8 December 2022

Reflection on the Widi Island Case: Examining the Conflict of Authority in the Utilization of Small Islands

Screenshot from Google Maps, showing the location of the Widi Islands in South Halmahera.

The listing of Widi Island in the Sotheby’s Concierge Auctions auction was deemed an unsavory effort. The government and the private sector should not make small islands as assets that are offered to the public to be fully owned and used for commercial purposes only. This case, which was revealed to the public, is also a momentum for the country to improve the management of small islands and coasts.

End of the year in the realm of cyberspace. In addition to tweets filled with hope for the coming year, social media boards were also buzzing with news from South Halmahera: the Widi Islands are being sold at auction by Sotheby’s Concierge Auctions.

The news, which was first circulated by the CNN media, immediately sparked a virtual debate; forcing the government through several related ministries to speak out.

The Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security, Mahfud MD on December 14 2022 stated that the use of small islands in the Widi Islands must have permission from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP). Even so, in its objective “there is a forest area of 1,900 hectares [which must] be a lesson for the government to solve the problem of island utilization,” wrote the KKP on its official website.

PT Leadership Islands Indonesia (LII) in collaboration with Sotheby’s “accelerates the flow of large-scale foreign investment to the Widi Islands,” wrote The Guardian, a UK-based foreign mass media. The article states that PT LII intends to sell the island’s shares to investors in the hotel and real estate sectors.

Sotheby’s Concierge Auctions executive vice president, Charlie Smith, had sent an email to The Guardian which was also embedded in a related article. He said PT LII “will be actively involved in the project, in the form of security patrols supported by the Indonesian police and navy with a budget of US$1.5 million in the first year.”

Charlie hopes that the value of the auction bid for the Widi Islands will continue to grow. “Every billionaire can own a private island, but only one can own this exclusive opportunity spread over 100 islands,” Smith said in a press statement.

Responding to the news, the government said it would evaluate PT LII’s permit. After a series of meetings held across institutions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (Kemendagri) stated that PT LII had not implemented a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the South Halmahera Regency government regarding the management of ecotourism in the area.

The Ministry of Home Affairs stated that the group of islands in the Widi Islands cannot be managed by the public, because “The Widi Islands have become a conservation area,” said the Director General of Regional Administration Development of the Ministry of Home Affairs Safrizal ZA in a press statement.

The Widi Islands Nature Reserve area is a group of 104 islands in South Halmahera Regency, North Maluku Province. As many as 79 of the 104 islands are forest, with four of them having the status of “islands with other uses” and the remaining two being atolls.

In 2015, the North Maluku provincial government, South Halmahera Regency stakeholders, and PT LII signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the tourism sector in the islands.

In the memorandum of understanding, PT LII was given the right to manage the Widi Islands for 35 years, after which it will be reviewed. During the management period, the Widi Islands will be used as a center for ecotourism and maritime affairs. Instead, PT LII has a social responsibility or corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the local community, especially in the fields of education and the economy in order to prosper the local community.

Responding to this chaotic situation, the central government, through the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD, canceled the MoU between the Provincial Government of North Maluku and the Government of South Halmahera Regency and PT LII regarding the utilization of the Widi Islands. The government canceled the MoU because the contents and procedures of the MoU were not in accordance with existing regulations.

This case serves as a lesson for evaluating, tightening supervision, and opening up transparently to the wider community all foreign investment projects in small islands; ensure that the issuance of permits for the utilization of small islands is preceded by a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and social impact assessment; preparing a road map for saving small islands from the threat of rising sea levels due to the climate crisis; and evaluating mining projects that threaten ecosystems and people’s lives in coastal areas and small islands.

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