Mabul, Malaysia – An island wrecked by “eco-tourism”
One of the first locations that Terra Genesis was invited to visit was Mabul, Malaysia. We spent seven days there hoping to gain some insight into the relationship between the local people, tourism, and the marine environment. The diving in the area of Mabul is incredible, so it is an amazing place to learn to dive, but the consequences of the boom in tourism has not meant prosperity for the local people or the environment. Seven years ago Sipadan Island became a turtle and bird sanctuary, resulting the in eviction of the dive shops and resorts from the Island. The creation of this sanctuary was a boon to the birds and turtles but unfortunately resulted in the shift of the dive industry to Mabul island, where it was initially thought that the tourism dollars would result in an upliftment of the local people. (In fact, some of the dive resorts still claim to be helping the people by giving jobs and steady income.) The Island of Mabul is approximately 50 acres in size and has supported a fairly stable population of approximately 2000 people. The people of the island are made up of three distinct ethnicities, Bajau Laut, Saluk Muslims and a group of nomadic seafarers who don’t claim any country as their home (and are refused an ID card when they try). The island has traditionally had enough water for all the local people via a stock of groundwater that infiltrates on a yearly basis. The amount of total water in the small aquifer was unknown but always served the people well, providing plenty of fresh water for the household use of the local people. When the dive shops started popping up and ultimately cover a fair portion of the land area. A small percentage of the population has been given jobs, but the rest are separated from the resorts by a barbed wire fence. On one side is a well groomed and pristine grounds of the resort while the other is covered in trash, eroded soil and abject poverty. In addition, the local population has increased in order to feed the demands of tourism.
The worst part of the story has to do with the water. An island that once easily supported the local population of people with clean water now receives daily shipments of bottled water that the local people struggle to afford. At 3 Ringgit per liter (about $0.75), water now is estimated to take a huge portion of the average monthly income of the people on the island. The loss of fresh well water coincided with the influx of dive resorts and the over consumption of the aquifer wafer. As the demand for showers, flush toilets, dishes and irrigation water for the landscaping around the resorts increased the wells dropped to a level where the salt water began to creep in and resulted in a complete loss of drinkable water available for free to the local people. One of the dive resorts now offers five liters for each person who works at their resort, but other than this “incredibly generous” benefit, all local people on the island either need to find a way to import their own water (which is not an option for people without national ID cards because of complex cultural bias and laws) or pay the 3 Ringgit per liter of imported water.
There is almost no food growing on the island. No farms, no gardens, very few fruit trees, and along with the import of water also comes the import of food. Because the people are so poor, the food imported is almost exclusively processed foods individually packaged in plastic. Where is this plastic to be disposed of? The culture of the people of the island has always been of harvesting local resources and anything that is waste can be thrown in the water on into the bush to decompose. This works great when everything you have comes from the natural systems around you. The “waste” is easily incorporated back into the natural systems. But now, with the introduction of processed foods, individually packaged for consumption, comes a new problem, one of waste. The easiest and quickest ways to deal with this problem is just to continue doing what they have always done, which is either to throw the waste into the ocean or into the bush. The trash in the ocean “disappears,” which we all know is not actually true, but it does solve the immediate problem for the local people. The trash on the land builds up and inevitably is swept up and then burned, which seems to solve the problem. As we know, these solutions have terrible side effects, including the toxicity of the oceans, the death of marine life, and the release of harmful toxins into the air. The open air burning of plastic has been shown to produce one of the most harmful neurotoxins known to man. So in getting rid of this trash, we are now poisoning our children and limiting their future potential.
Issues like these abound throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. This is what Regenerative Seas set out to see with out own eyes. We would like to find the most appropriate nodes of intervention to put our resources to the greatest good. What issues are most important? Which areas of concern could be addressed most efficiently with most positive benefit to people and the planet? How can we, as outsiders, most effectively affect positive change without imposing our culture, ideals, and beliefs on others? These are the questions that we are setting out to answer, and Mobul was an incredible first stop on this journey.
Why hire Terra Genesis International?
The founder of Regenerative Seas, Jessica Hardy, sees the issues very clearly. In fact, as we experience on our trip to Indonesia, there is no shortage of potential intervention points. But there are hundreds of NGOs doing work in Indonesia alone. There are thousands of scientists studying the oceans and marine conservation. Ms. Hardy wants to use her unique perspective and experiences to guide Regenerative Seas to the perfect strategy and use of resources to be most effective (and disruptive) in achieving her goals. Though TGI doesn’t bill itself as an organization that specializes in strategic development of the nonprofit sector, Jessica understood that what we do with our clients would be an excellent fit to help her discern how best to move forward with her project. Using Holistic Goals setting work, organizational essence work, a series of design sessions, and a two-week trip into the field, we were able to help Regenerative Seas sink more deeply into the nuance of what its role could be in the world. The process of definition and redefinition will never be done, just as the challenges facing theseas will continue to change, but working alongside Hardy helped us all to be more clear about what Regenerative Seas’ work is in the world, and how Hardy’s unique understanding can be put to work in an effective and uplifting way.
How has this changed us?
Along with working on her and her organization, we quickly discovered that Hardy was actually working us! And we are grateful. One of her stated goals for bringing us on this trip of discovery was to activate in us a sense of the importance and critical nature of the problems facing the marine environment. She sees in Terra Genesis one of the leading teams working with agroecological systems, doing very important work to shift companies and clients toward more awareness in their work. But after looking into it, she found that with very small exception almost none of our work directly addressed the problems facing the marine environment. It was Hardy’s secret agenda in hiring us, to make the transformation in us one of the first strategic steps of the Regenerative Seas organization.
Has it worked?
I’ve heard the rhetoric and alarm bells for years about the oceans. I’ve heard that the top five fisheries on the planet are on the verge of complete collapse (Atlantic Cod collapsed 25 years ago, and Bluefin Tuna is on the verge). I’ve heard that there are estimates that total populations of fish are less than 25% what they once were, while at the same time the population of fish eaters just continues to grow. I’ve seen documentaries about the shark fin issue, the dolphin slaughters and incredibly brave volunteers aboard the Sea Shepherd ships putting their bodies between the harpoon of Japanese whaling vessels and their unknowing prey. I’ve heard about the bleaching of the coral and the drop in pH of the oceans due to the excess amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But what I didn’t have before was a personal experience of connection to those realities. The power of personal experience is many times more powerful than all the stats and documentaries one can work through. This is one of the principles that separates the work that TGI does with many other consulting firms. We always work to have our clientsexperience a change, rather than just being told that something could be different. This trip offered me the opportunity to really experience, in my being, the challenges facing the marine environment. Being on Palau Kappas with Anwar Abdullah, founder of Ocean Quest, diving in his coral gardens and learning learning to graft coral onto rocks was incredibly empowering. The process he is working on in 14 locations throughout SE Asia is helpig restore the reefs after bleaching and other climate related events. I’ve been moved by being able to sit with Anwar and hear the stories from him of what these waters were like when he was growing up here, how the coral covered so much more area, and how there were always schools of fish jumping out of the water has. How the fisher people of western Malaysia were some of the best in the world and would bring in huge hauls day after day. And how at this point those fisher families have moved to Thailand to captain boats in those waters because the fish are gone. Anwar shared with us his personal measurements of the UVb levels in the area and how they have steadily grown over the years. He personally has seen a 500% increase over the past five years. Having seen Mobul and the terrible conditions for the people there has moved our team immensely. Having seen scores of baby sharks for sale in the markets (against local and international law) and the general immature size of most of the seafood for sale, has really set in me a sense that the oceans are not the “inexhaustible food source” it once was thought to be.
And the diving…
As part of our work with Regenerative Seas, we were treated to a three-day, live-aboard dive trip in the Komodo National Park, off Flores Island, Indonesia. Because of the extraordinary efforts of the conservation world, the biological world of Komodo is fairly well protected. I was able to experience an incredible sense of the beauty and abundance that once flourished globally in our marine ecosystems. Though I am told the numbers of fish that we saw are only a fraction of what would have been there 50 years ago, I was overwhelmed with the sheer numbers and diversity of the fish. The bright colors, the diversity, the wild and crazy patterns and shapes the fill the reef. But after spending three days with Anwar studying coral restoration, it was the coral that really stole my attention. After one of the dives I surfaced and shared that I was trying to wrap my brain around the ecosystem that is the coral reef, just completely fascinated by the complex and completely foreign ecosystem. I was trying, in my own way, to relate it to the complex interactions I know of in a terrestrial forest system. As a permaculture designer, I desperately wanted to understand the relationships, support networks, guilds of species and the succession process associated with the reef. After asking Nick Everett, one of our dive guides, to take a photo of a 1-meter by 1-meter area of the reef surface, he aptly pointed out that from any distance, 30 ft or 3 inches, the photo would still show a mind-boggling amount of diversity and complexity. Just like in a terrestrial ecosystem (or perhaps even more so), the closer you look the more complexity you see, from macro to micro-organisms, with cooperation and synergistic relationships at every level. It was incredibly beautiful, overwhelmingly complex, and awe-inspiring at the same time. Over the course of the 3 days and 9 dives that we did, I started to get just a bit of what I was after in terms of my understanding of how things function together, but more importantly the marine environment grew in my heart to something of great importance. No longer is the marine environment a secondary thought to terrestrial, but the realization that not only did the life on land evolve out of the water, but is still completely reliant on the ocean systems for its air, its minerals, and its health.
I’m not saying that I am shifting my efforts to working with the sea, as my core competencies still lie in agroecological systems, but being aware of what we do on land and how that might affect the oceans will definitely stick with me. I’ve also followed up our time on the water with learning more about the state of the fishing industry worldwide and have decided to carry my strong convictions about what meat I eat to seafood as well. No more canned Tuna and no more shrimp cocktail for me! I have to be convinced of the sustainability of the fishery involved to engage.
Up and coming for Regenerative Seas
Terra Genesis is on retainer with Regenerative Seas and we look forward to working more on the development and transformative actions that the organization will take. This fall Jessica will be traveling back to SE Asia to join Anwar (from Ocean Quest) on an exploration of coastal communities in Borneo and join on a hammerhead shark survey in eastern Indonesia in hopes of collecting data that can be used to urge the government to move forward with proposed plans to create another large marine reserve. Thanks to the Regenerative Seas team for your great efforts. The seas need all the help they can get.