Northern Sulawesi

MANADO, INDONESIA — Without a tsunami or volcanic eruption in progress, there’s very little drama on your average island. Sulawesi has its share of woes — ethnic conflict between the northern Christians and the central and southern Muslims has been a flashpoint for years — but in this tiny region around Sulawesi’s northern tip, tensions are like family dramas, invisible to casual visitors. Green dive boats rock in the swell; mantises and geckos stalk their victims; small black hens peck through the grass and wood shavings between bungalows. Waves slap the shore with the effervescent crunch of someone rolling over in cellophane.

But if we were to speed up the clock, the crisis threatening the region would become obvious. The mangrove swamps would recede, making way for new resorts; the reefs would burst and dissolve, destroyed by dynamite fishing, coral harvesting, and pollution. Swaths of tropical rainforest would vanish, giving way to erosion. Mudslides would pour through villages. Worst of all — but invisible even in time-lapse photography — one species after another would blink out of existence, its last member obliterated with no more concern than the accidental crushing of an ant.

It’s happening everywhere, of course, but on islands the rate of species extinction is snowballing at a stunning rate. Globally, 75% of all recent animal extinctions have happened on islands; nearly three-quarters of all the plant and animal extinctions recorded in US history have occurred in Hawaii alone. Today, Indonesia’s 10,000+ islands have more species threatened with extinction than any other nation on the planet.

Sometimes environmental pressures come from outside developers; sometimes they come from traditional practices, like hunting, fishing, or tree-cutting. It’s hard to break such habits, or show why resisting development is a good idea in the long run. That’s where Seacology comes in: they offer islanders tangible benefits for protecting the local environment, and help empower village councils to monitor and enforce the protected areas.

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Meity Mongdong. Photo © Jeff GreenwaldFurious wind and intense rain hammer Manado, scattering the tinny call of the mosque in all directions.

I’m on my way to the village of Kawangkoan, where Seacology is renovating a primary school in exchange for 140 hectares (one hectare, 100 meters on each side, is roughly 2.5 acres) of no-take tropical forest.

My guide and companion is Meity Mongdong, a short, sparky woman with features that one might mistake, in profile, for Mayan. Meity is in her early 30’s, and a native of northern Sulawesi. Her father is a teacher from Minahasa, and her mother a nurse from Manado Tua, a cloud-wreathed, Bali Hai-ish island to the north. In 2002, Seacology awarded Meity their Environmental Prize for her work in the marine sanctuary of Bunaken, where she galvanized the local community and turned the bumbling, top-down management of the national park into the hands of local villagers, fishermen and dive operators.

Seacology flew her to Hawaii to receive the prize; a place she found beautiful, but a little familiar. “I asked if they could arrange even a one-day stopover in San Francisco,” she says wistfully.

Meity has recently been working with Conservation International, in a remote area of Papua. It was a treat for her to be in Manado, where she could order iced chocolates (“anything besides fish!”) and visit old friends. We’d meet several of these in Kawangkoan, and in her home village of Kumu.

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No one has ever written a satisfying description of the shape of Sulawesi. A contorted swastika; a fat man fly fishing; a smashed mosquito. Locals compare it to the letter K; it is more like a lowercase k, with a droopy upper limb. Not the sort of place you’d want to draw from memory. Manado is located near Sulawesi’s northern tip, and all our expeditions began from there. Navigation is perplexing; I’m never quite sure if we’re driving north, south, east, or west, as the ocean is just about everywhere.

Northern Sulawesi is mainly Christian, and it seems every other building is a church. There are plenty of churches in Manado, Meity assures me, including Anglicans, Adventists, Catholics, and 15 kinds of Protestants. I asked how this could be. “Some of them just have different songs,” she says.

“There seems to be a thriving Jewish population, as well.”

“What?” I explain that we’ve passed at least 20 houses with the word “kantor” emblazoned on the door. “Kantor means office,” Meity explains.

We stop at a relatively small church to pick up Janny Rotinsulu, a graphic designer and community leader who was instrumental in getting the Kawangkoan project off the ground. Janny is a young, immediately likeable man with a round, clear face and an astonishing smile; he’d made a bundle living in Jakarta, designing ads for BMW, before moving back to his home village.

Kawangkoan, Janny explains, means “Big Land,” the name given by the original inhabitants. The parcel being protected with Seacology’s support, he explains, is a beautiful tract of land with two waterfalls, giant hornbills, and numerous rare mammals, including tarsiers (the world’s smallest primate, a tiny monkey with Bill Keane eyes) and wild cows. I didn’t even know there were wild cows. Janny nods grimly. “They can be very aggressive,” he says.

An absurd scenario plays through my jet-lagged brain: a “Got Milk?” ad in which the queried cow turns its head and demands, voce DeNiro, “You talkin’ to me?”

As we leave the outskirts of Manado it becomes clear that we are in the tropics; the carpet of rainforest has become as thick and heavy as an atmosphere. Entering Kawangkoan, signs of earlier inhabitants appear in the form of warunga: mysterious stone tombs that litter the landscape by the thousands. Little is known about them; they might be anywhere from 300 to 700 years old, and are decorated with odd, sometimes macabre carvings. They remind me of the ghostly tombstones found in old Dutch cemeteries around Tarrytown and Hastings. This is probably not a coincidence; the Dutch controlled Indonesia for centuries, even though these northwestern reaches were also on Portuguese routes.

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The forest itself is a tract of land owned by Kawangkoan, and the decision to create and enforce a no-take zone required only village approval. Indonesia already has strict laws against cutting the forests, and I wonder how this newly protected area will affect people hoping to build new houses. But Meity and Janny agree that lumber isn’t an issue; when wood is cut down these days, it’s generally shipped off to Jakarta for rich people wanting to build Minahasa-style homes. The real problems are game poaching, and people clearing land for farming. These practices need to be stopped regardless of the human impact, as the ecology simply can’t sustain them.

We drive our Daihatsu van down a dirt road and arrive at the existing elementary school, built in 1975.

“The building is awful,” says headmaster Christian Wenas. “It is falling apart. Huge chunks are missing from the roof; during the rainy season, water pours in.” We stand outside one of the large classrooms beneath a plumeria tree. A cow wanders by; I eye it with some apprehension. Wenas, who has been in the local education business for 37 years, shows me the holes in the roof, the broken benches and inadequate desks. The school serves 183 students, ages 5-12, from four villages; rehabilitation will begin as soon as the leaders sign an agreement, and will cost less than $12,000. This is what Seacology means when they speak of a “win-win” policy: Kawangkoan gets a new school, as well as a protected rainforest. It’s not exactly a hard bargain.

As we make our way back down the narrow paved road that slices through Kawangkoan, we pass a gigantic white house. It’s built in Western style, with large balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows. “Who lives there?” I ask.

Meity and Janny giggle. “The tax collector.”

The observation brings to mind a scene from Seinfeld, where Jerry arrives at a car rental counter — only to find that the car he’s reserved has been given away.

“You know how to take the reservation,” Seinfeld says acidly, “but you don’t know how to hold the reservation.” Likewise, it seems, in Indonesia. This official clearly knows how to collect the taxes…

By the time we return to Manado, Bunaken island is obscured by massive gray clouds. The wind rises, and within minutes the sky opens, pelting the tin roof of Meity’s office, peppering the sea, and cleaning the dust off our van. We drive the narrow lanes slowly, passing two little girls gleefully shampooing their hair in the rain.

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The following morning we drive west, to the villages in Minahasa where Seacology projects are well underway, or complete.

“I grew up here, in these coastal areas,” says Meity, “and I loved the beaches and the reef fish. Even as a child, I could see that the coastal communities were poorer than the upland people; we depended on the marine environment, and the quality of those resources were going down. The distances fishermen had to travel for a catch were getting greater. That’s why I felt that I needed to do something.”

The road is as smooth and black as a graphite line drawn through the jungle. “When I was a girl,” Meity recalls, “transportation to Kumu was by boat.”

We pass the telekom booths, traditional markets and horse-drawn carriages of Tanawangko, and drive through a town called Poopoh. “It means ‘coconut,’ ” explains Meity.

“But the entire island of Sulawesi is completely covered with coconut trees.”

“Maybe this place has the most.”

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Meity’s home town, Kumu, is a tidy village ending at the sea. There isn’t a trace of litter on the streets. Motorbikes buzz up the road, driven by 12-year-old girls and fishermen with skin like fish jerky. There are churches everywhere, and the new school we’ve come to see — built with Seacology’s help — is behind one of them. It’s a single-level, L-shaped building with blindingly white walls and slatted wooden windows that channel the breeze into the large classrooms.

“My parents are both very socially minded,” Meity says as we approach the school. “My mother works as a nurse for low-income families; I’ve seen her treat people in exchange for bananas. My father worked as a teacher. He has a strong personality, and can be difficult to get along with; he’s hard-nosed, but also very honest. He helped the people in Kumu understand the impact of logging the forest, and the problems it was causing; and he also helped see that every rupiah went to the project, and not into someone’s pocket.”

The school opened in August, but already feels lived-in. Classes are in session when we arrive, and I’ve never seen a more expressive bunch of kids. They shriek with glee as the teacher introduces us, then leap to their feet to sing an Indonesian version of “Frere Jacques” at ear-splitting volume.

The teacher, a beautiful woman named Sartji Manangkoda, is seven months pregnant, and her desk is littered with flower parts: a big pink bud, broad leaves, long stems. “This is a science class,” she explains. The children sit in neat rows behind shared wooden desks, dressed in white uniforms and waving their arms frantically after every one of Sartji’s questions.

Two hundred fifteen families from four villages send 102 students, aged 6 to 13, to the school. During a break, all eight teachers — four volunteers, and four employees, who each earn between $100-$150 a month — meet me in the courtyard. They express unanimous delight with the building.

“The old school was very hot,” one of them recalls. “There was no air circulation at all. During the rainy season, we had to tell the students to go home; water flooded the classrooms.”

Still, the effort to build the school in exchange for protecting Manenembo-nembo — the local stand of tropical rainforest, which borders all four villages — met with some opposition at the start, mainly from villagers who felt threatened by the idea of a no-take zone in the forest. The complaints stopped when people saw the new school, and realized that it hadn’t been an empty promise. Still, I wonder what the incentive was for people who didn’t have children, and wouldn’t benefit from the school.

“Even if people don’t have children,” said Meity, “someone else in their family does. So everyone supports the school.”

A few hundred yards away, we meet the men charged with the conservation plan’s development and enforcement. Harry Runtualian, a rough-looking character wearing a black T-shirt, summed up the reason the program has succeeded.

“Only about five percent of the villagers cut trees from the forest, but it had a big impact,” he said. The river dried up, because the trees were no longer holding water; a landslide covered the road; sediments washed into the sea and covered the coral reef, killing off the fish. Awareness of these problems came from the people; not from an outside agency telling us what our problems were. People began to see how cutting the forest was impacting their lives.

It wasn’t just a matter of harvesting trees. Animals were being killed: wild pigs, bats, and the endemic crested black macaque (Macaca negri), were hunted for food. The hunters were among the most vocal critics of the proposal, but they’re not complaining anymore.

When I ask why, Harry’s answer seems both reasonable and ominous: “Face to face discussions.”

Part of the deal included money for several thousand nantu saplings, which Harry and his two colleagues have been carrying, nearly two miles up into the open forest, for planting. It will take the hardwoods from 5-10 years to grow. When I ask who is charged with enforcing the no-take rule, Harry points to a tall man wearing a green Le Coste knock-off and a ten-gallon hat: “The Cowboy.” Despite his Gary Cooper poise, Wely — the man’s real name — didn’t look like much of a match for poachers armed with rifles or machetes. But all he had to do, I learned, was warn the culprits, and report them to the local council. On a second infraction, the police and forestry rangers take over.

The most impressive thing about the programs, in my opinion, is how quickly they’ve become a part of the local mindset. This was brought home by Erni Sumatow, a woman from the nearby village of Pinasungkulan. Erni recently pushed through a Seacology project protecting the local reef, mangrove swamp and rainforest, all in exchange for a new drinking water distribution system. Success required that she knock down the first dominoes in a profound cultural shift.

“People truly believed that it was their right to take everything they needed from the beach and forest, even using bombs to fish the reef. Building awareness wasn’t easy; we informed people of the issues at every opportunity: at meetings, weddings, funerals, any time the villagers were together. Eventually, it worked. It was hard at the beginning — but now people think it’s a very good thing.”

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One thing continues to bother me about these village projects. Local communities are being asked to protect their forests forever — but what happens when the school, or waster system, eventually falls apart? What’s the incentive to keep Kumu or Kawangkoan from cutting down trees after 20, or 50 years?

Back in Manado, Meity and I pick up a marine biologist and conservation specialist named Mark Erdmann, who has lived in the area for more than 10 years. We drive together to a rustic café, high in the hills overlooking the city. Mark and Meity order avocado smoothies; I’ll wait, and see if they look better than they sound.

Mark listens to my concerns, and acknowledges that I’ve basically hit on the nerve center of Seacology’s conservation model.

“In Indonesia,” he explains, “conservation typically works in a top-down fashion. Nobody gets anything; people are simply told what’s being conserved. Seacology’s approach is refreshing, and really grabs the interest of villagers.”

The first priorities, he reminds me, are to pick appropriate villages, with clear conservation leaders: “People like Meity, who, beyond waving a school in front of people’s faces, really comprehend the nuts and bolts of what’s going on.” The smoothies arrive, tall glasses full of green, chocolate-laced goo that looks like the oobleck of Dr. Seuss fame. They appeal to me; I order one of my own.

Seacology knows they can’t ask for anything in perpetuity. But they can get a commitment along the lines of what’s legally or traditionally appropriate — usually 20 to 30 years.

“But after that,” Erdmann states, “you’re right. The school, or dock, will have fallen apart. At that point, we hope that (a) the concept of conservation has sunk in enough so that people continue to respect it, and (b), things have progressed to a point where the villagers are not so dependent on natural resources.

“And if not, what’s the worst that could happen? What if, in three years, Kumu turns around and cuts down its forest? At the very least, they got a school. It was a low-cost investment — and it made a big difference in some people’s lives. Compare that with what happens when huge conservations groups come in. They might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants and posters — and at the end of the day, when that project folds, the community is left with nothing.”

My smoothie appears, and I take a tentative sip. It is a revelation: a sublime nectar of tropical ambrosia, laced with hints of hazelnut and chocolate. With that first swallow, I’m inspired by a bold and cunning plan: offering the entire U.S. Congress a 20-year supply of avocado smoothies, in exchange for protection of our old growth forests, coastal waters, and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

Hey — It’s worth a try.

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