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Komodo Park, at the heart of a dispute between Indonesia and New7Wonders foundation

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Feb 17, 2011

JAKARTA (eTN) - A banner carrying a huge komodo dragon has been deployed for a couple of months on a building’s facade in the Jakarta Central Business District. The building is, in fact, the seat of Indonesia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which has, for over a year, campaigned to inscribe Komodo National Park and its famed giant lizards onto the list of the New Seven Wonders. The New7Wonders Foundation (N7W) is based in Switzerland and has launched a worldwide vote to designate the Seven New natural and cultural Wonders, in echo to the Seven Wonders of the Antique World.

Indonesia has been an enthusiastic supporter from the start, with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism endorsing the bid to make Komodo part of the contest. Mascots of the lizard were seen at travel shows all around the world, and stickers and banners were distributed, while a vote to support the campaign was launched in the local media. Finally, Komodo made it among the 28 finalists.

Komodo National Park is located in the province of East Nusa Tenggara and is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands. The island population reaches only 2,000 inhabitants. The park stretches over 1,817 square kilometers and comprises three major islands - Komodo, Rinca, and Padar, as well as numerous smaller islands representing 603 square kilometers of land. The park encompasses sparsely-grassed mountains, tropical savannas, dense woodlands, and white sandy beaches — and its boundaries today extend to coral reefs and sea grass that provide habitats for over 1,000 species of fish, 385 species of beautiful corals, and also sponges, dolphins, whales, green turtles, and various types of sharks and stingrays. Of course, Komodo's most famous animal is its dragon (Komodo lizard), which can measure up to three meters and weigh up to 160 kilograms. Up to 3,000 lizards are recorded in the park. They are the world’s largest living reptiles and can probably be considered as the last animals from a prehistoric era.

It could then have been an easy contest with good chances for Komodo to become a new world icon. But things have turned ugly since last November. The New7Wonders foundation complained by then to the Ministry of Tourism that unauthorized companies such as banks were supporting the yes-vote campaign.

In early February, things further worsened with the foundation threatening to withdraw Komodo Park from the final contest. According to a statement from Bernard Weber, N7W President, sent to Indonesia newspaper Jakarta Globe, the Ministry of Tourism has suddenly withdrawn from its commitment of hosting the ceremony to announce the winner. According to Mr. Weber, “There is nearly two years’ worth of public messages, official letters and — until recently — media statements confirming [the hosting].” The Ministry has since provided an explanation. Speaking on February 3 to local media, Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik declared that New7Wonders Foundation essentially told the government to pay this amount if it wanted the park to be recognized as one of the new seven wonders of nature. Detailing the transaction, Mr. Wacik indicated that Indonesia was asked to pay a US$10 million commitment fee and an additional US$35 million to implement the announcement ceremony. N7W foundation speaks of only US$10 million to host the ceremony. Mr. Weber has even written to Indonesian President Bambang Susilo Yudoyono to ask for his arbitration.

With the Ministry still telling that it will not host the ceremony, the foundation has finally decided to keep Komodo on the finalists’ list, but the Ministry of Culture and Tourism was removed from the authorized official supporting committee for Komodo. As explained by Mr. Weber in the Jakarta Globe, “[The decision was taken] because the Ministry failed to act with due care in a matter of great importance to the New7Wonders campaign, because it failed to recognize its moral responsibility as our authorized committee, and because, when faced with the problem, it chose to attack with false and defamatory messages instead of mediating a solution.” N7W is looking now for a new institution or company in Indonesia to become the official supporting committee.

Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik said last week that Indonesia would sue the organizers “to uphold Indonesia’s reputation” and for dropping the Ministry from its official backing. Talking again to the Jakarta Globe, Todung Mulya Lubis, who now represents the ministry in the suit, explained that the foundation acted unfairly, as the Ministry was the first to register Komodo into the competition and signed the standard participation agreement.

Finally, does it matter that much to Komodo Park? Besides the legitimate pride to be honored with such a distinction, the negative publicity which has been generated around Komodo Park's participation is likely to generate additional interest from both Indonesian and foreign travelers. And the extraordinary beauty of the area, with its unique nature, has been acknowledged at the highest level: 25 years ago, Komodo National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in recognition to its unique flora and fauna. There is then enough to celebrate for Komodo. However, by not hosting a ceremony live from Jakarta and seen probably by millions of people around the world, Indonesia certainly lost an opportunity to showcase itself to the rest of the planet.

Komodo Park, at the heart of a dispute between Indonesia and New7Wonders foundation
Polemics failed to remove Komodo Dragon's image from Indonesia's Ministry of Tourism building/L.C.

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