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The need for clarification on HP-3 rights

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I published an article in today's Jakarta Post:

Law 27/2007 enables private ownership of coastal zones through a system called HP-3 (which governs the right to commercialize coastal waters). The idea behind this system is to allow the exploitation of the currently neglected, but potentially profitable, 81,000 thousand kilometers of Indonesian coastline and its 12 mile wide territorial sea.

A HP-3 grants ownership to water columns (above the seabed to the water surface) in Indonesian territorial zones. In most cases, the Law stipulates that HP-3s will be granted by local governments. The Law says that the first period of ownership is granted for a period of 20 years but can be extended. As the law does not impose any limitation for extension, it is presumable that HP-3s could be owned perpetually. It is also worth noting that a HP-3 certificate can be used as collateral to secure a loan.

We know from theory that in order to be functional, property rights must fulfill the "3Ds" rule: definability, defensibility and defeasibility. Property rights can only be efficient within these three aspects, and only if transaction costs are low.

With respect to definability, the Law stipulates that a HP-3 covers a three dimensional space from the seabed up to the surface. This would mean that the seabed falls under another system of regulation. There is however, some interface between the seabed and the water column, and this becomes an issue in sea mining operations. If there is an overlap of ownership between the two (the seabed is granted to an oil company and the HP-3 on the surface is granted to an aquaculture company, for example).

A way of preventing this problem is by coordinating the awarding of property rights between the two areas. That is to say, the awarding of any marine mineral resources exploitation license by the central government must be coordinated with local government.

In another scenario, if both a seabed exploitation licenses and a HP-3 for the adjacent surface are owned by the same entity, disputes could occur from one area to another, which could dilute the value of the property of the neighboring HP-3 owner. One way to anticipate this is for the local government to stipulate which area is used for what. Zoning mechanisms must be very solid in order to prevent property rights disputes.

The law also does not define exact rights within a water column. A water column may be an area passed-though by highly migratory species protected under international law, which therefore cannot be harvested, even by HP-3 owners. A way to address this issue is by clarifying the dos and don'ts for HP-3 owners when implementing regulations.

Another significant problem is that marine boundaries constantly change because of natural phenomenon. HP-3 limits could be confused if the baseline used to measure a sea boundary also changes because the sea level rises. I am not certain as to what mechanism could be used to adapt to this problem.

As for defensibility; defending a property rights in the ocean is relatively more difficult than on land. On land, one can install fences in order to defend and mark their property. This is not possible in the sea. Nets can be used, but if used too extensively they could capture protected species. The surface structure could be used, but that should not hinder navigation for vessels passing through the area. And in any case, it is difficult to exclude traditional fishermen from fishing in HP-3 zones, as they may not be equipped with GPS.

HP-3s are interestingly defeasible enough. Defeasible basically means that the property rights can be transferred. In theory, a property right must be defeasible in order to enable exchange, so that a market can develop. The Law does stipulate that HP-3s can be transferred or encumbered with a mortgage. It is not yet clear which government department would be responsible for the registration of the mortgage. As long as the government has not clarified any institution responsible for the mortgage registration, the idea of mortgaging the sea will not be enforceable. Mortgage is an important part of the whole scheme, as it allows banks and other investor to enter and finance the project.

As we can see from the above explanations that property rights in the sea could be very costly in terms of its definability, defensibility and defeasibility. A huge amount of information would be required to define the property rights. Sonar imaging, GIS interpretation or anthropological studies on the existence of traditional fishing rights would expend a huge of amount of cost.

But these things are essential because, without a clear definition of property rights, future disputes may occur. Defending property rights is also difficult and the costs will be borne by the owners. If the cost of defending the property rights is more than the benefit of exploiting it, then it will not be a worthy investment. As for defeasibility, there is a high cost for institutional set-up. An institution will need to be established in order to maintain marine cadastre and administer HP-3 titles and their encumbrances.