A Decade of Surf Tourism in the Mentawais

Are we loving these islands to death?

Surf tourism in the Mentawais is undergoing a rapid and far-reaching transformation that will change the islands, the lifestyles of the local people and surfers’ experiences of the Mentawais forever.

WORDS BY TIM BAKER

With a new airport, numerous land camps and a new Mentawai government keen to cash in on their
greatest natural resource, waves, the once remote island chain is quickly morphing into a modern surf
holiday enclave before our eyes. One startled visitor recently reported the slightly surreal experience of
watching the State of Origin rugby league on a wide screen TV at the new Macaronis resort.

At the center of the changes is a shift from water to land-based surf tourism – with at least five land
camps now open for business, several more under construction and even more major land purchases
underway. The construction of an airstrip on Sipora, and a new air charter service direct from Singapore
means surfers can now fly direct to the islands, eliminating the overnight stay in Padang and/or the
overnight crossing by boat from the mainland. Overcrowding of the main breaks is also likely to reach
new peaks this season, especially around the camps – at Katiet (Lance’s or HTs), Macaronis, Telescopes,
Kandui and Playgrounds.

The struggle to control or influence the development of the surf tourism industry in the Mentawais
is a long and sometimes sordid tale. These days, while most surf operators in the islands at least try to
get along, it is the Mentawai government and its people who are rightly agitating for change and some reasonable economic benefits from the growth of surf tourism in
their islands. New laws drawn up by the Mentawai government
(but yet to be enforced) call for a limit on the number of surf
tourism operators in the islands, with only five tourism licenses
being issued. Each license holder would be allowed a maximum
of six boats, with a total carrying capacity of 50 surfers (a total
of 30 boats, or 250 surfers at any one time), and is also obliged
to develop land-based accommodation. These land-based resorts
would then control access and carrying capacity of the waves
adjacent to their land. A tax of US$3 per day is to be charged for
every surfer on boat or land, and tourists will only be allowed
to visit the islands through a licensed operator. With at least five
land camps, and perhaps an average of a dozen surfers each, that
is likely to push the number of surfers in the islands at one time
to more than 300. When there’s swell and those surfers are spread
over a dozen or more breaks, the chances of getting a few waves
to yourself are still good. When the surf’s small or the winds are
wrong, and only a handful of breaks are working, crowds might
well be comparable to Bali or G-Land.

While past attempts to regulate and tax the surf tourism
industry in the Mentawais have floundered, this is the first time the
actions are being instigated by the Mentawai people themselves.
Yet, you’ll find as many differing opinions on exactly how
this change should be managed as there are perfect waves in this
surf-rich island chain.

THE SURFING EXPERT CONSULTANT

French woman Elizabeth Henderson (pictured below) had only been surfing for
four years when she took off on a round-the-world surf trip. That
journey eventually landed her in the Mentawai Islands, in the
unlikely role of “surfing expert consultant” to the newly formed
local Mentawai Government.

“They came to me because I was the only one living there that
didn’t have a business involved,” says Elizabeth. “They’ve seen me
come back and live with them, year after year.”

Elizabeth first went to the Mentawais in 2001 as a cook on a
charter boat for the Surf Travel Company. Since then, she has been
back every year, working as a cook, a surf guide, a SurfAid volunteer,
and living on land with the locals for up to 10 months at a time.

During her last visit, she was teaching English to members of
the new local government. “The head of the taxation department
came to my house, and said he wants me to be their surfing expert
consultant,” Elizabeth says, still sounding a little incredulous. “I got
a bit worried – what is that? They want to find a way where they
can have tourism but respect the way surfers think about having
waves to themselves. I’m there to help.”

It will be a big job, as surfing brings enormous change to the
once isolated islands. Prior to the discovery of surf there in the early
‘90s, it was only logging companies, illegal foreign fishermen,
the odd yachtie and the occasional anthropologist, naturalist or
missionary who visited the islands.

Sitting off the west coast of Sumatra, for years the Mentawais
were largely ignored even while they were governed from the mainland. The government in Sumatra or Jakarta regarded the
Mentawai natives as primitive and tried to ban their traditional
ways, relocated rainforest communities to centralized coastal camps
for easier administration, and transplanted thousands of Indonesians
from Java and Sumatra to the islands. The result has been the
creation of one of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities
in Indonesia, with shocking health problems, little representation in
government and few prospects for improving their situation.

Surfers at least hold the potential to bring some economic
benefits to the islands, rather than just simply exploiting them
like the loggers and fisherman have done over the years. “They’re
starting to see surfing as a way out of poverty,” says Elizabeth.
Already, the formation of medical aid agency, SurfAid International,
has brought enormous improvement in the health conditions of
many local people.

“This place is lucky. It hasn’t been destroyed yet. It’s like it’s
been protected,” says Elizabeth. “The earthquake and tsunami hasn’t
touched there. SurfAid started there, and that’s been very positive. I
think surfers care a bit more, they’re not just dumb tourists. There’s
a lot of people who care about this place. It’s a big karma place.”

Elizabeth has been back in Australia during the off-season with
her Australian boyfriend, studying politics and journalism to help
her prepare for her new role in the Mentawais. “I’ve done a lot
of things because of the Mentawais. I’ve become a teacher, I’m in
Australia studying. I like the idea of being devil’s advocate.”

But she warns that the newly appointed Mentawai
government is excited by the idea of land camps and development.
The surf charter industry has yet to bring many economic
benefits to the islands, and the government and people are getting
impatient. “The whole government goes to Bali and they see that
… they want that,” she says.

“They don’t see the future for the boats, they really see the
future for the resorts. They’ll give the licenses to the resorts, and it’s
up to the resorts if they let the boats come there.”

It is definitely a time of change in the Mentawais. They have
only had their own government for four years and local elections
will be held for the first time later this year. There is a great deal of
effort being put into stopping illegal logging and fishing, and one
of the few non-depletive industries available to the Mentawai people
is tourism, especially surfing.

THE UPMARKET RESORT

A new up-market resort at Lance’s Right, or HTs, has sent out
promotional material, boasting of a five star experience – luxury
villas, private plunge pools, king-sized beds, onsite masseuse,
international cuisine and, perhaps most significantly, direct air
transfers from Singapore to the Mentawais by 12-seater aircraft.

Surfers will be transported from Singapore airport to Katiet
village in just three hours and be in the water that same day. This
eliminates the overnight crossing by charter boat from Padang,
and effectively adds a day’s surfing to your holiday. The so-called
“Katiet Villas @ HTs”, operated by Mentawai Resorts, were due to
receive their first guests in July.

“Mentawai Resorts is a wholly owned subsidiary of OMI
(Onu Mentawai International) and we are the only tourism
license holder who is a registered Mentawaian company,” says
Steve Kelly, one of the partners in Katiet Villas. “All the other
companies are registered in Padang. Our Chief Operating Officer
is a well-respected member of one of the largest tribal families in
the Mentawais, because of this, we feel we are held in high regard
by the Mentawaian people.”

While they are offering a high-end, up-market holiday
for visitors, he says their focus is bringing real benefits to the
local people. “We are providing the local people (essentially
the Katiet villagers), with good economic, environmental and
cultural benefits. We are supplying jobs (over 30 local laborers
and builders have been employed for the last year alone), job
training (hospitality, cooking, cleaning, organic produce farming,
site management, etc.) medical facilities, improving local
environmental and health levels.”

Mentawai Resorts has also engaged the services of consultant
Jess Ponting, who is one of the surfing world’s leading authorities
on sustainable tourism. “With Jess, we have set firm goals and
objectives to ensure that the area remains pristine and retains its
natural beauty, whilst also delivering sustainable economic and
social benefit to the local people,” says Steve.

Jess, who is completing a PhD on sustainable tourism, seems
impressed by their efforts so far. “They are very responsive and
seem genuine about doing the best job possible,” he says.

Consulting with the local community has also been
paramount. “We believe one of the key ways to an ongoing
happy relationship is to have a two-way communication and
consultation with the local people,” says Steve. “We have to date
been successful in doing this by consistently choosing to ‘under
promise and over deliver’. This is quite different to what the
locals have experienced in the past with many western operators.”

He also says they have no plans to claim exclusive use of the
wave in front of their resort, Lance’s Right, or HTs. “Mentawai
Resorts believe that sensible co-operation is the best approach,”
says Steve. “We’d hope that if charter boat and resort operators
could at least talk to each other – about where they’re going, how
many surfers are already there, what the waves are doing and try
to avoid overcrowding the break – then everyone’s experience
will be that much more enjoyable.

“It’s not for us to determine if there should be a ceiling on
overall numbers in the Mentawais. If it’s anyone’s decision, it’s
one for the local government. But we do believe that the local
Mentawaian people have, without doubt, been short changed
over the last 20 years and their needs and rights have not always
been taken into account by the Mentawaian surf industry.”

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THE OWNER/SKIPPER

Rob Wuillemin is one of the non-surfing skippers who copped
his fair share of criticism for jumping on the Mentawai
bandwagon in the late ‘90s as the surf charter business took off.

The Mentawais were originally the domain of a handful
of surfing skippers, in it for the lifestyle at least as much as the
money. Rob was perhaps unfairly targeted as a symbol of a new,
more business-minded approach to surf charters. Nearly 10
years on, Rob and his wife, and their well-appointed charter
boat Sans Souci are still in the Mentawais. He originally came to
the islands at the invitation of Rick Cameron, director of Great
Breaks International, who had high hopes of master-planning
and managing the growth of surf tourism in the Mentawais.

Cameron’s planned Mentawai Sanctuary, with his exclusive
control over boat numbers, movements and land developments,
proved unpopular and unworkable with rival skippers. But Rob and the Sans Souci have
endured. Rob’s outsider
status as a non-surfer and
association with the widely
unpopular Cameron might
have sometimes made his
position difficult, but Rob
still believes Cameron’s
Mentawai Sanctuary concept
had its merits. “I believed
that Rick was on the right
track, and with a few small
modifications to his ideas, all those involved up there could have
really secured their futures with what could have been the best
surfing destination in the world,” says Rob. “But, I hadn’t been
involved with anyone in the surfing industry, didn’t know the local
politics or the surfing community politics and couldn’t get over the
huge egos involved from all quarters. To this present day I haven’t
got involved in any of the local politics, I just do my business and
just shake my head at all those guys involved back in 1997 who
could have had something really special.”

The chief issue for the surf charter boats is safety, he says, and
imposing reasonable safety standards would be the best way to
regulate the number of boats.

“Currently there are around 30 to 35 vessels operating in the Mentawais. There is a small handful of these
vessels that I would say comply to Australian
standards for surveyed passenger vessels, are run
very professionally with western crew and have
the required certification to run commercial
vessels. They could operate in Australia without
a problem,” he says. “There are one third plus
that are safe, mostly western vessels that carry
life-saving equipment, life rafts, flares, have twoway
radios, etc. They probably lack a fair amount
of maintenance and in some cases are run by
unqualified skippers. Not overly professional. Then
there are the rest – mostly local boats – that I would think twice
about going up a river on: they’re unsafe, don’t have any life-saving
gear and radios/electronics rarely work. I believe that there should
be restrictions on numbers of vessels. The vessels should be of a
certain standard with emphasis on safety. It is only a matter of time
before we lose a boat and some lives. This will rock the industry
and will be felt by everyone. Probably around 25 vessels would be a
reasonable number.”

His advice to those considering a Mentawai surf trip? “My
advice would be to do their homework, select a boat that has the
capability to move in any weather, safely and unrestricted by the size
of its fuel tanks. You can almost guarantee that half of your time you
can have breaks to yourself. Definitely they will see much, much
more of the Mentawais and possibly be able to go north to Tanah
Bala and Telos if on a decent boat. If you go on a cheap local boat
you can expect to surf with four or five boats every day. Local boats
tend to stay together for safety and can’t move in rough weather or
at night. They are also limited with their fuel range.”

THE SURFING SKIPPER

Jody Perry has spent as much time skippering surf charter boats as
almost anyone. Yet this year he’s left the Mentawais disillusioned
and in search of new seas. Jody’s one of those surfing skippers in
it for the lifestyle, a former junior champion who competed with the likes of Tom Carroll, Joel Engel and Thornton Fallander back in
the late ‘70s. When he talks of his experience in the Mentawais, he
seems to echo a sentiment felt by many long-time surfers about the
evolution of surfing itself.

“I have watched the surfing world as a whole evolve over more
than 30 years, and the same process seems to occur,” says Jody.
“We start with something magical and endearing and heartfelt.
Everyone wants to be a part of it. Once involved, people realize that
financial rewards can be achieved. The more ruthless go too far in
that pursuit. Firstly, commercial interests enter the picture. Secondly,
exploitation enters the commercial interest. The ‘greed factor’
emerges and grows, and with its own self-sustaining momentum it
goes too far until all original sensibilities are eroded. All semblance
of the original ideal is abandoned, and the enchantment of the
whole experience is compromised for everyone. Good people leave
disillusioned. Lesser individuals take over the reigns and run the
show even further into the ground.”

Jody is one of a group of surfing skippers who seemed able to
work cooperatively to manage crowds in the Mentawais and try and
encourage decent surf etiquette in the water, but he feels they have
been fighting a losing battle. “Myself and others tried hard to tune
our guys to share over the years, and to keep the Mentawais surfing
experience as civil and enchanting as we could, for as long as we
could. We took responsibility for our guests’ behavior in the water,
threatening free-surfers and pros alike that they would be pulled out
of the water and steamed away if they didn’t play well with others.
It worked to a point. It works if everyone complies, but others
didn’t. It only takes one person to fuck that up. In the end, across
the board, it proved too much to ask. Open sharing currently works
between a small percentage of boat captains who are working with
each other. But that’s hardly a majority.”

He is also vehemently opposed to the concept of exclusivity
being granted to any waves in the Mentawais, arguing that the legal
precedent for wave rights simply doesn’t exist in Indonesia.
“In arguing for exclusive access, operators have cited Tavarua
and similar [resorts] as examples. It should be understood that in
various islands in the Pacific, local tribes have absolute control and dominion over their local reefs and waterways. That is not the case
in Indonesia. All surf breaks being ocean-side of the high tide mark
are therefore under Maritime jurisdiction. Surfing is a ‘marine’
activity. Land-based local authorities have no jurisdiction even under
the limited ‘independence’ status that the local Mentawai Islands
Council has. That access, that jurisdiction, has never been granted.

Charter boat access (including passenger access), operating permits
and clearances are granted to charter boats to operate in ALL areas of
the Mentawais without constraint. For land camps to even consider
attempting to subvert that (either legally, or through bribery/
corruption – the favored method) would create an absolutely
irreconcilable situation between boat/camp relationships – which
are already fragile at best.”

But Jody doesn’t let the charter boat industry off the hook
either. He says rates of pay for Indonesian crews are still far below
international standards and do not fairly compensate crews for their
time at sea, away from family and loved ones. Where top end boats
are charging customers top rates, he says local crews should be paid
at least accepted minimum pay rates, instead of having to rely on
tips from passengers at the end of each trip.

THE LAND CAMP PIONEER

Christie Carter was the first to open a land camp in the
Mentawais, with his Wave Park Losmens, six years ago, and
seems to have succeeded in maintaining good relations with
the locals and rival operators. Quite an achievement. He has
very definite ideas about how he would like to see the surf
industry regulated in the Mentawais. “I would like to see the
government pursue their interest in enforcing regulations
regarding development in the Mentawais. To date they have had
some misguided advice from various sources about the best way
to approach the problem. Personally, I think that development
should be controlled by the local government at the Mentawai
level, which they already have the legal right to do.”

Christie envisages a tiered licensing system catering for
various levels of investment, and all types of travellers, from
backpackers to five star, and definite limits on boat and land
camp numbers according to the “carrying capacity” of the
various waves and regions.

He sees one of the major problems with any regulated
system as entrenched corruption, which means any tax revenues
collected don’t get where they are most needed.
“The local population could best benefit from surfing by
having a system in place that guarantees them revenue from the
operators who are diligently paying their taxes. At the moment there are problems on both sides of the board. Some operators
aren’t paying, and the money that is being paid isn’t getting to
where it needs to get to.”

He also sees a role for the surf industry to try and protect
the natural environment of the Mentawais. “The government
and private interests need to work together to keep fishermen
from dynamiting and cyaniding the reefs in the Mentawais.
They should also be working together for a system of mooring
buoys instead of anchoring at key areas where the damage is
most noticeable. As the Mentawai population grows, there
should be a real push in education to convince locals to keep
their beautiful beaches clean.”

And, he predicts, charter operators and land camps will
have to learn to work together for their mutual benefit. “For the
most part, in my experience, boats and land camps have to work
together wherever we are. We all come up short on supplies and
logistics every once in a while. It’s in everybody’s best interests
to get along and stay in touch. It’s a jungle out there. For those of
us that live here full-time, we have a really close-knit expat and
local mixed community over here. Everybody knows everybody
else, why should we fight?”

Whatever happens, he says, the pace of change in the
Mentawais will only accelerate. “Relative to what has happened
in the past 10 years, surfing will change the Mentawais way
more in the next 10. It’s exponential.”

THE CAMP AND BOAT OPERATOR

Tom Plummer has spent seven seasons in the Mentawais
working on charter boats and has recently become a partner in
the Aloita Resort. As such, he straddles the usual divisions and
vested interests of water and land-based operators. “Obviously,
I’d like to see some sort of sustainable management plan for
the Mentawais. This is my home now,” he says.

Tom also owns the Substance boardriding store in
Padang, is a master five skipper, holds an honors degree
in Indonesian Studies and is an accredited interpreter and
translator. He’d like to see a cap on boats and camps, and open
sharing of all breaks.

He expects to see the number of charter boats drop
rapidly as the impact of the new competition from land
camps, and recent increases in fuel prices, hit home. “Of the
20-odd chicken boats which used to do the run out of Bali
and down through southern Lombok to Lakai Peak, there
now remains only a couple of operators. We will see the same
happen in the Mentawais over the next few years as operating
costs increase dramatically (fuel tripled in price in the space of
a couple of months late last year) and margins get smaller. The
costs of departure for my boat Naga Laut have doubled since last
year. There is nowhere in Southeast Asia where charter boats
can enjoy the margins which were obtainable a few years ago
in the Mentawais. The salad days are over.”

Tom has devised a detailed management plan that is based
on limiting the number of charter boat licenses to the 30 or
so boats currently operating, with an annual license of fee
of US$3,000 payable to the Mentawai government. Licenses
could be bought and sold, much like commercial fishing
licenses, with stamp duty payable to the local government, but
no new licenses would be issued.

“The benefits of a well managed surfing industry in the
Mentawais hasn’t hit home to local people properly. They are
generally disenfranchised compared to a bunch of Padang
locals who have become very wealthy via servicing the charter
industry,” he says.

THE TRAVEL AGENT

Anthony Marcotti handles bookings for Martin Daly’s fleet of
five charter boats, his own company, Saraina Koat Mentawai’s
five boats, and is part owner of the recently opened Kandui
Resort. As such, he books roughly a quarter of all the surfers
who go to the Mentawais, from his Huntington office, in
California.

He’s concerned about the nature of some of the new
developments, but optimistic that all can work together for
the common good of the islands, if there is a cohesive plan
in place. “The situation out there right now is an influx of
a few resorts spaced out evenly among the chain. For me
the real dilemma is that a few of them have people with no
experience in Mentawai tourism, boat trips or land resorts
funding them and running them,” he says. “It’s especially
disheartening because a few of them lack a solid plan of action
to help the local population improve their livelihood and to
my knowledge no one else besides us and Martin are actively
involved with SurfAid’s efforts over there. What they are doing
in the Mentawais and in North Sumatra is amazing.”

Saraina Koat is behind SurfAid’s ‘Wave of Compassion’
fundraising surf trip, and have worked closely with the local
population in their area in the planning and construction of
their resort. “During the course of production, a process that
has taken almost two full years to complete, we have directly
employed over 60 local Mentawai workers and artisans and
have continued to employ over 30 people since April of 2006.
Our partnerships with the local villagers in our surrounding
areas offer many benefits; economic freedom, employment and
training opportunities to improve their future.”

He would like to see a cap on the number of boats and
camps in the islands, and limits on the number of guests per
camp. “Ideally, I would prefer to see the land-based resorts
agree to a strict number of guests – 12 to 16 per location – and
for the Mentawai government to follow through on their plans
to limit the maximum number of licenses for these types of
resorts at five.”

He’s also adamantly opposed to claims for exclusivity of any
of the breaks. “That goes against what a trip to the Mentawais is
all about. It just doesn’t seem right to restrict people who have
traveled all that way to one specific wave or zone.”

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THE AID WORKER

Dr. Dave Jenkins is one figure in the whole Mentawai
surfing scene without a vested interest, other than the
reduction of disease and suffering among the Mentawai
people. The organization he founded six years ago,
SurfAid International, is widely acknowledged as the
main positive to come out of surf tourism for the local population. SurfAid has successfully reduced malaria
by up to 75% in its first two pilot villages and has since
spread its operations throughout the islands and beyond.

Ironically, and unintentionally, it is partly SurfAid’s
work in reducing malaria that has made the whole
prospect of land camps in the Mentawais more achievable.
Predictably, land developers claim the threat of malaria in the islands was always overstated by a surf charter industry
intent on keeping visiting surfers off land and on boats. But Dr.
Dave says, although the overall situation has improved, there is
still the very real threat of malaria.

“If surfers are staying near SurfAid target villages then,
yes, the risk of getting malaria has and will continue to reduce
thanks to the success of our projects,” he says. “However,
until such time that the place is malaria-free then on-land
surfers should be sensible and careful. They should consult
their doctor about using preventative medicines such as
Malarone and Doxyclcine and always use an insecticide-treated
mosquito net. If they are staying a long time they should carry
a rapid diagnostic test kit and ACT, the new treatment for
cerebral malaria.”

SurfAid’s main focus, however, is the wellbeing of the
long suffering locals. “SurfAid wants the best for the people. In
some ways we are a voice for them. I think the best chance for
the people to benefit is via a ‘Joint and Co-operative Tourism
Agreement’ between the various stakeholders,” he says.

Dr. Dave points to a meeting organized by Conservation
International for all stakeholders in the Mentawai surf industry
in September as a positive sign. “Conservational International
are very interested in creating an ‘Eco Marine Reserve’ in
the Mentawais and their eco-tourism guidelines hold the
best framework I’ve seen to date that could genuinely result
in a win/win for all. They have proven it can work and we
should at the very least listen to their plans and encourage all
stakeholders to do so. I have no doubt that SurfAid can make a
very significant contribution to the whole plan. We are currently
planning a ‘malaria-free Mentawai project’ with the distribution
of mosquito nets to over 80% of all Mentawai people.”

Without such centralized planning, Dr. Dave says surf
tourism in the Mentawais could easily follow the destructive
pattern set elsewhere in the world. “Without the above I find it
hard to see anything constructive planned and therefore it will
continue to develop in whatever form – probably more boats,
resorts, more crowds, more tensions and little added benefit
to the people.”

The locals, he says, are becoming increasingly concerned
about the impact surfing could have on their islands. “We
recently spent a lot of time speaking to the people on this issue
in surf areas such as Katiet. They want surfing, they want jobs,
but want respect for their culture. They don’t like nakedness or
even small shorts and bare chests walking through their villages.
They are especially worried about new diseases like Aids and
prostitutes arriving.”

After some initial hesitation, the surf industry seems
squarely behind SurfAid’s efforts in the Mentawais. “The
resort owners to date all seem keen to help with community
development … Thanks to the support of the surfing industry
SurfAid is having a growing impact. We shall significantly help
nearly all of the 200 villages in the Mentawai in the coming
years. It’s our full intention to ensure that surfing via SurfAid
and other activities becomes one of the very best things that ever
happened for the people of the Mentawais. There’s no doubt in
my mind that we have that potential.”

THE SUSTAINABLE TOURISM CONSULTANT

Jess Ponting is one of the surfing world’s leading authorities on
sustainable tourism and is completing a PhD on the Mentawai
surf tourism industry. He is currently lecturing at the University
of the South Pacific in Fiji, but continues to advocate for
sustainable tourism in the Mentawais.

“There is an entire body of knowledge, case studies and
examples, entire academic journals dedicated to figuring out
how tourism, with careful planning, can achieve this,” says Jess.
“I can’t understand why surfing tourism seems to continually
progress blindfolded, refusing to learn from its mistakes or the
mistakes of others.”

As a keen and well-traveled surfer, his studies have
eventually brought him around to some confronting views.
“Painful as it has been as a surfer who has spent literally years
(several) in dirt-floored losmen, bures, fales, etc, I have had to
come to the point of respecting the right of resource owners
to decide who uses their resources. The major concern of the
surfing fraternity over the years seems to have been free access
to waves above all else. The Mentawai situation is the end
result of that logic – outsiders have devised the best and most
convenient way to extract value from a surfing resource with
a minimum of interaction with the resource owners, and a
minimum flow of foreign exchange to those resource owners.”

In many ways, he says, we have simply taken advantage
of the situation in the Mentawais because of the absence of a
tradition of reef ownership.

“In Papua New Guinea reef owners are paid a fee for
allowing surfers access to their reefs. In Fiji the rights of reef
resource-owners are enshrined in law. Whether this extends
to surfing is up for debate but in practice we all know about
Tavarua. The Frigates Passage landowners charge surfers a fee,
Nagigia Resort on Kadavu have negotiated controlled access with
landowners and several other surf resorts are in the pipeline
with similar controls negotiated with resource owners. It leaves
a bad taste for the surfing purist to be prevented from just
rocking up under your own steam and paddling out. However, I
think we need to take a step back and view the bigger picture. In
many cases these are extremely poor communities with limited
means of achieving development through the resources available
to them … The important thing to remember is that it’s not up to
us to decide what type of development is best for the Mentawais.

The Mentawai people must be empowered to decide what is best
for themselves … They have the world’s most concentrated, high
quality and most consistent surf fields set amongst the dictionary
definition of what paradise looks like to most westerners – a
monumentally valuable resource. Managed carefully it could
provide the economic base for community development in
the islands. Managed poorly, the whole thing could turn to shit.
But I think we as surfers need to recognize that it’s about them,
not about us.”

Jess conducted numerous interviews with locals about
their attitudes towards surfing for his PhD and uncovered some
interesting views. “Some said they didn’t care if the surf was crowded (why should they?), only the surf companies cared,
and they weren’t giving anything to the locals anyway. Another
said that surf tourism was (and I quote) ‘killing the locals’
because the resorts were buying land at a one-off price which
villagers had spent within a year and they were left with no
land to live on or on which to plant coconuts. In this respect the
Fijian model of long term leases probably works better. Pretty
much every Mentawaian I interviewed advocated joint ventures
between villages and resort developers rather than outright
purchases of land and an enclave approach to resort building.

In reality though you won’t get major investors to come on
board under these circumstances. None of the Mentawaians I
interviewed were impressed by the charter industry. Many used
similar language in describing how the Mentawai people were
sick of being ‘watchers’. Watching tourists come and go on boats
with no idea how they can get involved in the tourism industry.”

The principles of sustainable tourism provide very specific
guidelines about the nature of any land-based development
– from waste disposal to water treatment, power generation
to packaging, cleaning products to building materials to
architectural styles – guidelines that only the most ethically
motivated developers are likely to follow. “Employing all the
best systems is expensive but vital. Making some allowances
for being in a fragile environment will also be important – you
don’t need plunge pools for each room really, do you? Nice but
hardly necessary. Ensuring building materials are gathered from
sustainable sources i.e. timber not cut from the mangroves out
the front or illegally logged from Sipora, and cement not made
from coral blasted off the reef out front for that purpose.”

And who among the surf tourism operators, or surf
tourists for that matter, is brave enough to really stop and
consider the social and cultural impacts of surfing on remote
island communities, where surfing is far and away the biggest
outside influence on traditional lifestyles, and impressionable
youth are likely to be easily made over in our own modern
western image?

“Already there are noticeable changes, particularly in the
Katiet community which is now very much a surf town,” says
Jess. “This is influencing the youth and even the structure of
the village which has moved out to the surf, and certainly the
employment of villagers, many of whom, as you know, sell
carvings to tourists from canoes … Often village kids get the
idea that surfers spend their whole lives bumming around in
surf camps smoking pot, drinking, whoring, etc. I guess some
do but at the risk of moralizing, these are not the aspirations
that we should be encouraging to impressionable village youth.
Are they?”

NOTE: The author sought the opinions of several local Mentawai
people involved in the surf tourism industry and in the local
government, but with the difficulties of communication with
the islands, we were unable to get a response in time for this
article. We will try and represent the views of the local people
in a future article.

There are also numerous other experienced skippers and
other figures involved in the Mentawai surfing industry who
we were unable to contact in time for this article. We welcome
further correspondence on this issue and encourage more
discussion of how surfing can be a positive force, rather than a
destructive one, in the Mentawai Islands.

As preposterous as it sounds, Tim Baker has been a surfing writer for 20 years,
and now even manages to support a family through this elaborate sham. He has
edited Australia’s Surfing Life and Tracks magazines, has written a couple of
books, is working on a couple of others and is even going to have a fancy new
website soon: www.bytimbaker.com. He was also recently invited to the Byron
Bay Writer’s Festival, where he entertained the literati with a bit of rough-edged
surfer humour. Close followers of his work reckon he has sold out and prefer his
early stuff.

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