Sulawesi

Sulawesi is a large island in Southeast Asia, in the Indonesian archipelago. The island is one of the largest in both Indonesia and the world as a whole. Sulawesi is best known for its mountainous terrain and its rainforests, the latter of which once covered the entire island until human activity led to mass deforestation. The island is also home to a myriad of ethnic groups, who speak dozens of languages. Sulawesi is underdeveloped compared to other parts of Indonesia. Thus, most of its people still rely on the land and the other natural resources of the island to make a living.  

Where is Sulawesi?

Indonesian islands
Map of Indonesia showing the location of Sulawesi.

The island of Sulawesi is located in the center of the Indonesian archipelago. It is part of the island chain known as the Greater Sunda Islands. The island is bordered to the north by the Celebes Sea, across which is the Philippines. To the south of Sulawesi is the Flores Sea and the Lesser Sunda Islands. The Makassar Strait is situated to the west of Sulawesi, as is the island of Borneo, across the strait. The Molucca Sea and Banda Sea lie to Sulawesi’s east, as do the islands of the Banda Arc, which includes islands such as Taliabu Island, Buru, and the Bacan Islands.

The name “Sulawesi” is thought to come from the combination of the word “sula”, which means “island”, and the word “besi”, meaning iron, possibly referring to the historical export of iron from the Lake Matano iron deposits. The island has also been referred to as Celebes, like the aforementioned sea of the same name. This name was given to the island by Portuguese explorers and may be a Portuguese version of the name “Sulawesi”. The name “Sulawesi”, however, was the name that became commonly used for the island after Indonesia gained independence. 

Geography

Sulawesi mountain
Mountains in Sulawesi.

Sulawesi is the 11th largest island in the world, after Canada’s Ellesmere Island. It covers an area of 180,680.7 sq. km, though if the islands adjacent to it are included, this land area expands to 188,522 sq. km. The island is oddly-shaped, similar to a lower-case ‘k’. It basically consists of four interconnecting peninsulas. Sulawesi has a long coastline, measuring about 6,000 km. It is very mountainous, and features some active volcanoes.  The southern peninsula and south-central part of the island is characterized by large plains. The highest peak on the island of Sulawesi is Mt. Ratenkombola, which is also known simply as Mario. It reaches a height of 3,455 meters. Towuti, Poso, and Matana are the largest lakes on the island, which contains a total of 13 freshwater lakes. Lake Matana is the deepest lake in Southeast Asia.

Sulawesi
The knobbed hornbill, also known as Sulawesi wrinkled hornbill, in a forest in Sulawesi.

Other than mountains, the main geographical feature of Sulawesi is its forests. These forests once covered the entire island, but agriculture, logging, and mining have caused significant deforestation. In fact, according to a study conducted in 2007, 80% of Sulawesi’s forests have been either destroyed or degraded, including nearly all of the lowland forests and mangroves. The good news, however, is that the forests that were situated on land that was suitable for cultivation and logging are already gone, so there should not be too much deforestation in the future.

In addition, the forests in the highlands of Sulawesi have largely been spared the damage done to the rest of the forests on the island, though many have been degraded. It should also be noted that despite heavy deforestation, Sulawesi is still home to many different types of forests, including mangrove, montane, monsoon, ultrabasic, limestone, peat swamp, and freshwater swamp forests. Efforts have been made to protect what remains of Sulawesi’s forests. For example, the island is home to six national parks and nineteen nature preserves. Even in these protected areas, however, the forests are still under threat from illegal activities, including illegal logging, mining, and cultivation.

Sulawesi provinces map
Map of the provinces of Sulawesi.

Sulawesi is surrounded by a number of smaller islands. These include the Selayar Islands, which are situated to the south of Sulawesi’s southwest peninsula. They also include the Sangihe and Talaud Islands, located to the north of the northeastern part of Sulawesi. The islands of Buton, Lasahaoe, and Kabaena lie off Sulawesi’s southeastern peninsula. Within Sulawesi’s Gulf of Tomimi are the Togian Islands. Peleng Island and the Banggai Islands are located off the coast of Palu (Central Sulawesi), one of the island’s six provinces. The five other provinces are Mamuju (West Sulawesi), Manado (North Sulawesi), Makassar (South Sulawesi), Kendari (Southeast Sulawesi), and Gorontalo. The aforementioned smaller islands around Silawesi are under the jurisdiction of these provinces.

Demographics

Makassar Indonesia
Makassar, the largest city in Sulawesi. Editorial credit: Oen Michael / Shutterstock.com

According to the 2020 Census, the island of Sulawesi had a total of 19,896,951 inhabitants. The largest city on the island is Makassar, located on the coast of the island’s southwestern peninsula. It has a population of more than 1.3 million. Sulawesi’s four other most populous cities are Manado, Palu, Kendari, and Bitung. South Sulawesi is the most densely populated part of the island.

Portrait of Kajang Tribe people, an indigenous tribe in their traditional house in Bulukumba Regency, South Sulawesi. Editorial credit: Sony Herdiana / Shutterstock.com

Sulawesi is home to seven major ethnic groups. These are the the Toala, Toraja, Buginese, Makassarese, Minahasan, Mori, and Gorontalese. The Toala live throughout the island. They are nomadic and live in the island’s jungles. The other ethnic groups are mostly localized. The Toraja, for example, live in central, southern, and eastern Sulawesi. The Buginese and Makasserese live on the southern part of the island. The Minahasan inhabit the area around Manado. The Mori, a highland people, live in much of eastern Sulawesi, while the Gorontalese live in the west and south-central part of the northeastern peninsula.

A total of 80 languages are spoken on the island of Sulawesi. These languages all belong to the Austronesian family of languages. The most widely-spoken language in Sulawesi is Buginese, which has 4 million speakers. Other major languages spoken on the island include Makassarese, Mandarese, Toraja, and Massenrempulu. Dialects of Malay, known as Manado and Makassar, are spoken in the localities of the same name. As is the case with other islands in the Indonesian archipelago, the local languages of Sulawesi are gradually being replaced by Bahasa Indonesia, which is the official national dialect of Indonesia. Most of Sulawesi’s population have some knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia, including a growing number of young people who speak the language as their mother tongue.

99 Dome Mosque in Makassar, Indonesia. Editorial credit: Sino Studio / Shutterstock.com

Like most Indonesians, the people of Sulawesi are overwhelmingly Muslim. Most practice Sunni Islam. There is, however, a sizeable Christian minority, comprising about 19% of the island’s population. Many of the Toraja and Minahasan are Christians. Those who identify as either Christians or Muslims may also still follow local, traditional religious practices. Violence between the Muslims and Christians of Sulawesi has transpired on occasion. The worst incidents of violence between the two religious communities occurred in 1999 and 2001.

Economy And Natural Resources

Sulawesi
Aerial photo of a traditional fish market in Palopo , South Sulawesi , Indonesia.

Most of the people of Sulawesi rely on agriculture, forestry, and fishing to sustain themselves. Popular crops on the island include rice, corn, cassava, coffee, cacao, soybeans, vegetables, and fruit. Most farming on the island is done on small plots. Trade in clove is also popular as it can be quite lucrative. Cattle are the most significant livestock in Sulawesi. Fishing also employs many people on the island. Some still fish the traditional way, though there is also modern fishing infrastructure, such as shrimp farms and processing plants.

Piles of illegal logging logs caught by police in Kolaka, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Editorial credit: KAISARMUDA / Shutterstock.com

Sulawesi is also well-known for its expensive tropical wood that is found in the island’s forests. Mining on the island includes the extraction of nickel and gold. Deposits of copper and other minerals also exist, and could be exploited in the future. Industrial activity on the island of Sulawesi is light compared to other parts of Indonesia.

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