Indonesia - Omnibus law on underwater cultural heritage

Tang Cargo - Belitung - Photo by Jacklee

By Natali Pearson - New Mandala

Indonesia has had a moratorium on the commercial salvage of underwater cultural heritage since 2010. But a new and seemingly unrelated Law has reintroduced the prospect that Indonesia’s waters will again be “open for investment.”

The Law in question is the Job Creation (or “Omnibus”) Law (Undang-Undang Nomor 11 Tahun 2020 tentang Cipta Kerja), and it resurrects a policy that calls into question how underwater cultural heritage is valued in Indonesia. To understand the relationship between the Job Creation Law and underwater cultural heritage, we need to wade through a lot of laws.

Let’s start in 1989, when commercial salvage was first legalised in Indonesia. Suharto was President and there were almost no laws in place to protect and preserve the hundreds (some say thousands) of shipwrecks in Indonesia’s territorial waters.

The only laws in place dated to the 1930s, and, as the Geldermalsen case demonstrated, they had proved completely ineffective in safeguarding the archipelago’s underwater cultural heritage.

In August 1989, Suharto introduced Presidential Decree No.43 on the National Committee for the Salvage and Utilisation of Valuable Objects originating from the Cargo of Sunken Ships.

The Decree legalised the salvage (pengangkatan) and utilisation (pemanfaatan) of valuable objects (benda berharga) from the cargo of shipwrecks (asal muatan kapal yang tenggelam) in Indonesian territorial waters. Salvage was defined as the research, survey and recovery of valuable objects from sunken ships, and utilisation entailed the sale of objects and other uses for the benefit of the Government.

The Decree established the National Shipwrecks Committee, headed by the Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security. Committee membership consisted of representatives from at least nine different Ministries.

To salvage a site, a salvage company first had to apply for a survey permit. Given the number of Ministries represented on the National Shipwrecks Committee, this involved extensive bureaucratic wrangling as well as numerous fees.

Then, if their survey identified a site of interest, they could apply for a salvage permit, involving yet more red tape and fees. The company was responsible for all costs associated with the survey and salvage process.

Foreign salvors could be involved in surveying, salvaging and utilising valuable objects (benda berharga), provided they partnered with a local (that is, Indonesian) company. There were a number of conditions—for example, sites were to be excavated to accepted archaeological standards and Indonesia was to retain unique and scarce artefacts.

But these provisions were not enforced.

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Indonesia law archaeology maritime

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