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Dragon islanders oppose relocation plan

Indonesian villagers say they live in harmony with Komodo dragons and suspect commercial motives in attempts to move them

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Dragon islanders oppose relocation plan

Hundreds of residents of Komodo Island hold a rally in Labuan Bajo, West Manggarai district, on July 19 to demand the government drop a controversial relocation plan. (Photo by Ario Jempau)

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Villagers are resisting an Indonesian government plan to relocate them as part of a purported effort to conserve the giant reptiles known as Komodo dragons.

On July 22, dozens of residents voiced their concerns during a meeting with government representatives at West Manggarai district council in Labuan Bajo, on the island of Flores, which is the gateway to Komodo National Park.

Three days earlier, hundreds of residents protested in front of local government offices demanding authorities abort the plan.

"We want tourism and conservation development to take into account our existence as residents on the island," Ihsan Abul Amir, a community spokesman, told ucanews.com.

He said residents on Komodo Island had gone through a long process before joining the tourism sector, including by giving their land for inclusion in Komodo National Park.

"Why after we depend on the tourism sector, does the government unilaterally make a decision which clearly is very detrimental to us?" he queried.

Habsi, a local community leader, said they had lived harmoniously alongside the dragons.

"If we move to another place, the animals will also follow us," he said.

The Komodo dragon is the world's largest species of lizard. Growing to up to three metres in length and weighing as much as 70 kilograms, they ambush prey including invertebrates, birds, and mammals.

The province covering Komodo National Park is East Nusa Tenggara and its governor, Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, has announced that Komodo Island would be closed for a year in 2020 "to maintain the original character and habitat of the Komodo dragons."

The temporary closure and permanent relocation of the people should be done to allow the dragons to exist without human disturbance, the governor argued.

Agustinus Rinus, head of the West Manggarai district tourism unit, said the central government in May formed a team to review the plan and it would report its results next month.

Gregorius Afioma, director of Labuan Bajo-based Sunspirit for Justice and Peace, which has conducted research on the development of Komodo Island, said the government should not only look at business benefits from the island.

"It must also take into account the existence of residents who have lived there for thousands of years alongside the dragons," Afioma said.

A study by Divine Word missionary J.A.J. Verheijen in 1982 estimated that the indigenous Ata Modo people could have inhabited the island for 2,000 years.

Afioma said the relocation plan if implemented, would further strip rights from the local community, which in recent decades had been restricted from entering the Komodo dragons' habitat.

It was ironic, because at the same time the government gave red carpet treatment to private companies to engage in commercial activities in the protected zone, he added.

The once small fishing village of Labuan Bajo, located at the western end of the large island of Flores, is being prioritized by the government for the development of tourism infrastructure as a gateway for trips to nearby Komodo National Park.

The number of visitors, mostly Westerners, has continued to climb in recent years, including from 111,000 in 2017 to 163,000 in 2018.

The main tourist draw is the more than 4,600 Komodo dragons. More than half of them live on Komodo Island, while the rest are on other tiny islands, such as Rinca, Padar, Gili Motang and Nusa Kode.

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