Our Living World is Dying
Stacey Worman, 2006-2007 Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellow
Date: April 27th, 2007
To: Undisclosed recipients
Re: Turtles and Trash in the South Pacific...
My oh my, it's been a while! This update is long over-due...or so I've come that conclusion upon reading a few concerned emails from people wondering "Where in the World is Stacey Sandiago?!" And so I've finally managed to get my act (more or less) and this email together! But you all can rest assured that no news has been good news! I've just been a little preoccupied as of late...with lots of happenings...like...for starters, among the many things...I've quite literally been to the 'end of the earth'!
Thanks to some extremely helpful people who I've only ever exchanged emails with...I had a month jam-packed with action, activities, and adventures in Raja Ampat with Conservation International! To provide you with a little more context to what this means...there's an area formed between the Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea that scientists call the 'coral triangle' and it is where the world's richest marine biodiversity can be found...and...Raja Ampat in Indonesia's Papua province is currently thought to constitute its' center! Conservation International (CI) is one of the three big global conservation NGO's (the other two being the WWF and The Nature Conservancy) and they focus a large portion of their efforts on our earth's "hotspots"...what they refer to as the "environmental emergency rooms of our planet"...the places where biological life is the most abundant but also the most threatened (Click here for more information!) .
In addition to being endowed with an abundance of unique marine life, Raja Ampat is rich with timber, minerals, and oil. And so as development speeds ahead and natural resources elsewhere are becoming harder and more costly to extract...enormous outside pressure (from the rest of Indonesia and also from foreign investors) for resource liquidation is being increasingly applied on this 'final frontier'. In addition, local threats are now emanating from the islands' native cultures, as their recent move from relative isolation to increased western exposure has brought with it another whole set of conservation challenges (i.e. the move from subsistence to commercial fishing, shark fining, and the introduction of plastics).
Raja Ampat is indeed a special place...special to many different people, for many different reasons. And the good news is that the government of Raja Ampat has learned from the development disasters/mistakes of other area's...and has realized that in the long run, the place is worth much more if it is left relatively in tact...and so has recently declared (within the last few months) that it is putting marine tourism and sustainable fisheries at the forefront of their development efforts, while giving the other extractive industries the back seat (a truly unique declaration given the circumstances in this country)! But as people from around the world are beginning to realize the potential that Raja Ampat has...more pressure from more angles is being applied...and its' already rapid transformation is hastening. And CI's intention out there is obviously not to avoid these changes all together...but rather...to properly control and direct them...
So scootley-dootely-doo...that was my little preamble to introduce you to the area...and this is where Part I of my update recapping my month way out there in yonder-wander-land begins!
Across the conservation community...everywhere I've gone and everyone I've talked to...scarce funding seems to be an omnipresent issue. And while the conservation budget in the first world is already tight...in the third world...it is practically non-existent ...because...well, to say the least...the issue usually doesn't exactly gel well with the larger agenda. But herein lies one of the beauties of a large global organization like CI; their strong reputation enables them to secure funding from first world sources...and...then they turn around and channel it into areas of the world where they can get the greatest return on their investment, the biggest bang for their buck.
And in addition to their own efforts in their own offices, CI has become a major source of micro-grant funding for local NGO's that otherwise wouldn't have the pennies that they need to exist or operate, as tapping into the already limited funding in the first world is nearly an impossible feat for these NGO's which are staffed by people who don't speak English...which can't afford to hire full-time employees to write grant proposals...and which have very limited access to (and knowledge about) technology and the internet.
And for part of my stay in Raja Ampat, CI connected me with one of the local NGO's that they support called KONPERS, which is helping to protect sea turtles in this Asian country, South Pacific culture. And boy oh boy did I get lucky! I got to join them on one of their expeditions to their monitoring field-station on the remote island of Piai! And so...after seeing my first sea turtle while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef at the beginning of this journey...I now got the chance to get up close and personal with these ancient marine mammals whose ancestors shared this planet with the dinosaurs!
Getting there was a two-day voyage on a long boat. An hour into our journey, three whales were blowing just beyond our bow...half-way there, we took a bathroom stop (which sure blew the socks off those wonderful rest stations on the jersey turnpike) where we snacked on the sea urchins that a local family was harvesting...and by mid-afternoon, we were tied up for the night to the docks in the small village of Selpele (population: 200). We departed early the next morning...made a few more stops along the way (to pick up the other team members from the other villages and a detour to a flock of birds, where within two minutes, the boys pulled out five large tunas)...and alas, we arrived at Pulau Piai...the north-western-most island in Raja Ampat and also an important nesting ground for Green Sea Turtles in the South Pacific!
Our days consisted of a two-hour sweltering-stroll around the tropical island in search of their tracks, to count nests, and to scare off the iguanas which feast on their eggs (during this time I also furthered my inadvertent farmer's tan/burn). And by nightfall, we were patrolling the dunes once again...in search of laying green-turtles (on average, we'd encounter roughly 5 or 6 of these big-beautiful-endangered creatures per night!) and their hatchlings which were scrambling down the beach to take their first swim!
But as spectacular as my encounters with these sea-turtles were...for me, the experience was really about my companions! It was the 12 local men who I shared the deserted island with, that truly made the trip memorable...
Up until this point in my travels, I had been able to get away with using English. And prior to this particular expedition, I knew how to say only two things in Bahasa Indonesian..."Terima Kashi" (Thank You) and "Salamat Pagi"(Good morning). But knowing that my new Indonesian friends spoke hardly any English...and excited about this entirely new type of challenge...I got my hands on a pocket sized language guide before leaving the mainland! Non-stop studying in my down time...and...a very friendly/patient/helpful group...enabled me to pick up enough of the language to at least get beyond sheer sign language and looks of utter confusion...
And after trying to learn just the basics of another language, I must say...I now have an entirely new appreciation for anyone who is a non-native English speaker...as in helping some of my friends with their English as they helped me with my Bahasa Indonesian...I was able to understand why they say our language is such a difficult one to learn. And I think that it will also enable me to be more patience and understanding when trying to communicate with other non-native speakers in the future...as I've realized just how much gets lost in translation...and furthermore, how sometimes even the correct words still don't convey the message you may intend...
But it is also amazing how much can actually still be said when you take away words. And given our limited oral communication...between the fishing lessons, the kopi (coffee) with way too much sugar, the crab hunting in the forest with old coconuts, the domino game that I'm still confused about, and much more...I could tell that they so badly wanted nothing more than to share their world with me. And despite however beautiful the turtles were and the scenery was...(check out the new photos now posted!)....it was seriously only a fraction of that which was inside those people. And if I had the power to freeze time...this would probably have been the one experience from all of my travels that I would choose to stay in forever...
Anyone who has ever visited the shore-line in a third world country can surely attest to the amount of trash that seems to be washed up everywhere. Yes it's a bit of an eye-sore and a huge environmental problem...but going 'native' with my new friends allowed me to see the whole issue in an entirely different light...
These people are directly connected with everything; they walk barefoot over the ground...they eat meals with their fingers...they sleep on the ground without ridge rests or sleeping sacks...they have tiny little wooden boats which lack depth-sounders, radios, and GPS gadgets...and they don't lather themselves in sunscreen either! They have none of our western man-made barriers to cushion their exposure to the elements...and as a result, their experiences in the world are very raw...very real...and thus, their perspective of the world is very objective...
As I was on that two day long journey on the small boat, I watched as a fellow passenger finished his take-away nasi ikan and threw the paper/plastic mess over his shoulder overboard. And I looked around...tried to put myself in his shoes...and thought about it, 'I guess the ocean does seem vast and endless...and it does seem as if it swallows things and just makes them disappear!'. (Plastic, which has recently replaced their traditional banana leaf packaging, has made it here...but the associated knowledge of it's permanency in the ocean and the dangerous chemicals released when it is burned...is slow to follow).
And the entire ride, I thought about this stuff some more (And believe me, I had plenty of time to think). We weren't on some fancy fiber-glass speed-boat. As the swells got bigger...and then as the rain came...the ride got rougher...and at one point, the ocean even became a pretty threatening and somewhat scary place. And I began to wonder...if I actually lived here year round, through both seasons and not just the 'nice' one...and furthermore, if I lived as primitive as these locals do...would I actually be able to look at the ocean/nature with such caring eyes? Or does my love exist simply because my experiences have been so novel and so controlled? What if I had never put on snorkels and had no clue what was underneath the waters' surface? What if I had never read books about the ocean and had never been to another shoreline, either in another part of the country or another part of the world? And then I realized...that if such were the case...I probably would also throw my garbage paper/plastic overboard and think nothing of it...because after all...the ocean is huge...and fact of the matter is...it seems as if it can do much more damage to me than I could ever do to it...
And as my time out on Piai progressed, my friends' ocean-phobia became evident. I was surprised when we were walking around the island and one of the guys pointed out the tiny black-tip reef shark to me. He then told me that it could bite my leg off! But it was a baby and less than a foot long! And I tried to tell him it was too little to hurt me, but he thought I was crazy! On average, I probably swam with 5 of these sharks (except they were adult sized) on every dive I did on the Great Barrier Reef last summer...and I never had one single problem! And OK...I did slightly-freak-out the first time I saw one and Paul, the scientific coordinator on board the Heraclitus, then assured me that they were harmless to humans. But point is...that someone had to teach me. And to these guys...black-tip reef-shark, white-tip reef-shark, grey-shark, tiger-shark, bull-shark, whatever-shark...it doesn't matter...a shark is a shark is a shark...and fact remains, they know people who've lost their legs or have been killed by sharks...and so to them, it's plain and simple...any and every shark...until they are taught otherwise...is dangerous, period.
And so when we would return back to our camp after our exhausting walks around the island, the ocean always looked so inviting to me...but no one ever went in for a quick swim to cool off! And I always had to fight my urges to jump into the most beautiful water I'd ever seen, and I'd join my friends for a sit in the shade instead because the ocean is 'tidak aman' (not safe)...and you only go in it when you absolutely have to...because it is full of creatures which want to kill you...
And so tying this back into the whole trash thing...before this particular experience, it was easy for me to look at the trash in these third world countries with disgust. But upon reflecting on my time with these guys...I can say that yes, trash is everywhere...but I understand why because I now more fully understand their real relationship with the sea. And I also now realize that the trash everywhere doesn't symbolize that they are apathetic or that they simply don't care...because instead...they actually have more reverence for the sea and its' potential than I'll ever have. And furthermore, even if they had more education and did want to dispose of their trash in a better way...it's not like any other options really exist just yet; it's not like they have a trash man doing rounds or a public dump where there's a landfill!
The first world isn't exactly a litter free place either...but the difference is that we don't really have any good excuse for ourselves...because we do (or should) know better and we do have different disposal options! And yet, still we struggle! And furthermore...when I was with them...even if our trash was thrown in the sea or burned....I at least knew where everything went. And I certainly cannot say the same about all trash that I produce in the first world! Yes...we are rather good at making our trash 'vanish'...of getting it 'out of sight and out of mind'...but given the fact that nothing really just 'disappears' off the face of the earth...and the sheer quantitative differences...I'm pretty sure that we are the larger offenders...despite the immediate impressions that you may gather upon comparing our shorelines!
And one final point for those of you still with me...every day and every night, as I followed the crew on the beach...I was amazed as they were constantly picking up different 'trash items' and finding new uses for them (my personal favorites were the detergent bottle that someone turned into a shower caddy and the plastic bags that they use as sponges)...and so despite the trash that is everywhere, truth is...these people are not wasteful people at all...instead, they are creative and extremely resourceful. And to them...trash is not disgusting and dirty...it is simply something that they produce and therefore, something that they also must live with...
So I'll end Part I by simply saying...that my experience out on the island of Piai showed me how much potential a cultural exchange between our planet's two worlds can hold...both have things to teach and both have things to learn..
Ahhh...alright...getting caught up with this all and I'll be in touch again soon...at which time I'll divulge my current whereabouts!
Stay tuned (in or out) (whichever you may be!)...
P.S. "Best sunset to date!" says Brenda on the docks at Selpele!