Environment award sparks urge to save Indonesia’s karst landscape

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  • A group of young people who started as a rock climbing club have reached new heights in their efforts to stop illegal logging of the Citatah karst landscape in Indonesia’s West Java province.
  • Karst limestone is coveted for cement production, but its destruction has led to groundwater depletion, air and noise pollution, soil erosion, animal extinction and land loss agricultural.
  • The Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum was recognized last year by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment for its work in conserving what remains of the landscape.
  • Since its inception in 2009, the forum has organized public awareness campaigns, helped build a nascent “geotourism” industry, and engaged mining companies to conserve and restore local ecosystems.

“Collect Citatah Karst, make people prosper.” It’s the call printed in red letters on a huge white banner pinned to a limestone cliff in Indonesia’s West Java province.

“We put up the banner for everyone to read – citizens, climbers, government – ​​as a means of our campaign,” says Deden Syarif Hidayat, founder and leader of the Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum.

The environmental group is working to conserve a limestone-based karst landscape in four villages in Padalarang sub-district, West Bandung district. Citatah is one of the four villages.

What prompted Deden to launch his conservation campaign was the unsightly environmental damage in the area: destruction of mountains, depletion of groundwater, air and noise pollution, land erosion, animal extinction and loss of farming lands. The surrounding area was threatened by unmonitored mining and a confusing proliferation of permits.

Aerial photo of karst conditions in Padalarang, West Java some time ago. The surrounding area was threatened by unmonitored mining and a confusing proliferation of permits. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.

Much of the mining activity is illegal and ignores the impact on the environment, says Deden, 37, who works as a professor of Islamic studies at Bandung State Polytechnic, a local institute of higher learning.

Last year, the group received special recognition for its efforts: the Kalpataru Award, given by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forests to honor individuals or groups for their service in conservation.

Karst is a limestone landscape easily dissolved by rainwater, often forming formations of ridges, towers, fissures, caves and sinkholes. This geological phenomenon attracts speleologists – people who study caves – and is ideal for cave tourism. The karst also serves as a reservoir of clean water from rainwater seeping through the limestone. Another advantage is its ability to mitigate climate change: karsts are huge carbon absorbers.

However, many karst landscapes are threatened by the cement industry, which sucks up its mineral content.

Indonesia has some 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of karst, but nearly a tenth of it has been damaged, according to Eko Haryono, a karst expert from Gadjah Mada University. On Indonesia’s main central island, Java, that figure is 20%.

In 2017, nine women from the northern mountains of Kendeng in Central Java drew national attention when they stepped in cement outside the presidential palace in Jakarta to protest against mining and mining projects. cement factory.

Residents of North Kendeng demonstrate in Jakarta in 2016, with their feet in the cement.

Conservationists have tried for years to get the government to issue regulations to better protect the country’s karsts, with little success.

Now activists like Deden see a renewed threat to Indonesia’s karsts in the form of the so-called Omnibus Job Creation Act, passed in 2020 and which, among other deregulation measures, makes it easier to get jobs. permitted by mining companies by relaxing the requirements for environmental studies.

This deregulation angered karst protection lawyer Deden.

“The issuance of licenses is done at the central government level. So mining companies can easily process permits in Jakarta,” he told Mongabay. “We, the inhabitants, have difficulty in gaining access to control. The local government would claim that they have no knowledge of this, as the permits are issued by the central government.

Deden Syarif Hidayat, founder and director of the Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum, says much of the mining activity is illegal and ignores the impact on the environment.  Image courtesy of Deden Syarif Hidayat.
Deden Syarif Hidayat, right, founder and director of the Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum, says much of the mining activity is illegal and ignores the impact on the environment. Image courtesy of Deden Syarif Hidayat.

The karst formation Deden is trying to protect is in the Bandung Basin, believed to have been the site of a prehistoric lake and now home to the southern suburbs of Bandung, Indonesia’s fourth largest city.

Today, around 60% of the 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) area has been damaged by mining, according to the Bandung Basin Research Group (KRCB), a group of concerned scientists associated with the Institute of Technology of Bandung (ITB). The group estimates that there are around 100 mining companies operating in the region.

Deden didn’t need to read complicated statistics to see that mining was damaging the area. He worried about what would happen to the region’s fresh water supply if the karst were damaged beyond repair.

In 2009, Deden established the Citatah Karst Care Youth Forum, known by its Indonesian acronym FP2KC. It started as a hobby group for rock climbers, but soon became interested in karst protection. He organized public awareness campaigns, helped create a nascent “geotourism” industry, and engaged mining companies to conserve and restore local ecosystems.

Deden quickly realized that challenging powerful interests was not without risk. Once, after a meeting with government officials and mining executives publicized by the local energy and mineral resources agency, he received a death threat from an unknown person.

“Maybe the phone call was just a bluff,” Deden says. “We continued our actions, but with caution on the ground.”

In 2012, after the group protested outside the West Bandung District Legislature, the district administration released a regional zoning plan designating the Citatah Karst as a protected area.

Deden has also started a group called Nature House 125. The number refers to a popular Citatah karst feature named Cliff 125 by climbers because it is 125 meters (410 feet) high. Local young people were invited to join the group for joint activities, starting with environmental discussions, to make the karst area a recreational site.

“What is important is that there is activity,” he said. “In every activity, we plant a tree as part of our existence.”

Deden and FP2KC have gained additional support for their conservation efforts through the Ministry of Environment’s climate village program, known as ProKlim, which helps local communities implement adaptation and mitigation measures to the climate.

The group has also contributed to the creation of “tourism awareness groups” under the government program Pokdarwis, which develops local tourism initiatives.

The first group of Pokdarwis appeared in Gunung Masigit village in Cipatat sub-district in West Bandung. There, the locals were called upon to manage a “stone garden” rock formation formed over 100 million years ago. The nearby village of Padalarang in Padalarang sub-district followed with an initiative to entice former limestone miners to grow guava.

Only karst landscapes that have been established as geotourism sites in cooperation with local authorities are safe, he says.

A limestone hill in Citatah, in the Indonesian province of West Java. Image by Ikhlasul Amal/Flickr.

Twelve years after its founding, FP2KC became one of 10 recipients of the annual Kalpataru Award last year.

The award, named after the Sanskrit word for “tree of life,” comes in four categories: Environmental Pioneer, Environmental Service, Environmental Builder and Environmental Rescuer. The FP2KC was placed in the environmental rescuer category.

The Ministry’s citation for the Citatah Youth Forum said its ecological rehabilitation efforts had saved 91 hectares (225 acres) of protected karst from mining activities, safeguarded water sources, protected biodiversity, improved vegetation cover and decreased degraded land, air pollution, erosion and landslides.

On the economic level, the youth forum has helped to create new jobs, to strengthen the efforts of farmers to develop agricultural culture. An increase in local revenue generation has also been achieved through the management of geotourism, the ministry added.

The Citatah Youth Forum received a charter of appreciation signed by the Minister of Environment, a gold-plated plaque and a ‘building fund’ of 12.5 million rupees ($875).
“The price shouldn’t make our heads swell,” says Deden. “We know our work is still minimal and hasn’t accomplished anything yet.”

Read more: Iwan Dento, ‘hero’ of the karst mountains of South Sulawesi

Deden provides an update on the group’s forays into the business world. At first, he says, miners tended to value limestone only for its mining potential. Slowly they began to accept that the karst range could provide other sustenance benefits to the inhabitants.

Deden says he only cooperates with mining companies that are willing to carry out karst rehabilitation. This includes planting trees and turning abandoned mines into tourist sites.

Whatever collaboration the Citatah Youth Forum seeks to develop, the message it put on the banner remains. “Collect Citatah Karst, make people prosper.” This is the forum’s mission statement, established in its signature logo.

Banner image: Highlining, an outdoor activity that helps conservation efforts, in Karst Citatah, Padalarang, West Java. Image by Donny Iqbal/Mongabay.

A version of this story was reported by the Indonesian team at Mongabay and published here on our Indonesian site on February 13, 2022.

Activism, Caves, Community Conservation, Conservation, Conservation Leadership, Degraded Lands, Environment, Environmental Activism, Illegal Mining, Karst, Land Conflict, Mining, NGO, Pollution, Protected Areas

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