Illustration by Axelle Van Wynsberghe

Seawall and the Silent Tide

Ashry Sallatu

Abstract

In this paper, I would like to share the story of the development of seawall infrastructure in Wakatobi, Indonesia, a top tourism destination and national park. The story of the seawall caught my attention because when I first arrived in Wakatobi for research, I found that the seawall story was a hot topic of conversation among community members. This paper tells the story of how residents perceive the seawall and what kind of impact it has had. I found that the seawall was built to prevent the loss of sand due to abrasion. Still, it also provides a space for residents to conduct sand mining. In the long run, it can threaten some residents’ sustainability of fishing livelihoods.

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Ashry Sallatu

Author

Ashry is pursuing his doctoral studies at the Department of Anthropology, AISSR, University of Amsterdam. He is a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Hasanuddin University, Indonesia. Ashry is researching the complex relationship between tourism development and conservation in Wakatobi, Indonesia. Wakatobi is known as a leading tourism destination in Indonesia, a national park, and a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. His research in Wakatobi led Ashry to discover his passion for scuba diving and coral conservation.

Axelle Van Wynsberghe

Illustrator

Axelle Van Wynsberghe (@restons_petits) is social anthropologist and illustrator interested in cultural heritage, digital culture and the visual. She currently works as digital content manager for the European Green Party and runs the European Association of Social Anthropology (EASA)’s Art and Anthropology club as part of the Applied Anthropology Network. She was previously a freelance researcher and curator in the Netherlands and Belgium and has worked with the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, and various art organisations on citizen engagement projects concerning digital technologies and society. She has co-curated the HELLO WORLD! Exhibition (2018) and the MY BODY MY CHOICE Exhibition (2022). She received her BA in Cultural Studies & Social Anthropology at the University of Kent, as well as an MA in Arts & Society at Utrecht University.

Introduction

On a hot afternoon, a friend invited me to visit Cemara Beach on Wangi-Wangi Island, Wakatobi Regency, Indonesia. While carrying me on a motorbike, my friend, Amir, told me that Cemara Beach is one of the beaches visited by many locals because it is not so far from the city center and has long white sand. There are also cafes, food stalls, homestays, and shops selling snacks. After about 15 minutes of motorbike riding, we arrived at Wapia-Pia Village and entered a path wide enough for one car. Nimbly, Amir carried his motorcycle through the small path between the walls of adjoining houses. We parked the bike near the Rekan Dive Center (RDC) office.

The RDC office sits on white sand and overlooks the beach. I then sat on the terrace of the RDC office, hoping to meet the owner and manager of RDC, but the office was closed. About 30 meters from the RDC office, you can see a concrete pile shaped like a regular heptagon on the white sand. Several workers and an excavator were working to lift the concrete and dig up the white sand. Curious, I asked Amir, “What is this doing?” he replied, “A seawall will be built.” Out of interest and curiosity, I walked towards the sea and observed the seawall work while enjoying the sea view amid the hot sun. I wanted to capture the moment on the beach and, at the same time, take pictures of the seawall construction process. One of the workers from a distance signaled with his hand, which I interpreted as a prohibition to take photos of the seawall construction process. I finally decided to cancel taking pictures and returned a few days later to take pictures when there were no workers.

Caption: photo of the early days of seawall construction (Photo by the author: taken on December 26, 2021)

When I returned to the RDC office, I told Amir I wanted to take pictures of the seawall project, but one of the workers told me not to. Amir told me that a few months earlier, residents around the seawall had organized a protest against the seawall construction. Residents in Wapia-Pia village, especially those in the coastal area, rejected seawall construction because they believed the government had not fulfilled its promise to build a breakwater at sea, 20 meters from the coastline. About a month earlier, work on this infrastructure project was guarded by police to ensure residents did not obstruct the project work.

I met and interviewed a local government official, Faisal Rakhmat. Faisal was the Head of the Spatial Planning Division at the PUPR Office of Wakatobi Regency while planning coastal security infrastructure development. According to Faisal, the initial agreement by spatial recommendations was the construction of a breakwater. “There is a sketch for Matahora Village, Waha Village, Wapia-Pia Village, and Kapota Village. Building breakwater was the plan,” Faisal said.

I was curious and asked Faisal why there was a change from the initial agreement to build a wave-breaker. According to Faisal, the change occurred because the Ministry of Public Works and Housing’s (PUPR) River Basin Office did not have an environmental impact assessment document, so the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s National Park Office, which has authority over marine areas, did not issue a permit for the wave-breaker construction. Still curious, I asked why not wait until the environmental impact assessment document was available and then build the wave-breaker. Faisal replied that procuring environmental assessment documents takes a long time, while infrastructure projects have a timeframe for completion because they have been set in the state budget. So, waiting until the environmental impact assessment is in place is no longer possible. The most sensible option is to transfer the infrastructure project to the mainland, which is the area of authority of the Wakatobi local government, not the authority of the National Park Office. If it is on land, it means that it is no longer in the form of a wave-breaker but turns into a seawall. Building a seawall would also mean that coordination with the local government will be easier for the procurement of environmental impact assessment documents.

Although there is a transition from wave-breaker to seawall, according to Faisal, this transition is fine because both are still in the Coastal Safety program to protect coastal resources. The coastal safety program by the PUPR ministry supports the development of Wakatobi as a National Tourism Strategic Area (KSPN) and prevents coastal abrasion. Abrasion at Cemara Beach has been happening for a long time and, in early 2021, threatened the daily activities of residents as well as the houses by the beach. La Dara, a manager of the Cemara Beach tourist area, said that “when the west monsoon winds come, abrasion erodes the beach by about 20 meters” (Neke & Arief, 2021). Wakatobi is an archipelago that is threatened by abrasion. (Hasnawati et al., 2022). Kamal, a young man who lives in Waha village just behind the seawall and initiated the coastal children’s community, revealed that in 2020, during the west-wind season, sea waves rose inland past residents’ houses and reached the streets. This incident worried residents because it could threaten the foundations of their houses and make them collapse. Faisal also told me that several pine trees, which are iconic to Cemara Beach, were uprooted due to sand abrasion. Coastal protection is needed to prevent abrasion and protect people who live mainly in coastal areas.

I want to know the relationship dynamics between tourism development and conservation in Wakatobi. This topic is important because Indonesia relies on nature tourism as one of the mainstays of the sector that drives economic growth. On the other hand, conservation efforts need to be made to keep nature healthy so that it can be used to support life. The tension between tourism, which wants to attract visitors, and conservation, which tends to limit them, is important to see the complexity of the relationship so that more appropriate management can be formulated. To answer this, I spent 11 months of fieldwork in Wakatobi National Park from December 2021 to November 2022. During this time, I moved between the islands of Wakatobi, namely Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, and Tomia. The presence of the seawall caught my attention because it relates to my research on the tension between tourism and coastal nature conservation. To collect data, I was involved in casual conversations with residents and also watched how they did their activities. I talked to fishermen and individuals involved in the dive tourism industry. Additionally, I watched the local community, especially the fishermen, interact with the seawall.

The silent tide: The neglected voices

According to Kamal, local coastal residents have local knowledge of how to interact with nature. They know where to live and be vulnerable and have techniques to mitigate disasters such as sand abrasion. The method is called Tondo, planting coconut tree trunks on the shoreline to prevent sand from moving due to waves and changes in coastal currents. However, the government did not accept this offer because the planned concrete seawall was more suitable to the government plan. The traditional Tondo method offered by the villagers was simple and cost-effective. Still, for the local government, it was no longer strong enough to block the waves, and a larger concrete seawall was needed.

The construction of this concrete seawall was not favored by the community, especially by residents whose livelihoods are as fishermen. The fishermen thought the seawall would cover the beach sand where fishermen usually park their boats. Fishermen who previously could park their boats close to their homes were forced to park their boats further away due to the seawall. Boats are parked in the beach area where there is still white sand. Some fishermen park their boats above the water and moor them to the mooring. However, parking the boats on the water makes fishermen worried that the changing sea currents can bring their boats to hit the concrete seawall. Fishermen fear this happening to their boats because boats are important assets for their livelihoods. (See picture 1)

(Picture 1) The part of Cemara beach that still has white sand where fishing boats are parked. (Photo taken in October 2022, by the author)

I spent the night at a Rekan Dive Center (RDC) office in Wapia-Pia Village as it grew late. Unable to sleep, I sat on the front porch and watched as a man approached from the side of the building, torch in hand. As he made his way over the seawall and towards the water, I saw his flashlight moving about, indicating some sort of activity at sea. Moments later, I saw the light coming closer to where I sat.

“Excuse me, sir,” I called out to him. “Where have you been?” The man stopped and replied, “I came from checking on my boat.” Curiosity piqued, I asked him why he was checking on it. After accepting a cigarette I offered him, he sat on a plastic chair and explained that he checked on his boat every night to ensure it was safe and secure against the seawall. He feared the current might pull it out to sea, leaving it at the mercy of the waves. “I have to check every night,” he said, “I fear my boat be crushed by the concrete.” The man told me that getting up in the middle of the night every day to check on his boat was hard because he also had to go out to sea the next day to catch fish while he lacked rest. He began to think about leaving his job as a fisherman and found mining sand and selling it easier. “There is no need to go far out to sea, not knowing whether we can return home safely or drown in the middle of the sea,” he said.

From the conversation with the man, I saw a tendency to leave his job as a fisherman, even though large-scale or small-scale fishermen are an important food supply chain. What also concerns me is that he sees sand mining as his most reasonable option. Meanwhile, the seawall is there to protect the sand. Selling sand is a very interesting activity because Wakatobi is a new area, so infrastructure development is massive and requires a lot of raw materials such as sand. That is why sand is a popular product that is sought after. 

One afternoon, after scuba diving, I sat with Udin (RDC owner) in front of his office. At that time, we saw three people taking sand using shovels and preparing about five sacks to store the sand. Udin asked those who took the sand, “Do you want to sell it?” and answered, “Yes,” as they continued their sand-taking activities. For fishermen who live on the beach, selling sand is more accessible than going to the sea to catch fish. The construction of the seawall also created a space that can be referred to as ‘non-space,’ a space that residents perceive as useless (see picture 2).

(Picture 2) the end of the seawall is considered as non-space (Photo taken in October 2022 by the author)
 

Infrastructure development will inevitably create a space considered useless or “non-space.” As with the seawall, as seen in picture 2, on the left, which is the end of the seawall (where there are two boats parked), there is a space where people are seen taking sand. I have also seen small children defecating in the ditch there. Before the seawall, some residents were already mining sand, but with the non-space created by the seawall, residents feel justified in mining sand in that non-space.

Conclusion

Despite opposition, the seawall was built and is now standing. The seawall was built to protect residents from sand abrasion threatening their homes, and residents, especially those living on the coast, feel safe from storms. However, some residents also felt that the seawall also impacted changes to daily activities such as those experienced by fishermen.

It is not a matter of choosing to have a seawall, but the houses by the beach is safe, and livelihoods change on the one hand, and the other hand is no seawall, the house is threatened with collapse. But this is a matter of infrastructure development that ignores the aspirations of residents, about infrastructure development planning that is not appropriate so that it overlooks the social aspects of residents. This lack of planning is evident in the presence of seawalls, whose purpose is to protect against the loss of sand due to abrasion. Still, it gives justification for community members to do sand mining activities.

The seawall has been built, and despite its negative impacts, the community is trying to adapt to its presence. Because the choice to remove or dismantle the seawall is very costly for residents. Udin, the owner of RDC, said, “If it cannot be dismantled, we just utilize it.” Udin shared that he will ask the government for permission to build a warehouse for his diving tubes in front of the seawall (closer to the sea). If he can build this warehouse, it will be easier because the distance between the warehouse and the boat to lift the tubes, which weigh 14kg, will be closer.

The government’s homework is to improve the planning process for infrastructure development so that important steps are not overlooked, such as procuring environmental impact assessment documents. An important part that needs to be improved is clear coordination and communication regarding who does what. In the case of seawall development in Wakatobi, it must be explicitly stated who must prepare environmental impact assessment documents. The Wakatobi local government must also start thinking about policies to compensate residents affected by the presence of this seawall. For example, creating a mooring that is more accessible to fishermen’s houses but can also prevent the boat from hitting the seawall. For residents, the challenge for villagers, especially those close to the seawall, is finding ways to coexist with it and maintain a sustainable environment. This must involve creating spaces that address how livelihoods, such as fishing, can be sustained long-term. This dialog space can also be educational so that residents can stop practicing sand mining because it is not profitable in the long run. This dialog space must involve all elements, including local government, as the party with more power than other actors.

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