral diversity.

Considering all this, we welcome the proposal offered by the Minister of Environment, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, to create special coast guard units throughout Indonesia with the main aim of protecting this country's marine resources, including its coral reefs and mangroves. The plan calls for the formation of units along the model of the siskamling neighborhood guard units which are formed and run by the community. These patrols would also be guarding against ships dumping oil and other waste products into the sea.

We do hope Minister Sarwono's plan will meet with the approval of other government agencies concerned so that at least a serious beginning can be made to patrolling our seas.

As Sarwono said, Indonesia has fought hard in the United Nations to obtain the right to exploit resources in all the waters that lie between this country's thousands of islands. We must prove to the world that we can protect those resources.