Tourists flock to Flores Islands area for two major reasons: Komodo Dragons and the best diving in the world. However, the people who live there have had to make a living long before hoards of tourists started showing up. A common fishing techniques around the islands was to use kerosene and fertilizer bombs – blast fishing. It may be effective and easy in bringing up a haul, but is deadly to coral structures. This practice continued through 2012, and still occurs from time to time. The bombs, boat strikes, and storm damage have harmed a lot of the coral. On the island beach I was in, I found giant pieces of branching and brain coral that had washed up. According to Wiki, 60% of the coral was lost due this practice.
When I asked about corral bleaching, Clemons, a local dive tour operator stated: “It doesn’t really get hot enough down here for that. Every once and while we’ll see some, but not that much. We sustain more damage through storms. But bleaching, crown of thorns, and storms are all natural processes. Our efforts to to built up the coral structures so that can recover easier from any of those events.”
Additionally, according to Clemons, there is a long history of burning trash and throwing it on the ground in this part of Indonesia. “There aren’t even that many public trash cans.” This worked great for compostable trash, paper, and cloth based waste, but not so well with plastics. Sure enough single use plastic bottles, containers, drink cups, air freshener, toys, nets, and food bags litter the coastline and water way.
So what is being done?
Komodo National Park
It is important and significant to identify the Government’s role in identifying this region as a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a giant financial and regulatory commitment for the government; however, it also sets up important foundations on which people to build important economic and environmental structures. Even though tour and dive operators say the government is not doing enough, it has arrested over 100 people for the illegal fishing practices.
There are groups that have taken notice, want change, and taking it upon themselves to take action without government intervention.
This is a grassroots movement that is starting to make a difference in Indonesia. They take a multifaceted approach. They go to classrooms regularly to educate the next generation. They regularly organize beach cleanups. (Side note: Anyone who has every spent an hour or two picking up trash on the beach becomes acutely aware of the macro-trash problem. Micro plastics are a whole different problem for which no good solutions exist). Another important part of Trash Hero is they organize trash collections and sorting. They will help people identify recyclable and non-recyclable and take it to the appropriate spot.
Local organizations like DOC (Dive Operator Consortium) have partnered with Ocean Quest to help kick start the coral regrowth. Using methods similar to Sven in the GBR, they target different islands regularly to garden, plant, and monitor. In the last 15 months, over 70% of the corals they have planted have taken growth and started growing on their own. As we were leaving Sebayur, a group of eleven volunteers had showed up to monitor and plant more coral. Ocean Quest’s founder, a Sea Sheppard affiliate, has similar programs throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It is important to note the synergy between the cash flow of tourism with environmental causes here. Many of the diver operators and land holders recognize the importance of tourist money for the their livelihood. They are also in their line of work because of a genuine appreciation for natural wonders they see on every dive.
Actions by these two groups are inspiring and showing results.
We took three different water taxis in our brief time here. None of the engines were bran-spanking-new. In fact, they seemed quite old. Our last one seemed more akin to a lawn mower engine. The point is, people reuse and fix stuff. When broken, they repair it. They had to do it by necessity on the island, but many of the boat operators had a captain and mechanic on board. For part of our ride, the mechanic was clanking on metal and patching things mid-ride. He reminded me of Scotty in Star Trek. He would shout up to the captain in Indonesian, and I heard in Scotty’s voice: “I can’t give her any more captain, the dilithium crytals are fused.” Poverty forces many people to keep their investments low. I’m sure if they had enough money he would have purchased twin 250HP engines. Instead we got ones that were much lower, struggled mightily through wakes of larger boats.
Environmental and sustainable solutions are not always convenient or cheap. Tourists are also not always so eager to give up their conveniences. People living near subsistence levels often cannot afford the investments needed for sustainable fixes. Time will tell to see how these tensions play out in this part of the world.