Iwan Dento, “hero” of the karst mountains of South Sulawesi
- For more than a decade, environmental activist Iwan Dento has opposed the mining of limestone karst formations in his native Maros, Indonesia.
- Until 2013, the mountainous karst area of Rammang-rammang was mined for marble and limestone, but local resistance led to protective regulations and the creation of an ecotourism area.
- For his dedication to defending the karst and establishing ecotourism, Iwan Dento has been nominated for several environmental conservation awards by government and the private sector, and is considered the “Hero” of Rammang-rammang.
MAROS, Indonesia — Forty-two kilometers, or about 26 miles, north of the bustling port city of Makassar in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, rolling karst formations dominate the landscape. Covering an area of approximately 43,000 hectares (106,300 acres), the mountains span two administrative districts, Maros and the Pangkajene (Pangkep) Islands, forming the second largest karst area in the world. Hidden in the limestone are hundreds of caves, many of which contain evidence of a prehistoric civilization dating back over 40,000 years. Several species endemic to Sulawesi, such as the black crested macaque (renowned “selfie monkey”), have also been found in the area.
In the village of Salenrang is Rammang-rammang, a group of karst formations with an inspiring history: once mined for marble and limestone, the area is now protected and home to a grassroots ecotourism initiative. Resident and environmental activist Muhammad Ikhwan, known as Iwan Dento, who led the fight to stop mining activities and establish ecotourism in their place, was recently recognized as a ‘hero’ of Rammang-rammang during of an annual Social Impact Awards ceremony hosted by Indonesia’s First National News TV Channel.
Along with other residents of Salenrang, for more than 10 years, Iwan has fought to defend his homeland against the threat of extractive industries. Before becoming a tourist village, inaugurated by the Indonesian Minister of Tourism in 2021, the region was degraded by limestone and marble quarries. A cement mine was also located nearby.
“The biggest challenge actually came from the residents themselves who didn’t really want the mining to stop because they were receiving its economic benefits,” Iwan said. “The company also tried to convince me. If I had wanted to, I could have accepted the greed, which was certainly not an insignificant sum.
Indonesia is no stranger to grassroots movements rising up to defend karst formations from extractive industries.
In 2005, a major cement company announced plans to build factories in the Kendeng Mountains of Central Java, despite local fears that the factories would poison the groundwater basin on which their livelihoods depended. agriculture-based livelihoods. Local women have led years of protests against the factories, and in 2016 those at the heart of the movement captured the nation’s attention by putting their feet in cement outside the presidential palace in Jakarta. In the same year, it was reported that almost 10% of the 155,000 square kilometers (nearly 60,000 square miles) of Indonesian karst formations had been damaged by extractive industries and land conversion.
In 2017, activists called on the government to issue new regulations to better protect Indonesia’s karsts.
The end of the mining era
The movement to stop mining activities in Rammang-rammang began in 2009 and ended with the Maros District government revoking various mining permits in the area in 2013. After the end of the mining era, the challenge began for residents to keep mining companies back and find an alternative livelihood.
Ecotourism was chosen because the region was already beginning to attract visitors, mainly researchers and small groups. Other parts of Indonesia threatened by extractive industries also see the same future: the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia are considering ecotourism as a way to prevent agribusiness from damaging their delicate ecosystem of small islands.
Prioritizing conservation, education and community empowerment, and employing around 200 locals, the Rammang-rammang ecotourism area was launched in 2015. In the first year, it was visited by thousands of travellers. In the same year, the Maros-Pangkep Geopark was established to protect the archaeological, ecological and cultural value of the region. It became a National Geopark in 2017 and is currently being assessed for UNESCO Global Geopark status.
Iwan has helped run the Rammang-rammang tourism business and has also implemented several initiatives such as waste management, river conservation, organic farming and local cuisine development.
He said that while turning Rammang-rammang into a tourist center was not necessarily the best choice for the region, it was a much better option than mining.
“It’s seen from a regional protection perspective,” he said. “Looking at the current situation, we are quite happy to be able to prove that we can manage this place well through tourism.”
The desire to safeguard the karst formations has also motivated various local groups to fight for legal protection, leading the regional government to issue a protection regulation in 2019. The regulation prohibits excessive exploitation, whether by companies or the community itself, and should have an impact on sustainability. from the tourist area, Iwan said.
“We hope that our current activities will be passed on to future generations,” he said. “We need state recognition because this is an important issue.”
For his dedication to protecting the karst mountains and establishing ecotourism, Iwan was named one of seven “Kick Andy Heroes” by Jakarta-based Metro TV this year. In 2015 he was a finalist in the television channel’s documentary competition, the Eagle Awards, and in 2020 he was nominated for a Kalpataru Award from the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
A new era of tourism management
Indonesian Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno inaugurated Salenrang as a “tourist village” in mid-2021, marking a new era of tourism in the region. Indonesia is home to around 1,200 tourist villages, which are developed with the aim of environmental conservation, cultural preservation and economic regeneration, with a strong emphasis on prioritizing local wisdom.
Sandiaga’s inauguration of the Salenrang Tourist Village also strengthened the region’s bid for Maros-Pangkep Geopark to become a UNESCO Global Geopark. If successful, it will become the sixth geopark in Indonesia with UNESCO status and the first in Sulawesi.
Commenting on the inauguration, Iwan wrote on his Facebook page: “Today reminded me of when, more than 10 years ago, this village was almost completely depleted by an authorized mine. And a few chose to stand on the steep rock that rises to the surface. It is love that saves them and love that will take care of them.
Banner image: Besides playing an active role in building Rammang-rammang as a nature tourism center, Iwan Dento is also active in promoting organic farming. Photo by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.
This story was first reported by the Indonesian Mongabay team and published here on our indonesian site April 3, 2022.