Indonesia’s islands have never been successfully counted, although a 1996 law estimated there were 17,508, but now Jakarta is hoping to get an exact number in time for a UN meeting in August.
Indonesia hopes registering them all with the UN will help protect the archipelago’s vast territory and its rich fishing resources.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) defines an island as a naturally formed piece of land, surrounded by water, which is still exposed at high tide.
The name of an island can be officially recognised if it is known by at least two residents.
“It’s not so easy,” said Brahmantya Satyamurti Poerwadi, who leads the spatial management department at the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries. “It can take up to six days to get to some of these faraway islands and then many people disagree on the name. Traditionally, it might have been called X but the people who live there call it Y and the nearby fishermen call it Z.”
Indonesia covers 1.9 million square kilometres, including the Thousand Islands near Jakarta where the capital’s residents head for excursions. The number of islands there is unknown, despite their proximity to Java.
At the previous UN Conference on the Standardisation of Geographical Names in 2012, Indonesia registered 13,466 named islands.
The ministry said it wanted to add at least 1,700 new islands at the next meeting in August.
“That’s our list at the moment but the number will probably go up because we are in the process of validating and verifying islands right now and we will keep doing this until the end of July,” said the ministry’s Balok Budiyanto.
“We have to visit every one of these islands, and then we note the coordinates, the name, the meaning of the name, the history of the land and describe the landscape and its geographical history. We document all that in great detail and bring it back to the central team,” he added.
Jakarta claims illegal fishing by its neighbours in what it considers its waters costs the country billions of dollars in lost revenue each year.
The authorities have been blowing up foreign boats found in Indonesia’s waters.
Susan Herawati from the Coalition of People for Justice for Fisheries claimed that “60 per cent of islands in Indonesia don’t have a name or officially have legal status, so they can easily be taken or claimed by another country”.