Tue, 06 May 2003

Weighing up privatization of Komodo National Park

The Ministry of Forestry in Jakarta is keeping many interest groups waiting anxiously.

It is reviewing a request by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an independent American environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), which became involved in conservation in Komodo in 1995, to hand over management of Komodo National Park to a private company.

The company, PT Putri Naga Komodo, is jointly owned by TNC (60 percent) and hotel magnate Malaysia-born Feisol Hashim (40 percent). Together they want to manage the park for 25 years.

Park chief Matheus H. Halim acknowledges that the bottom line in the disputed collaboration concerns money.

The cash-strapped government has learned that without adequate funding, it would be powerless to handle lawlessness -- poaching of komodo, deer and boar, dynamite fishing and theft of other priceless park resources.

"The park belongs to the world, so what's wrong with involving an international NGO that can generate money to finance its conservation?" he says.

TNC officials insist that private professional management is necessary to market the park as an international ecotourist haven to generate the money needed to conserve its unique habitat.

"We need marketing savvy from a professional business partner," says Rili Djohani, TNC director in charge of Komodo National Park.

"All proceeds from the venture will go toward conservation and we will withdraw as soon as the park is financially self- reliant," she says.

Among TNC's plans is the raising of the entrance fee to US$30 from the current $2; it could be further increased when the facility is better equipped. This will be still lower than the $100 visitor entry fee to Galapagos park in Ecuador, with which Komodo also cooperates.

Another source that TNC anticipates is revenue from sales of Komodo merchandising. Currently, merchandise is sold by hawkers under the trees at the entrance to Komodo.

Tourist arrivals at Komodo have fallen drastically since 1997, when the economic crisis began to bite. Official figures released by the park show that arrivals declined from 32,174 to 19,338 in 1999. Numbers continued to drop, from 10,955 in 2001 to a mere 988 last year. About 90 percent of visitors come from overseas. This year, arrivals are expected to decline even further due to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scare.

TNC has allocated $800,000 (about Rp 7 billion) for the conservation of Komodo this year, according to Rili. If its request is approved, PT Putri Naga would invest about $2 million per year on ecotourism-related activity.

"The company would be audited every year. The World Bank will support the project," Djohani says.

TNC hopes that the park will become self-sufficient from tourism revenue and other user fees in about seven years, although it acknowledges that it will be a tough target due to various problems that have hit the tourism industry hard, such as the Bali bombings, war in Iraq and SARS.

"For now we are committed to capitalizing the long-term financing plan with US$10 million over a period of 7 years to 10 years, pending agreement from the forestry ministry," Djohani said.

"These agreements will provide a structural solution for the park; without this plan TNC will not be able to sustain its funding for Komodo and will have to develop a contingency plan," she added. She declined to elaborate on what the plan might involve.

The proposed involvement of a private company has met strong objection from interest groups, notably local NGOs, fishermen from other areas fearful of losing fishing grounds and tour operators worried that PT Putri Komodo would eventually monopolize the leisure business in Komodo.

Opposition has also come from Mesa islanders, who live on a tiny island within the national park. They argue that TNC and the park management have robbed them of their ancestral rights to fish much of the park's waters.

A spate of incidents involving security officers and fishermen on the high seas over the past few years has painted a bleak picture regarding collaboration between the government and TNC.

The best-known incident occurred last year when police shot and killed two of a group of people suspected of fishing using bombs in the Flores Sea within the park.

The park has been divided into usage zones. Fishing is allowed in nonrestricted areas, but only nondestructive equipment is permitted.

Critics say that the 25-year concession proposed by TNC could lead to permanent, exclusive rights, akin to forest concession rights responsible for the destruction of so much of Indonesia's forests.

Park chairman Halim dismisses fears that Indonesia would lose control of the park if TNC's request were eventually granted.

"The government would retain control (over the park) while the private sector would be in charge of marketing it," he said. "We badly need someone who can make money (for management of the park)." -- Pandaya