Big Waves Bring Big Problems To Indonesian Paradise, Part 2

Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part story on the war for the surf resources of Indonesia's Mentawai Islands. While tourism reforms are stalled in parliament and desperate fishermen blow chunks out of the reefs with bundles of black market dynamite, the Mentawais' future, both as a surfing destination and developing community, currently sits on the razor's edge. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 3.

There are now at least forty charter boats and ten large resorts operating in the Mentawais under various levels of legality. Perhaps ten to fifteen boats still operate under the Mentawai Surf Charter Boat Association (AKSSB). Rough estimates of the money that moves through the Islands via surf tourism range from five to eight million dollars annually. Somehow, Mentawaians are still seeing a very small portion of this money. Abuses or circumvention of the law are many and varied. One of the most popular for charter boats, according to one source is buying subsidized fuel through intermediaries that is actually intended for low-income communities in Indonesia. On the other side, some resorts stand accused by one boat operator of dodging property taxes and utilizing legal loopholes that allow them to operate while meeting almost no safety requirements.

Rick Cameron haunts the entire sordid history of failed tourism regulation in the Mentawais. Although he has worked with every government since 1996 in order to establish workable restrictions, he has often been accused of trying to tailor those restrictions to give himself monopolistic control of the market. The veracity of such claims is difficult if not impossible to prove or disprove, but a cursory look at just about everyone else in the history of the Mentawaian surf industry shows that giving the label of "dark lord of Mentawai surf tourism" only to Cameron, as is often done, is the worst type of myopia. There are few, if any, entirely clean hands in the Mentawais.

He and Daly shared equal notoriety among those I interviewed for this story, and like Daly, he often garnered equal criticism and praise, sometimes from the same people. One source who wished to remain anonymous said of him: "Descriptive words that come to mind are...Overly ambitious, greedy, genius, dark lord, but also a visionary and he really predicted exactly what the Mentawai surf industry would become if it were not properly managed." The source continued: "Unlike Martin Daly, Rick never got rich off the Mentawai Islands. Besides the monopolistic part of his plan, Rick knew that he must employ Mentawai locals, and that whatever he did in the businesses must benefit the locals on the islands, as well as the government or they would turn against his resorts, charter boats, and empire."

I reached Cameron by email. Despite not working in the Mentawais at this time (he still holds one of the five operator permits issued by the government), he said he was in favor of helping the islanders find an equitable way to profit from surf tourism. "They want a resort-centric industry because it supports the infrastructure and social services they need like roads, power, communications, education, health services, and transport," he said. "Resorts employ islanders and, aside from becoming civil servants, resort jobs are the only viable alternative to illegal logging as a source of family income."

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The claim that "islanders want resorts" is questionable because although they appear to put more money into the economy than charter boats, there is no guarantee that it will be an equitable amount of money that will eventually aid economic development.

Cameron went on to compare the activities of some charter companies to illegal logging in the area: "Loggers in the Mentawais all have a government license for specific areas to be responsibly logged and rehabilitated....but a lot of them hide behind this while clear-felling massive areas of rainforest outside their concessions and paying off authorities to turn a blind eye...Ditto for the live aboard charter boats and their elite surf industry superstars. They wave a Sailing Permit from a Padang harbor-master and flaunt the Mentawai regulations by creating confusion and fear. Daily told me that if I got in his way, one phone call to Jakarta would be the end for me. I did not fall for his BS but a lot of local authorities are worried about their jobs and so the tactic works."

Cameron wasn't alone in his opinion that non-compliance with the law has had a corrosive effect on finding a solution to current crowding and development problems, but he was the only one who would go on record saying it: "The damage the boat lobby have caused is far more insidious and harder to see than thousands of hectares of trashed rain forest," he said. "By defying (local laws) and lobbying for mainland support to fight the Mentawai management system, they have created a "nobody wins" situation. The boat lobby have never proposed any workable alternative to the existing legislation but they are very well funded and capable of creating doubt and confusion by throwing up quasi-legal challenges and by manipulating media to the detriment of the resort owners group. They have the very real backing of many of the surf industry's biggest players and so it is 'no contest'... They seem to be blind to the fact that surf slums are spreading out of control in the regulatory vacuum they have created."

Click here for Part 3.

This story first appeared in The Inertia.