Big Waves Bring Big Problems To Indonesian Paradise, Part 3

Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part story on the battle for the surf economy of Indonesia's Mentawai Islands. As resort owners and charter boat operators fight for access to prized waves in the absence of effective government, local communities are caught in the crossfire. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Tensions boiled over in the Mentawai Islands last year when local efforts to enforce the government-sponsored mooring system at Macaronis designed to limit the number of boats that can access the wave on a given day erupted into an aggressive confrontation with the crew of boat called Addiction. Stan Badgeris, a surf guide on the boat Kaimana released a video of the altercation on his blog, Although Badgeris declined to comment for the article, I was able to get in touch with Mark Loughran, the previous director of Macaronis Resort at the end of last season. According to Loughran, the land-based business employs 15 full-time local Mentawaian staff, prioritizes purchasing local produce, employs primarily local labor for building projects, and is in compliance with all government regulations—measures that put roughly 37.5 million rupiah ($3,814.00) into the economy every month by his estimates.

How much money locals should be entitled to for their resources is debatable. Anyone who has traveled in the Mentawais will tell you that boats make voluntary donations to each village they visit on a trip. The customary price has long been RPH 150,000 or around $15 per village/per trip. Loughran said he pays each of his staff members between one and two million RPH a month, between 100 and 200 dollars. Aside from this, the resort is locally taxed and makes certain community improvement donations.

The mooring system that sparked the controversy at Macaronis was established in accordance with part of the Perda 16 reforms that allow resorts to have "support territories." As compensation for managing the moorings, the village earns RPH 300,000 per boat per day. According to Loughran, the villagers were always fighting an uphill battle. "This is a situation with international consequences that should have been managed directly by the Mentawai government, not at village level," he said. "The more Silabu Village staff insisted that boat operators abide by the mooring system, the more some boat operators tested and baited the villagers, ignoring their authority to the point where village staff engaged the whole community in a situation of anarchy, as seen with the Addiction conflict."

Situations like this, along with the infamous video of Daly calling Mentawaians "primitive" in a speech given in stumbling Bhasa, shed some light on the frustrations of local Indonesians.

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Of course, there is another side to this story: many charter boat operators feel aggrieved at what they view as resort owners utilizing a law that they deem illegitimate to gain market control at their expense. They are not an easy crew to get in contact with, but I was able to find one who agreed to comment on the condition of anonymity. "The charter boats had to form the AKSSB as we were getting run into the ground by land-based groups who were in the ears of powerful people in the Mentawais and the Sumatran government," said the first source. "The AKSSB has never been and never will be about cheating and plundering. It is just about boat owners joining together so we have a voice and don't get dictated to by land camp owners and the various Indonesian politicians that they have in their pockets. The only reason the land camp owners would see the AKSSB as nefarious is because it is the only thing stopping them from...getting rid of all the boat charters and popping up land camps at every break in the Mentawais and getting exclusive rights at the most popular breaks. They want to turn the Mentawais into an exclusive playground for the select few that can afford to pay the top dollar prices."

Another source close to the charter boat industry, who also insisted on anonymity because "This joint is the Wild West crossed with a retarded pre-school," was dismissive of Cameron's claim that land-camps put more money into the economy than boats. "Employing a few local toilet cleaners or dinghy drivers doesn't progress the Mentawai people like they claim," he said.

Far from non-compliance, the source also said that charter operators had been purposefully cut out of the decision-making process by avaricious resort owners working in cahoots with government officials, as in the case of the Macaronis mooring. The source alleged that the current tourism minister Ibu Desti Seminora refuses to sit down with representatives of the AKSSB and that "This has created unrest in the AKSSB to the point where members think, 'why bother,' nothing happens even when we are a registered association with the government and still our concerns go on deaf ears."

According to Loughran the mooring situation has been resolved amicably. The second charter industry source, however, contends that it is still an open wound and that even the locals entrusted with policing the moorings are no longer interested in doing so. Both sides allege that the other is bribing government officials in order to benefit themselves. Whether or not it is possible for one government to take money from both sides of this debate while still impoverishing its own citizens is both a depressing and intriguing question. From where I sit, it's impossible to verify who is telling the truth.

In a rare moment of diplomacy, one of the charter operators I spoke with conceded that there were people on both sides guilty of bad business practices. "I should also note that not all land camps are doing the wrong thing and that there are definitely some charter boats up here doing the wrong thing," the source said. "So it is not a simple land camp versus charter boat thing."

With that said, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Mentawaians are the ones getting fleeced.

"I think the important issue is that the people of the Mentawai Islands are screaming out [for] social and economic development," Ponting said. "It's still pretty dire out there. They don't have much in the way of resources that can be easily and sustainably transformed into capital. They have probably the world's best and most consistent surf fields. How best can these be leveraged to drive social and economic development for the local people? This question seems to get pushed to the bottom of the pile."

This story first appeared in The Inertia.