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.
All underwater photography courtesy of Rani E. Morrow-Wuigk
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….
This article was originally published in Insight Magazine.