Doing good through ecotourism in Indonesia’s Wild East

By Dian Hasan | July 14, 2010

In my interest in observing the travel industry, it’s always a breath of fresh air to see how travel-players (yes, including the travelers themselves) do their part in bringing about change to their immediate communities and environment. After all, travel is all about the tripartite interaction of human, community, and nature. And this occurs on all levels of the society. What is especially touching is if this involves remote communities, that attract travelers for their natural beauty and rich culture of her people. The efforts of giving back to help communities HELP THEMSELVES (this is crucially important, as no community – this is a basic human trait – wants to be spoonfed in telling them how they are to be helped) are the ones that research has proven to be more effective. This is ecotourism at work, when it’s done correctly.

Nutrition courses are being taught to Sumba’s children as part of efforts to improve their future. Photo: Jason Childs

Here’s a look at one eco-luxe resort on Sumba Island, east of Bali in Indonesia, is doing in making  a difference, and how it practices Responsible Tourism.

Nihiwatu Resort, through their own Sumba Foundation, as reported by Tom Allard in The Age Australian newspaper.

Responsible Tourism: Guests can take time away Nihiwatu Resort, to help out at local clinics

From the headland at Nihiwatu, a view both spectacular and serene reveals itself. In the foreground, clean barrelling waves break with a calming rhythm. A pristine beach of soft white sand gently curves into the distance, framed by hills covered in groves of coconut trees.

Farmers tend to buffaloes in small fields and smoke drifts from the tops of the towering grass roofs from a traditional hillside village.

”You know, man, Bali used to look like this,” says Claude Graves, a lanky American and one of the pioneers of surfing on the Island of Gods.

He lets the words hang, but no further explanation is needed.

While Bali is now choking on development, its roads gridlocked by cars, waves packed with surfers and landscape littered with rubbish, Sumba, a remarkable Indonesian island some 350 kms further east, remains relatively untouched.

It is a strange and alluring place, whose inhabitants still live largely as their ancestors did for centuries, worshipping a deity, Marapu, with animal sacrifices and rituals of beauty and brutality.

”I have seen what has happened to a lot of beautiful places in Indonesia, places that were surfing meccas, and not a lot of good has come from it,” says Graves. ”I wanted it to be different here.”

Graves has been living in Sumba, on and off, for close to 25 years. The headland where he stayed for three years in a makeshift shelter, filtering river water and fishing for food in the 1980s, is now a luxury resort.

What Graves, his wife, Petra, and a supportive local government have embarked upon in West Sumba is nothing short of a new paradigm in tourism and development for one of Indonesia’s poorest areas.

It is ecologically driven, but also unashamedly exclusive. Graves has bought or leased 190 hectares of land surrounding the beach at Nihiwatu. While the locals are free to come and go as they please, anyone who is not a guest is forced out in no uncertain terms.

The left-hand wave is one of the finest in the world and featured in the seminal surfing flick The Green Iguana. But Graves allows only nine guests at any time to surf it. Interlopers have had their leg ropes slashed and been physically threatened.

Many in the surfing community have campaigned against the practice. Graves was, he acknowledges, considered an ”arsehole” by some for his hardline stance.

But that hostility has eased as people see what he is trying to achieve.

Instead of plane-loads of surfers coming in to party and then leaving again, Graves encourages his well-heeled patrons to get out to Sumba’s villages.

Invariably set high on hills and surrounded by stone walls as a defence against marauding headhunters and slave traders, the villages feature homes with towering grassed roofs encircling the megalithic tombs of the departed.

Women weave blankets on the balcony of homes that sit on stilts over a holding yard for livestock. The walls are adorned with the bones of animals that have been eaten or sacrificed – buffalo and pigs mainly, but also dogs and monkeys.

It was Pigafetta, the companion of the Portuguese explorer Magellan, who first wrote of Sumba, describing its undulating landscape, sweet-smelling forests of sandalwood and fierce warriors with a penchant for headhunting and slave raids.

The sandalwood has all but disappeared. There have been no reports of headhunting since the 1990s, even if Sumba’s famed ikat blankets still depict the skull trees where the macabre trophies of expeditions were hung.

Elders such as Dangu Duka, an animist priest, remember when his next-door neighbour – he calls him ”the king” – had slaves, before the practice ended in the 1950s.

”My grandfather told me stories about them. When the noble died, the slaves would follow them into the tomb … alive,” he said.

Sumba’s most spectacular ritual is the Pasola, where scores of men on colourfully adorned horses line up on opposing sides of a field, charge at each other and hurl spears – blunted on the order of the authorities these days – with great force.

The most famous of all is held in Wanukaka, timed with the arrival of the nyale, or sea worms.

Spread over three days, the ritual begins with pajura, or Sumbanese boxing. As a group of rato, or priests, chant incantations on a hillside, hundreds of people descend on a small beach to watch the young men test their manhood by the moonlight.

Groups from rival villages sing and chant, taunting each other before the signal is given to commence.

In a small circle fashioned amid the chaos by the police, the men line up on opposing sides and begin bouncing up and down before hitting each other with stones tied to their hands. Only one hand can be used to punch, and who wins or loses is not important, or even decided. It’s wild and brutal, but only the warm-up act to the main show, the Pasola itself.

First though, must come the calling of the nyale. Cooing ”wu-wu” at dawn, the ratos call the worms to shore. The priests soon head down to the rockpools exposed by the low tide and scoop their hands in the water. This year, the worms are fat and plentiful, the signs are good and the Pasola can proceed. But only after a chicken is sacrificed and its heart examined for further divine messages from Marapu.

Everyone walks to a nearby field where the main Pasola takes place. Forty horsemen on each side, one representing the coastal people, the other the villages from the hills.

Thousands are watching and many wear helmets, a sensible precaution as the spears regularly fly into the crowd.

For close to three hours, the action unfolds. Riders gallop ahead and toss their spears, whirling around to take the applause of the crowd if they score a direct hit. The highlight is when a spear flies in an unerring arc for the head of a man sitting straight-backed on his horse. Blood is spilt and the heaving crowd lets loose with a cacophony of war cries and cheers.

There are no winners and losers in the end. But blood has been shed, and that augurs well for a bountiful harvest.

Alus Tuapala, an elder from nearby Watukarere village, watched the event with amusement. He remembers when the Pasola was fought with metal-tipped spears. ”Sometimes, two or three people die,” he said. Was this upsetting for the family and the village of the slain? ”No, they are happy, very happy. It is a good thing to have the blood.”

For Claude Graves, the Pasola, village life and the stunning landscape are all worth preserving, although not by freezing a culture in the past, with all its attendant problems of malnutrition and poverty.

The aid organisation he has founded, the Sumba Foundation, tries to respect the traditions while laying a path of sustainable economic development.

When guests return to their rooms at Nihiwatu’s resort, there is a list of development projects. They are encouraged to donate, and usually do. More than $3 million has been raised this way in nine years.

As a result, malaria infection rates have dropped 80 per cent, 42 wells have been sunk and schools have been provided with toilets, libraries and stationery. Five health clinics have been built, and surgeons from Australia regularly come to Sumba to perform operations.

But Graves has wider ambitions. For example, the resort runs on biofuel made from copra sourced from coconuts. Four tonnes are bought each week, providing a livelihood for 115 local families. The residual glycerine is turned into soap and donated free to the community.

”The government is interested in what we are doing here.” Indonesia subsidises petrol, ”but that may not be sustainable. We are showing them that there are alternatives,” he says.

Malnutrition remains a big problem in Sumba. The locals eat anything that moves, including dogs and monkeys. But the crops are limited in scope: corn, cassava and a few other staples.

Graves has encouraged farmers to diversify their crops and has started four organic farms using water from wells the Sumba Foundation has dug. Nihiwatu Resort buys a lot of the produce but the remainder is taken to market, earning the farmers ”impressive incomes”.

Ten per cent of the crops are donated to schools, where nutrition courses are taught to the children.

”This stuff starts slowly. To begin, we only had one family involved in organic farming. When they start making money everyone else becomes interested …

”But the main focus is on the kids. If we can get the message through to them, it will make a difference in the long term.”

Perhaps Graves’ most intriguing problem is to address the chronic respiratory problems suffered by many Sumbanese.

The reason for the widespread malady is simple in origin, but complex to fix. Sumbanese cook inside their homes on wood fires, filling their homes with smoke.

The obvious solution would be to encourage them to cook outside, but in Sumba’s traditional culture, the home is sacred and equates with the human body.

The fire where the food is cooked is like the heart, and must be inside.

”Families are inside 10 hours a day. Sixty-seven per cent of the people who come to our clinics have upper respiratory problems,” says Graves. ”They also use a lot of wood in these fires, so it causes deforestation.”

Graves’ solution: to use the cow dung and refuse in the animal pens as a source of methane, and direct the gas, via a bladder and tube, into purpose-built, eco-friendly stoves. He concedes it is experimental but is about to trial it soon.

”We have to be inventive because we have to do things that make sense to the people,” he says.

Inspiration: The Age, Australia

This entry was posted in Eco-Responsible, Ecotourism, Indonesia, Responsible Tourism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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