KENDARI, Indonesia — Like most residents of the tiny island of Bungkutoko in Indonesia’s Southeast Sulawesi province, Mahrudin and Nurhaeti are a fishing family. But their boat has remained beached recently, and the couple stay inside their small house.
The island sits just 100 meters (330 feet) from the Sulawesi mainland, but the strait — and the fishing grounds it represents for the Bungkutoko islanders — is disappearing as developers reclaim the sea to build a road to a new container port being developed on the southeastern tip of the island.
The Kendari Newport is expected to go into operation by next year, replacing the old port in Kendari, the provincial capital. The project is part of the government’s wider “maritime highway” program, meant to revive existing ports and build new ones across the far-flung Indonesian archipelago.
“You can see for yourself, [the sea] has turned into land,” Mahrudin tells Mongabay.
The local fishers have been dealt a blow by the road project, but it’s no smooth ride for the developers either: their project is mired in a bribery scandal, one that activists say shines a light on how corruption in the decision-making behind infrastructure programs can affect communities and the environment.
At the heart of the scandal is Adriatma Dwi Putra, the mayor of Kendari, who, along with his father, Asrun, the former mayor, is alleged to have taken 2.8 billion rupiah ($202,000) in bribes from Hasmun Hamzah, the director of contractor PT Sarana Bangun Nusantara.
The three men were arrested by Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency, the KPK, in a sting operation in late February, together with Fatmawati Faqih, the former head of the municipal finance and asset management board (BPKAD), who allegedly acted as a go-between between the father-son duo and Hasmun.
Investigators allege the bribe was paid to ensure Sarana Bangun Nusantara was awarded the contract for the road project. The company was one of 15 bidders vying for the 60 billion rupiah ($4.3 million) contract.
The KPK has charged Adriatma, Asrun, Hasmun and Fatmawati in the case, and is centering its investigation on how the alleged bribes influenced the selection of Sarana Bangun Nusantara as the contractor.
But environmental activists have urged investigators to also look into how environmental regulations may have been violated during the process.
“The case involves sea reclamation and forest clearing,” Henri Subagiyo, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), told Mongabay. “So the KPK should dig deeper into the case to see whether the bribe was given so that the project would ignore environmental regulations.”
For a start, he recommended the anti-graft agency check whether the project had all of the legally required environmental documents.
“It’s clear in the law on environmental protection and the law on coastal and small-island management that if there’s no environmental analysis document, then there’s a [violation],” Henri said.
But even as the investigation proceeds, the project in question continues.
‘Not worth it’
For Mahrudin and Nurhaeti, the fisher couple, the reclamation project has had a profound impact on their lives by cutting off the only source of livelihood they have known.
Other islanders, who insist on fishing despite the disruption caused by the muddied waters, have been forced to go further out to sea, thus increasing their operating costs. As a result, many of them have had to give up on the sea.
“Some look for other jobs, some others work at the port,” Mahrudin said.
The corruption-tainted land bridge is just one of many infrastructure projects being undertaken as part of the Kendari Newport program. There are also projects to build two concentric ring roads running a total of 70 kilometers (43 miles), and a bridge spanning 130 meters (430 feet). In all, the government has budgeted 313 billion ($22.5 million) for the supporting infrastructure for the port.
The outer of the two ring roads, meant to connect some of the other islands near Bungkutoko, cuts through a community forest where locals grow teak, cashew trees and other plants, according to La Rinda, a resident.
“They may have compensated us” for the land, he tells Mongabay, “but it’s not worth it.”