Experts, activists unite to blast Indonesia’s U-turn on sea sand exports

Experts, activists unite to blast Indonesia’s U-turn on sea sand exports

  • Indonesia will resume exporting sand dredged from the sea, commonly used in reclamation projects, ending a 20-year ban.
  • Environmental activists and marine experts have criticized the policy, saying the resumption caters only to business interests and fails to consider the damage to marine ecosystems and fishing communities.
  • The government says it will only allow dredging on seabed areas where sediment from land runoff has accumulated, adding that this will also help ease ship traffic.
  • But critics say these arguments are meaningless and a form of greenwashing, and have called for widespread public opposition to the policy.

JAKARTA — Environmental activists and marine experts have criticized the Indonesian government’s decision to lift a 20-year-old ban on exporting sea sand, saying the policy will exacerbate ecological damage for the sake of foreign exchange revenue.

The government regulation, which went into effect May 15, states that sea sand may be sold abroad as long as producers can ensure domestic supplies for reclamation work and other infrastructure development projects. It also says dredging may only take place in open-water marine areas where “natural” sedimentation has occurred, while coastal areas and small islands are off-limits to the activity.

Yonvitner, head of the coastal and marine resources research center at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said that the new regulation refers to maritime and investment laws for its fundamental legal framework, but makes no reference whatsoever to environmental and conservation laws.

He also said the economic benefits of exporting sea sand will be dwarfed by the ecological losses and subsequent restoration costs, especially if sea sand becomes a commodity whose economic value is determined by the markets.

“When there’s a fluctuation in the price of sand, it will be our loss, and therefore the economic considerations will become much less valuable,” he said at an online press conference on June 1.

A dredger mines sand from the seabed in the waters off Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province. Image courtesy of Walhi.

Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, the minister for marine affairs, said exports this time around would be regulated more strictly than before.

“This regime is different from that of 20 years ago which banned sea sand extraction and sale, because at that time, there wasn’t any regulation about sedimentation, and what happened then was the suction of sand from the coasts and small islands,” he said at a press conference in Jakarta on May 31.

Sakti said his ministry would issue a decree elaborating more stringent measures for environmental protection to ensure marine habitats won’t be destroyed by dredging for sea sand. The marine ministry will form a study team with officials from the energy ministry and the environment ministry, as well as academic experts and independent environmental groups to scout for potential sites. They will then determine whether the sea sand there comprises deposits due to natural occurrences, and then allocate the sand for domestic or export needs. Once the location and volume allowed to be dredged have been determined, the government will issue a permit to paying companies with the capability to dredge sea sand, Sakti said.

“I was told by some experts that Indonesia has potentially about 23 billion cubic meters [812 billion cubic feet] of sea sedimentation per year … due to rotating currents,” Sakti said, but he couldn’t specify the potential sites, how much domestic and international demand for sea sand there was, nor the expected revenue to be gained from resuming exports.

However, Yonvitner said the new regulation lacks the scientific basis for identifying the potential dredging sites and calculating the benefits and losses. In 2021, he published an opinion piece against sea sand mining, in which he described the massive ecological risks of the activity, such as coral death, mangrove degradation and coastal abrasion.

A land reclamation project in Jakarta Bay. Image by Sapariah Saturi/Mongabay Indonesia.

Indonesia first prohibited sea sand exports in 2003 and doubled down on the policy in 2007 in an effort to combat illegal shipments, mostly to neighboring Singapore, which has built entire islands from Indonesian sand.

Sakti said targeting the dredging at seabed sediment would help ease ship traffic and rehabilitate coastal and marine ecosystems. Indonesia hosts three of the world’s busiest commercial maritime passageways — the straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok — and sits at the crossroads of two oceans (the Indian and Pacific) and two continents (Asia and Australia).

The minister called on environmental groups Greenpeace Indonesia and Walhi, the country’s biggest green NGO, to join the sea sedimentation study team. But both have publicly refused to be involved, calling the effort a form of greenwashing by the government.

“If the government was serious about recovering the ocean’s health from sedimentation, they should start from fixing the damages on land because that’s what has often caused the sedimentation at sea,” said Afdillah, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia. He added the government is trying to hide behind words like “utilization” and “management” to mask the reality that sea sand will be exploited.

Former marine minister Susi Pudjiastuti has also spoken out against the regulation, tweeting that she hopes it will be scrapped.

Parid Ridwanuddin, the coastal and marine manager at Walhi, similarly refuted the government’s claim that dredging certain areas of the sea would help ease vessel traffic. He said it was precisely dredging activity for reclamation projects that have caused problems for traditional and small-scale fishers when they’re out at sea. He also said he’d anticipated the government would allow exports to resume following the passage in 2020 of the new mining law and the controversial job creation act, both of which call for ramping up mining at sea.

“We at Walhi see this regulation as serving business interests, but it’s dressed in scientific terms,” Parid said. “The designer of this regulation cherry-picked everything very well, from its diction and its language politics to the laws, to make it sound like it’s a good policy when it’s really not.”

Experts, activists unite to blast Indonesia’s U-turn on sea sand exports
Indonesian fishers in Riau Islands province often operate in waters where sand dredging takes place. Image by Yogi Eka Sahputra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Environmentalists also criticized the lack of public consultation for the new regulation. Victor Gustaaf Manoppo, director-general of zoning at the marine ministry, said his office had held public consultations over the two years leading up to the issuance of the regulation. He also said the “public” that was consulted were companies and mining associations.

Parid called for widespread popular opposition to the regulation.

“We call on all fishing and coastal communities, regional governments, and marine and fisheries experts to band together and oppose this regulation so it will be revoked by the president,” he said.

Susan Herawati, general secretary of the advocacy group Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA), said the new regulation shows the government favors commercial exploitation and extraction of marine resources over protection and conservation of the country’s fishing and coastal communities.

Indonesia’s wild capture fisheries employ around 2.7 million workers, most of them small-scale fishers. Under the business-as-usual scenario, the country’s capture fisheries is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.1% from 2012-2030. The marine ministry’s data show that the average total catch over the past five years was 7 million metric tons annually, valued at up to 140 trillion rupiah ($9 billion).

“The legalization of sea sand exploitation will further threaten the sustainability of small islands in Indonesia, which are currently fighting against the climate crisis,” Susan said in a statement. “The government should be giving guarantees for fishers’ livelihoods, protection for their production spaces and the sustainability of the coastal ecosystem instead of robbing their natural resources.”

Fishers in South Sulawesi province call for an end to sand mining during a protest in an area slated for a land reclamation project. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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