Sulawesi, Indonesia

TIWOHO, INDONESIA — One thing that strikes me about science, and the way we frame our discoveries, is that we’re no better than our metaphors. We observe a process of nature, and explain how it works by comparing to our own technology. For some of those processes, we have pretty good metaphors: the “holographic” theory of the brain, for example, itself an organ that we define as a super-fast processor.

The metaphors get weaker as the phenomenon get more esoteric. Proteins function like “robots,” DNA is a “spiral ladder,” and gravity a “well.” Relativity is explained with trains, or by the analogy of sitting on a hot stove. By the time we get to the origin of the Universe, we can’t do any better than a “big bang.”

These thoughts addle my brain as I sit at the prow of a slim motorboat, churning above the reefs of the Sulawesi Sea. I’m trying to come up with a metaphor for mangrove swamps — but the best I can do is the Brita filter I recently bought for my kitchen sink.

I learned about mangroves just a few years ago, in Belize. Highly toxic pesticides sprayed on hillside banana plantations were running off into the ocean, polluting fields and streams along the way. This alarmed me, because I knew that docile, warm-blooded manatees (dugongs) lived along the shoreline, in the mangrove swamps. How come they didn’t get sick and die? When I asked a local naturalist, he explained that mangrove roots act like sophisticated filters, purifying the swamps — just as other roots systems (as we saw in my last dispatch, from Bali) can clear toxins from groundwater.

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Dodon (left) and Ratna, two program officers for the Mangrove Action Project's programs in Tiwoho. Ratna is holding the mangrove, crab, and fish-flavored snacks she had developed to help villagers sustain the mangroves while supplementing their income. photo © 2005 Jeff Greenwald

I gaze across the water to the coastline of Northern Sulawesi. Ahead is a small village, framed by a white steeple and a dome-shaped mosque. Coconut trees, a waxy Crayola emerald, cover the steeply sloping hillsides. Below them, along the water line, trees of a lighter green fringe the island.

“A thick belt of mangroves stretches all the way along the coast to Manado, the regional capital,” says Irfi, a marine biology student piloting the boat. “That’s more than 60 miles.” At least 37 species of mangrove grow in Bunaken National Park — including the world’s tallest, which can reach 150′ high.

Mangroves — architecturally fascinating trees with stilt-like roots, that thrive in the tidal waters of island coasts — are among the most critical, and unsung, players in island ecology. Not only do their complex root systems serve as nurseries for fish (who later move out to the coral reefs) and manatees, they provide an effective barrier against wave action — even, as recent studies have shown, from tsunamis.

A recent Indonesian law states that mangroves cannot be cut within about 200 meters of the sea. In Tiwoho, our destination, there was some destruction in the early 1990s, when the trees were cut to build commercial shrimp ponds. Tiwoho is interesting not only because its swamps are being replanted, but because a whole new way of thinking about mangroves is being cultivated here by a group called MAP: the Mangrove Action Project.

* * *

We anchor far from shore — the tide is low — and walk with rolled-up pants into the Islamic section of town. It’s Sunday, so the mosque is silent; pop music blares from a shop. Children play marbles in the street, quick to greet an exotic stranger. On the side of the main road is a small billboard, painted with trees and fish. Irfi translates:

“The People Live From Coral Reef,
Seagrass, Mangrove,
And Healthy Seawater.
Look After Them, And Save Them.”

A bit further down the road we come to a blue, flat-roofed house where Ratna Fadila and Dodon (“just Dodon”) are staying.

Ratna and Dodon are program officers for MAP’s Sustainable Livelihoods and Appropriate Technologies Program (better known as the “Toolkit” program). Seacology is one of seven funders of this project — and the largest, next to the Goldman Foundation.

Ratna and Dodon are both in their early 20’s. She is from Makassa, in southern Sulawesi, and studied agriculture and food technology. Dodon is originally from Yogyakarta, the cultural hub of Java, where he studied automotive technology. He now serves as a kind of artist/inventor for the Toolkit program.

Ratna, a sunny young Moslem woman wearing a striped sweater and an indigo head scarf, shows me some of the products she’s developing from mangroves. They are small, fried, chip-like snacks, in three flavors. The white is made from mangrove crab; the black from api-api, the mangrove’s fruit; and a pale beige chip from a mixture of fish and mangrove leaf. The fruit chip is delicious, and the crab chip also very tasty; the third needs some work.

“If the project goes well,” Ratna says with enthusiasm, “the village can supplement its income from these snacks — and they’re brand new, invented only one month ago!”

“How much will you sell these for?”

“For 250 grams, we ask 2,050.”


“Dollars,” Dodon ejects. Everyone howls. There are about 10,000 rupiah to the dollar, so the snacks will sell for about 35 cents a pound.

Dodon, who has dark, curly hair and a the look of a semi-wild artist, has been contracted to develop highly efficient and simple copra (coconut husk) burning stoves. Though this will take a bit of pressure off the mangroves and forests, they’re mainly a faster, cheaper, and more sustainable technology than the kerosene stoves currently in use. (Subsistence cutting of mangroves for fuel is rare in north Sulawesi, where coconut shells and other fuel wood are easily found.)

To visit his workshop we walk through the Christian side of town toward the MAP’s Visitor’s Center. It’s a handsome, breezy structure built of coconut wood and bamboo. A thatched-roof amphitheater is on the top level, overlooking the rustic local cemetery and a nearby mangrove swamp, while balconies on the other side of the building gaze onto Tiwoho and the sea.

A side room serves as Dodon’s “adult education” center. Dozens of recently-made ceramic stoves stand on wooden shelves; a kiln is outside the door.

Dodon’s stoves have several advantages over the old ones; there’s little smoke, and they’re easy to clean. They’re also cheap. For a small fee (about $1.50), locals are invited to design, build, and decorate their own energy-efficient stoves out of clay, sand, and ash. Dodon provides technical support, and artistic inspiration.

“Our focus is on the women,” he says, “But the men can join in, too. It’s fun, dirty work: you have to step in the clay and mash it around with your toes to soften it.” (So far, 278 families are using the clay stoves, and the one local cook I speak with swears by it.)

Dodon suggests that, before I return to Bunaken, we take a little stroll in the mangrove swamp, where MAP has been planting seedlings. The tide is still out, and the trees seem to float in brackish murk.

I raise my eyebrows as Dodon fetches several pairs of high rubber boots from a storeroom in the Center.

“How deep is the water?”

Dodon widens his eyes, and draws his finger across his throat.

The petite Ratna giggles. “For me….” She passes her hand above her head.

I like these pranksters; I’ll follow them into a mangrove swamp any time.

There’s something very Jurassic Park about our little trek; swamps like these are a primordial aspect of the Earth, unchanged for millions of years. When I think “primordial,” I think ooze, and muck. I’m not disappointed. It’s squishy stroll, and our boots made loud sucking sounds as we step between newly-planted trees. Mangroves grow slowly, and these will take a generation to mature.

They’ve got the time. The community of Tiwoho has placed 150 acres of mangroves, and 50 acres of disused shrimp ponds, under a “village conservation ordinance.” That means the existing mangroves will be conserved, while the former shrimp ponds are rehabilitated.

It’s habitat-saving work, and I’m pleased to see it being managed by people who are so idealistic. Ratna and Dodon pose comic-heroically by the trees they’ve planted, seeming to embody absolute confidence in the planet’s ability to heal — and in the power of communities to control their own destinies.

It’s a sign that humans may be evolving, after all. Conservation is one of those relatively recent phenomena that, like animal rights and cappuccino, seems to be spreading to the far corners of the world, picking up momentum on a daily basis.

“There’s a new generation coming up,” confirms Roel Jung, the co-owner and head diving instructor of the Lumbulumbu resort on Sulawesi, “and it’s the very first generation in Indonesia that doesn’t view corruption as a way of life. They understand ecology, and are very interested in projects to protect the mangroves and reefs.

“When I was 16,” he continues, “and changed the oil in my motorbike, I poured the old oil down the sewer. Now I know better. It’s happening here, too. Ten years ago, everyone was dropping anchor on the reefs. Today, no one is. And when the women from Bunaken approach us in their fishing boats, they’re selling T-shirts — not shells, or chunks of coral. That’s progress.”

* * *

Protecting mangroves and reefs is an obvious virtue on a tropical island, but how do you reach back to the root of the problem? While I was still at Froggies, Christiane Muller introduced me to a 25-year-old German woman named Sarah Noack, who has spent the past four years designing a way to reach out to local children.

Noack first came to Bunaken in 2001, and fell in love with the coral reefs. During her initial months on and around the island, she watched the village children and realized that their extra-curricular activities — all of them — were limited to playing in the streets. She asked the kids if they had ever seen the coral reefs surrounding their islands. They shook their heads.

“They lived only 50 feet from the reefs, and had never even seen them,” Noack said incredulously. “I could not accept this.”

After years of struggle — part of which she spent back in Germany, studying Indonesian while working in an ice cream parlor — Noack managed to round up some funding for the project. She began organizing classes, teaching the local children about hard and soft corals (the fact, for instance, that they are actually animals), and how corals depend on the sun to grow. With snorkeling equipment donated by a German water sports company, she started taking her students to the reefs themselves, allowing them to see Napoleon wrasse, clownfish, starfish, and seahorses up close.

“For me, it was very important that they develop an emotional connection with such animals. Because if you have this feeling about reefs, you are moved to protect them.”

So far, during the two months since Noack’s return to Bunaken, more than 100 children have come to the educational center, staying at a simple but clean dormitory funded partially by Germany’s Lighthouse Foundation. Her goal is to see 1,000 students take advantage of the center’s resources.

Noack’s grass-roots story is balanced, tragic-comically, by the saga of Bunaken’s Cultural Theater, funded by Seacology and supervised by Mark Erdmann.

It looked great on paper: a community theater where troupes from the 31 villages within Bunaken National Park could perform their traditional songs and dances for tourists and other visitors, charging modest fees.

“In fact,” Erdmann recalls, “it was suggested by some of the villagers. In theory, we were going to set up a regular performance schedule. It seemed like beautiful idea, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for it.”

It didn’t take. Today the $10,000 stone theater is unused and empty, with primitive toilets and a location precariously close to a steep hillside. Not only is the roofless, 200-seat structure architecturally awkward — “You cook in the sun, or you get rained on,” says Christiane, “but locals have an aversion to being in the sun, for fear it will make their skin darker.”

Cosmetic issues aside, there is a deeper problem with the theater. Unlike the other Seacology projects in Sulawesi, it isn’t oriented toward a real community need.

“Sure, if you tell the villagers you’re going to build a place where they can sing and dance, they’ll tell you to do it,” Christiane declares. “But the dancing and praying they do is for themselves, not for tourists. Before the theater, they had an older building — with a roof — where they used to go to meet, and sing, especially around Christmas, which is a huge holiday here. Something like that, they would have loved: a meeting center. But there is no way they are going to stand out in the rain and wind and perform their songs for divers. Not to mention the fact that the eco-friendly toilets were never installed.”

To add to local frustrations, the center could have been built at a fraction of the cost — with the remaining money going to badly-needed programs like the local scholarship fund.

The theater is an embarrassment for the usually effective Erdmann, but he doesn’t shy away from the issue.

“Unfortunately,” he reflects, “one bitter lesson in development work is that some things just fall apart. That’s what ended up happening here: all the stars aligned in the wrong way.” The main problem, evidentially, was the follow-up coordinator at USAID, a woman who gutted the budget to serve her own interests. “If I could say something (about her) that would make your tape recorder smoke,” says Erdmann, “I would. This woman basically destroyed all the follow-on work that we were going to do, and created a very bitter feeling surrounding that whole complex.

“That theater was meant to be a crowning achievement at the end of our project; a place that all the visitors to Bunaken National Park could come and see, and that would provide income for the villagers. Bits and pieces of that are definitely in place — but for the moment, it’s stuck.”

One of the other lessons in development work, of course, is that needs and personnel change. Though the theater isn’t yet in use, it’s there, and various strategies are being suggested by getting it into operation. A temporary, tent-like covering is part of one proposal; another, in process, will involve building new toilets and channeling them into a WasteWater Garden, as I saw in Tirta Gangga.

“My sincere hope is still that things are going to shake out, and that the theater will get going. There’s still time. After all,” Erdmann says with a dry laugh, “it’s made of stone.”

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