Picture the scene: a hammock strung from tree to tree hanging above pale sands. The gentle swing as an occasional breeze takes the edge off the sun’s early afternoon glare. The sound of birds calling to each other in the depths of the jungle inland mixed with the peaceful swell as each wave brings the sea back to the shore. Now you know where I am.
I am on the Island of Mantanani and, if there ever was an earthly paradise, then maybe this is it. From the sound of the morning birds singing out to us as we brush our teeth to the magnificent light show in the sky every evening as the sun sets, each day is perfect.
Our mornings have been spent working on a new community toilet. Making our project as eco-friendly as possible, the walls are made from bottles collected from the beach stuffed with styrofoam and plastic wrappers. We’ve locked away litter that could otherwise seriously harm the marine wildlife behind layers of chicken wire and cement to build our walls. Now this is the feel-good volunteering that I came for. When not working we’ve made the most of our location with sunset boat rides, sea kayaking trips to explore the nearby islands and far too competitive games of beach volleyball. I’ve also learnt all there is to know about the wonders of coconut. The camp here is basic: my bed just netting with a thin mattress, the third bunk up in an open bunk house; the toilets squat only and the expected cold showers with only a shelter of tarpaulin to protect our dignity. But that’s what gives it the Island charm.
The island is so breathtakingly beautiful and so ideally remote. But it is these qualities that are also the root of most of the islands issues. The remoteness of the island has directly impacted our stay on Mantanani with limited fresh fruit and vegetables, no contact to the outside world and only generator-powered electricity from 6pm to 6am (although for some reason the electricity seems to be on a twelve hour timer from 6:37pm at the moment). But for the locals the issues are felt far more severely. Firstly, with no hospital or health clinic on the island, any medical emergencies require a 60 minute boat ride to even get within driving distance of a doctor. Consequently the villagers hold home remedies in high regard, whether it be coconut water or turtle eggs (old habits unfortunately die hard). And then there are the issues with rubbish and the fact that it’s kind of difficult for bin lorries to reach the island. So litter is just not collected from Mantanani and instead simply accumulates at the edges of the resorts and along the shore. But now the issue closest to my own heart: education. In 2006 the level of academic achievement was so poor here that every child failed their end of school exam. An 100% failure rate from the island’s eleven and twelve year olds. With just a primary school on the island, any child wishing to pursue their education beyond this must enroll in a boarding school on the mainland, something few of the families here can afford. And so most children are limited to six years of schooling and even this is rarely sufficient. Despite the beauty of this place, few teachers are willing to travel across to teach and of those who do, some of these do so with so little enthusiasm that they spend Monday taking all their time to arrive and Friday leaving the island early, giving their pupils only three days of learning. The children want to learn but no one wants to teach them.
So what about the beauty of the island, how can this cause such damage? Tourism. The gradual global destruction to coral and marine life due to pollution and climate change is only added to here by the daily armada of boats carrying tourists to snorkel or sunbathe or take cute couples pictures by the sea. However the immediate impact of tourism is actually not the biggest worry for the island. What they should be concerned about is the diggers and mixers being moved onto the island as more and more resorts spring up along the coast lines. The government has pledged to improve standard of living here. They’ve said that they will build 100 new houses for the island’s 1,000 residents to ensure that they live in suitable facilities. Building plans show a community with wifi and plumbing and no beach views. Whereas the two villages on the island are currently located just metres from the beach, the new homes will be much further inland. Thus, the relocation of the village will actually free up the land to be sold to even more developers for even more resorts. With little understanding of or care for laws on land possession and planning permission other than “my family has lived here for generations and generations” the locals are at risk of being bullied out of their own community. It seems frighteningly possible that the villagers may soon lose their beautiful beaches that they have called home for so many years.
Yet there is hope for this little island. There are now marine conservation programmes in place to help educate the villagers on how to protect their coral and wildlife: don’t use fish bombs any more; stop eating turtle eggs; try to stop rubbish getting to the sea. We were lucky enough to participate in part of this conservation, helping the school children to replant coral with the intention of bringing back the life to the dying reefs. In terms of education, there are teachers within the school that do care about the children and are prepared to fight for their right to learn. We did what we could over the fortnight in teaching basic conversation classes and helping the children count to twenty in English. As for the issue of land ownership, volunteers are beginning to educate the islanders on their legal rights and encourage them to claim the papers stating that the land they live on does in fact belong to their family and cannot simply be snatched from under their feet by hungry developers.
Meanwhile, the stray cows of the island keep roaming, the monitor lizards keep paddling and the geckos keep partying on the ceiling. The natural world, as ever, seems largely oblivious to the worries and stresses of man happening around it. Maybe we should all try to stay as beautiful and perfect as nature, whatever struggles are going on.
I’ll keep you posted,