As I peered out of the stern of the speedboat, I noticed in the distance fish soaring briefly out of the water, before plummeting rather clumsily back into the sea. The engines churning the deep indigo water beneath us left a frothed trail in our wake. Patches of turquoise and light brownish-grey water denoted shallow areas. A few fluffy cotton-ball clouds flecked the bright, cerulean sky.
We were in Wakatobi Regency, in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, named after the four islands that mainly comprise the protected area: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko. The warm, affable, charismatic mayor, or bupati, has published several self-help books, one or two of which have just sold 10,000 copies, he informed us. One is titled Rich or Poor: It’s a Choice. He is the local celebrity.
Before our journey, in conversations with friends (both Indonesians and Americans), I found that few had heard of this part of the Indonesian archipelago, mostly known to divers. It is home of some of the greatest marine biodiversity on the planet. Several countries, including the United States, are trying promote sustainable development here, so that fishermen will be able to continue to make a living, and rare and yet unknown species (some of which could potentially be found to cure cancer, or lead to some other major scientific breakthrough) can continue to exist. One popular and particularly harmful method of fishing involves dynamiting coral reefs.
The Mars Company has several conservation projects here, as do the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nature Conservancy, many of which are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, several of which our group visited.
Researchers from the U.S. and the UK, and probably other countries come here to work. At Rp 40,000 (roughly USD 4.50) per night for accommodations, doctoral and postdoctoral students can afford to stay many months. One British woman we chatted with waits tables back home so that she can come over and conduct her research each year. She has interviewed many women here and learned about various local loan practices, some legitimate, some usurious, in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Interest rates vary from 15 to 65%, recalculated every 10 months. Being an entrepreneur here takes a lot of guts. But times are tough. Fewer fish than before swim in these waters. And the fish are getting smaller in size. The human population continues to rise, barely sustained by ever smaller incomes.
Much has been written about the problem of managing fisheries sustainably. We know that among the best practices is to secure true buy-in from locals so that their interests are protected and are seen to be protected. And those interests aren’t so divergent from our own; as the fish stocks and their habitats are depleted, everybody loses. But then communicating across cultures and languages can be a particular challenge. And well-intentioned people can look at the same picture and draw different conclusions.
Back on land, I recounted to one member of our traveling team how happy a sight the flying fish appeared. He told me, “well, actually, when they’re jumping like that, they’re more likely than not fleeing for their lives.”