Threats to Sulawesi's natural environments

Although the the Konawe karsts have until recently remained largely intact, for several years now they have been facing threats directly related to human activities. The northern foothills of the Matarombeo massif have given way to palm oil plantations, some parts of Matarape Bay have been razed by mining companies exploiting nickel, and the lack of a waste management system in the region gives rise to heavy pollution of the ocean by plastic waste.

Some of the threats described on this page are already having a negative impact on the massif, while others will only be felt in the medium term, if nothing is done to address them. While their extent may be frightening, it is also good to know that ’there are ways to counter or limit these impacts of each of them.

Palm oil plantation in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
The outskirts of the Matarombeo massif are threatened by the the development of palm oil plantations.


The worldwide boom in both demand and production of palm oil has led to an explosion of oil palm plantations in recent years. This development has occurred largely at the expense of the primal forest, as on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra which still had a lot of them just 20 years ago.

Far from stopping, plantation development is now reaching eastern Indonesia, including areas hitherto difficult to access and which are often the last reservoirs of species extinct elsewhere. Thus, Sulawesi lost 11% of its forest cover between 2000 and 2017, and it is precisely the forest areas responsible for the extraordinary wealth of biodiversity of the island that are most at risk. In Konawe, the peripheral forests of the northern slope of Matarombeo massif are eaten away a little more each year by plantations. Other commodities, such as cocoa, pepper or sugar cane, have their share of responsibility.

It is also to be feared that the residues of phytosanitary products (pesticides and fertilizers) used on the plantations will be carried away by runoff towards rivers, then towards estuaries, where they contribute to pollute and to disturb the mangroves and the underwater ecosystems of the bay of Matarape.

On the island of Sulawesi, it is estimated that 80% of the forests have disappeared in the last 100 years.

Deforestation and palm oil plantations. Matarombeo Massif, North Konawe, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia.
Deforestation and palm oil plantations on the northern slope of the Matarombeo massif. North Konawe, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia.

Plastic pollution

Indonesia’s dearth of infrastructure and lack of environmental education, in the context of its dense population and recent rapid development, has led to many areas lacking waste management facilities . As a direct result, the country’s rivers are extremely polluted. Indonesia is currently the world’s second-largest emitter of plastic waste into the ocean.

The coastal area of Matarape Bay is no exception. Most of the village waste is tossed directly into the sea which, depending on tides, currents and storms, is then scattered along the coast. The damaging effects of plastic waste on the environment are numerous: marine animals confuse it with food or get trapped in it, it creates coral diseases, and in the long term, the waste breaks up into micro-plastic pellets that will take centuries to decompose.

Plastic waste pollution in Matarape Bay
Plastic waste, ubiquitous on the shores of Southeast Asia. Matarape Bay, Sulawesi.

Nickel mining

Indonesia holds 15% of the world's resources in lateritic nickel (the same as in New Caledonia), whose current high demand is linked to the manufacture of electric car batteries. These deposits are located on the islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera. On the island of Sulawesi, it is the districts of North Konawe and Morowali, bordering respectively the south and the north of the bay of Matarape, which shelter the most important deposits.

The coastline of the bay of Matarape is thus the seat of dozens of surface nickel mines. Exploitation concerns the superficial layers of the soil: once it is completed in an area, the forest has been razed, the soil no longer has any structure, cohesion or micro-organisms, and the adjacent seabed which include many coral reefs are smothered under layers of red colored sediment. The sites that have undergone such surface mining are also the most difficult to reforest.

The mining companies carryint out the exploitation of mineral deposits in Konawe district do not create sediment ponds supposed to retain the flow of sediments (particularly strong in the rainy season) and hardly carry out any restoration operations. Almost no operator preserves the topsoil, the top layer of arable land, to put it back at the end of exploitation, as required by law. Previously exported raw, the ore must be processed on Indonesian soil since 2014, but many companies obtain exemptions from this rule.

The districts of North Konawe and Morowali are home to considerable resources of nickel ore, suggesting mining over several decades.

The exploitation of nickel mines in Matarape Bay, Sulawesi Island.
The exploitation of nickel mines in Matarape Bay, Sulawesi Island.

The Acanthaster or "Crowns of Thorns" starfish

Known as the "crown-of-thorns starfish or CoTS), the starfish Acanthaster Planci is a predator of coral polyps. In a healthy ecosystem, it plays a sanitizing role by eliminating diseased corals or controlling the population of some species relative to others. Extremely fertile, a single star can emit dozens of millions of eggs in a single spawning event, the vast majority of which do not survive.

For reasons that have yet to be specified (global warming, run off of fertilizers used in intensive agriculture, coastal development and mismanagement of wastewater, overfishing of predators, etc.), Acanthaster proliferation episodes are increasing and wreak havoc on coral reefs around the world. Several population outbreaks have been observed since 2017 in Matarape Bay.

Note that if global warming and ocean acidification resulting from greenhouse gas emissions are one of the main threats to coral reefs around the world, Acanthaster infestations are responsible for half of the decline of reefs. and destroy them to the point of making their regeneration very difficult, if not impossible, today.

L'étoile de mer Acanthaster Planci ou "couronne d'épines"
For reasons yet to be clarified, the starfish Acanthaster planci or "crown of thorns" experiences proliferation phenomena. Matarape Bay, Sulawesi.

Unregulated tourist development

Still little known, the bay of Matarape currently hosts only two or three accommodation options and remains almost untouched by visitors. But it's only a matter of time before this beautiful spot, already nicknamed " Little Raja Ampat "got 'discovered' and start to appear on blogs, guides, and local travel agencies. Local tourism development has already sped up in 2018. Among the negative consequences this entails: the waste tourists leave on the beaches, and boats anchoring directly on the coral.

Ecolodge under construction in Matarape Bay.
Ecolodge under construction in Matarape Bay, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Construction of the lodge began in early 2018.

To prevent damage to the site by the erratic development of infrastructure, the destruction of coastal and underwater ecosystems by expanding tourism, and profiting of the local population from this development, a lead must be taken, en sensibilisant les populations locales à la richesse et à la fragilité de leur environnement et en les aidant à mettre en place un écotourisme durable qui préserve leur environnement tout en leur apportant des revenus. Le tourisme pourra être alors l’une des clés d’une dynamique bénéfique aux populations et aux milieux naturels.

Coral reefs in Matarape Bay, Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Coral in Matarape Bay. The seabed and in particular its corals may soon sustain damage through the growth of tourism and thus the frequency of boats. Matarape Bay, Sulawesi.

Unsustainable fishing

Very common in Southeast Asia, dynamite fishing is also common in Matarape Bay. This consists of the fisherman throwing a homemade bomb into the water which, by exploding, indiscriminately kills marine life within a 50-70m radius, including juveniles, marine mammals, and coral. A series of successive explosions make it very difficult for a given reef to recover. Despite the damage to underwater wildlife and the risk of local collapse of fish stocks, this fishing technique can be very profitable in the short term.

Potassium-cyanide fishing is also widespread because it allows the capture of live reef fish popular in Hong Kong and Singapore restaurants, such as Napoleon or groupers, (see this excellent photo reportage and this movie by photographer James Morgan on the Bajaus of Sulawesi and fishing for reef fish). It causes the decline of nearby coral affected by chemicals. Overfishing is also a problem with industrial fishing boats (below) coming to fish illegally near the coast, including in theoretically protected areas.

Fishing platform in Matarape Bay.
Fishing platform in Matarape Bay, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Local fishermen blame these platforms, some of which originate from Makassar, the island's capital, as responsible for overfishing and declining catches.

Cement quarry and plants

The karstic rocks themselves are also the target of industrial exploitation, in this case of cement. Previously protected by the forest which made their exploitation expensive, its disappearance and the construction of roads for oil palm plantations is rendering the karsts increasingly vulnerable. Across Southeast Asia, which has the highest quarrying rate in the world, karst complexes are mined one after the other until impressive vertical reliefs are no more than memories. This threat, although still remote for the Matarombeo karst, could one day become a reality if protections are not put in place in the next decade.

To find out more

Find out more about our first conservation activities and our long-term strategy for the preservation of Konawe karsts: Preserving the karsts of Konawe - Helloasso (French only).

English translation made possible thanks to the PerMondo project: Free translation of website and documents for non-profit organisations. A project managed by Mondo Agit. Translator: Cressida McDermott