Monthly Archives: June 2010

Bio Rock: Saving the reefs

All underwater photography courtesy of Rani E. Morrow-Wuigk

The Indonesian archipelago is home to the richest assortment of coral species in the world, but its reefs are vanishing as global warming, pollution and unsustainable fishing and tourism practices take their toll.

Indonesia’s appalling conservation record is well documented and it would be easy to write yet another article about imminent disaster; but I am sick of all the doom and gloom, because with destruction comes regeneration.  While politicians  and environmental agencies gather in endless global summits and engage in pointless debates about how to fix things,  often the most effective change is happening at a grassroots level, and I knew that somewhere in Bali someone would be doing something to save the reefs.

I find my story in the north of the island, in a humble village that sits in the shadows of the mountains. Just meters off  Pemuteran’s  black sandy shore lies the  Karang Lestari (Everlasting Reef) Project, one of the largest and most ambitious coral restoration projects in the world. A reef that had badly damaged is once again thriving due to a unique technology called Bio-Rock, which uses electric currents to stimulate the growth of coral.

I have no idea what to expect, but this is unbelievable, a kind of futuristic underwater fantasy world. Fifty large steel structures span over 1000 feet and take the form of a caterpillar, a whale, an igloo, a dome, a tent, and a  flower,  all covered in a profusion of brightly coloured coral. Hundreds of tiny blue fish hover above the dome, bat fish flitter amidst the flowers. I see starfish, lionfish, a school of snapper and cheeky little Nemos everywhere. Soft pastel corals sway in the current and purple tipped table corals sprawl across the metal bars. The reef surrounding the structures is also thriving, everywhere I look I see life and vibrant colour. Natural power is the plan for future structures (which includes a Goddess rising from a lotus.) Reef Seen Aquatics Dive Center have already set  things in motion,  sponsoring two structures, a bio wreck and a giant turtle that are powered by solar panels.

Bio-Rock utilizes Mineral Accretion Technology which stimulates the growth of naturally occurring calcium carbonate, the substance that forms coral. Low levels of electric current (dc) are rigged to the structures which are then planted with coral fragments, minerals are attracted to the coral, the coral adheres to the structures and grows at an accelerated rate of up to five times. It also produces a veritable super coral that is hardier and more resistant to changing water temperatures and pollution. Healthy coral brings fish, and when combined with a ‘no fishing’ policy, it acts as a breeding ground thus replenishing fish stock for outer reefs.

Back on land, I spend time with Komang the Manager of the Bio-Rock centre, he has been involved with the project since its beginning and his dedication and insight is inspiring. He tells me that, “Bio-Rock is good because it brings the tourists, which bring money to the community, and it also brings fish so it keeps the fishermen happy.” Herein lies the true significance of the project because along with reef restoration came social and economic rejuvenation.

Traditionally Pemuteran was one of Bali’s most impoverished fishing villages. During the nineties tourists started to trickle into the area drawn to the stunning reefs. But in 1998 double catastrophe struck; El Nino sent warm currents across the globe causing mass coral bleaching; and the Asian economic crisis sent waves of starving itinerant Indonesian fishermen into Pemuteran, where the bounty was plentiful. They were armed with  dynamite and cyanide (used to stun fish to gather for aquariums) and the peace was shattered by exploding bombs.

All too often conservation conflicts with traditional resource users. How do you tell a starving fisherman that he cannot take the fish? Komang says that he couldn’t blame the fisherman because “They were only looking for this time, not the future.”  They didn’t know any better. The key to sustainability is education, and the availability of viable alternatives, and behind the scenes a group of colourful characters had been providing this.  Chris Brown the owner of Reef Seen Aquatics and a long term and well loved resident had worked tirelessly with the community  and village leaders to instill the need for sustainability and was joined by Pak Agung, the Balinese owner of  Taman Sari resort; and Rani and Narayan, ardent divers who were former members of a large religious community.  Chris tells me that “You have to take things slowly, so that they get done quickly and slowly but surely the fishermen understood. In a unique turn of events Adat (traditional) law was applied to create a no fishing zone and the Pecalang laut (marine security forces) were formed to chase of the cyanide fishermen.

Encouraged by community  efforts to conserve the reef, more colourful characters entered the scene; Dr Tom Goreau, an impassioned Jamaican marine biologist and Professor Wolf Hilbertz the German scientist who had discovered Bio-Rock. Together they had formed the Global Coral Reef Alliance and  donated their time and energy to Pemuteran, the first structures were placed in the sea in 2000. Karang Lestari has received numerous environmental awards and Government recognition, however it has been entirely sponsored by private donors and operates on the tightest of shoe string budgets. Recent initiatives include the opportunity to ‘Sponsor a baby coral’ and the establishment of PET (Pemuteran Environment and Community Trust) whereby divers can make a voluntary donation of RP 20,000 or more.

Similar projects have been attempted in other locations but without the support of the community are doomed to failure. A key to the success of Karang Lestari has been the implementation of other projects that enable the community.  Chris initiated the recruitment of ‘Reef Gardeners’ who are trained to maintain and protect the reefs, and a Turtle Hatchery which  protects sea turtles and their eggs. The Pemuteran Foundation, PET, and private tour operators also support these and various other programs aimed at education, tree planting and clean water.

To say the village is prospering would be an overstatement, but life for its inhabitants has improved dramatically. As  Komang tells me,  “Now no one is hungry.” Fishermen have been converted from hunters to protectors and have seen that conservation means more fish. Villagers have learned that by protecting the sea they benefit financially because the restored reefs bring tourists which create jobs and business opportunities, which in turn gives access to education and health care. Everybody wins!  It might just be one reef and one community, but it’s a step in the right direction and  Pemuteran acts as a model for fishing and diving communities everywhere.

For more information or to make a donation check the following websites, or take a trip to Pemuteran and see for yourself….

www.balitamansari.com

www.pemuteranfoundation.com

www.biorockbali.webs.com

www.reefseenbali.com

www.globalcoral.org

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soul surf project Bali

My latest writing job is doing environmental features for Insight Magazine – its a great mag and am really proud to write for them, it also creates some interesting work assignments. This is the soul surf project Bali, a Dutch foundation that works with orphanages here on the island. First the kids are given environmental classes and have to take part in beach clean ups.  Armed with greater awareness of the environment and their impact on it, the kids are  rewarded with surf lessons and the chance to participate in surf competitions, turtle releases and art workshops.

I spend the morning on the beach with a group of kids, its their first surf lesson and they are pretty excited and there is lots of laughter and splashing about.  The girls are shy at first but are soon riding waves with as much enthusiasm as the boys; everyone encourages each other. Marieke, the project manager and  I watch from the shallows, she tells me “Surfing provides the orphans with an escape from their normal routine and creates a sense of accomplishment, of  yes I can do this.” One of the boys whizzes past us, catching a wave right to the shore and we all cheer as he does a little victory dance.

Never too old for yoga

Just minutes from the hustle and bustle of Ubud, Satyagraha is an oasis of  peace and serenity with organic vegetable  gardens, a tea plantation, dense banana groves and a magnificent sprawling wantilan house that is available for rent. It is part ashram, part education facility that brings the benifits of yoga to children. I visit to write about their kids programs and stumble across the class for village elders.  Classes take place in a spacious open air pavilion surrounded by tropical foliage and stone statues. I visit late one afternoon, one by one the elderly Balinese trickle in, dressed in tee shirts and tracksuit pants. Some arrive on foot, others have ridden by bicycle from surrounding villages and their ages range from around 60 to 95. It is clearly quite a social gathering and the pavilion is soon ringing with the sound of laughter. Deborah arrives, a tall blonde American with a huge smile and everyone becomes silent as she leads them through a series of asanas. She is considerate, patient and gentle and I am impressed with the agility and strength of the group as they twist and stretch. Towards the end of the class she divides them into partners where they face each other, hold hands and plant the soles of their feet together then attempt to straighten their legs. Laughter erupts as some of the topple over, although quite a few of them manage to hold the position admirably. When the class is over everyone sprawls around the floor chatting and giggling.There is a great sense of fun and camaraderie and joining the class has been such a positive and happy experience that my jaw aches from grinning so much. After the class everyone huddles around Deborah to say thank you, it is obvious how much they like and respect her, and she them.

Made, a gentle, kind heardted and well respected village leader started the yoga classes because he wanted to see the elders “happy and healthy” in their final years.Deborah tells me how wonderful it is to see them  turn up week after week with, “Great gratitude and enthusiasm,” they tell her stories of being able to eat rice again with their hands, of feeling stronger, more balanced, happier, and more open in their hips and shoulders.   Deborah and her husband have been involved with the village for over twenty years and also run Yoga Adventure programs which incorporate ‘Yoga for the Village People’ on their trips to Peru and Bali. She tells me that, “Every time we have had the opportunity to share yoga with someone who had no access to yoga in remote villages, the benefits were profound and the word would spread.

A few weeks later I meet with everyone again at the Bali Spirit Festival where Deborah is leading a workshop entitled ‘Yoga for the village people,’ and 100 of the senior citizens turn up. Afterwards many join the Kundalini class led by the inspirational Rebecca Pflaum. At first they just watch, but are soon joining in, putting many of us much younger practitioners to shame with their agility. Mid-class Rebecca calls out “Its time to dance,” and cranks out some hip hop and the elders are the first on their feet to throw some funky shapes. It’s a wonderful moment and one that really captures the essence of Bali Spirit.   Afterwards I spot some of the elders  playing  Djembe in the West African percussion class and a few of the more adventurous have a go at hula hooping.