A Dying Asia

By Aleithia Low, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

Heena, Executive Director of The Island Foundation (TIF), started off our trip to Bintan, Indonesia by posing to us the thought “We know so much of the Asia that is growing and prospering, but what about the dying Asia?”

Through our interactions with the Orang Laut living along the coast of Bintan, we saw a way of life that is probably inconceivable to most of us now. And it’s only set to become even more obscure. Toddlers run around the village unaccompanied, scampering up disused charcoal kilns and sliding down poles from the roof. They climb trees and hang upside down from the branches fearlessly, no adults hovering around to admonish them.  The villagers invite us into the cool dark of their homes warmly and unsuspectingly, even though they know nothing other about us than the names we give them.

A local teacher tells me that the work they do is classified as sea-work and land-work. Sea-workers go out to fish – some days they leave early in the morning, when dawn has yet to break, some days they are out at sea all afternoon, at the mercy of the noontime sun. They come back with their catch, which you’ll see laid out to dry on nets strung between concrete walkways. The land-workers are mostly involved in construction, working on government projects such as a new international ferry terminal, road widening and TIF initiatives like the learning centre which will open this August.

Through Heena and Sato (a local who, quite interestingly and amusingly, peppers his speech with Americanisms such as ‘yikes’, ‘like’, ‘gonna’ etc.) we learn how the Indonesian government is trying to develop the village into a tourist attraction, which will be expected to handle hordes of visitors once the new ferry terminal beside it has been completed. Already, we see evidence of this: roofs have been built above the village’s three defunct kilns as part of the government’s plan to preserve them for tourists’ viewing. The development of the ferry terminal, however, will devastate the ecosystem on which the villagers depend. The sea-workers’ fish catch already plummeted to a third after the first level of dredging was carried out. Further dredging required for the construction of the terminal will push the villagers out of the sea, as it will become impossible to harvest the mangroves and shallow waters for fish, flora, medicine and wood.

In response to these threats, TIF is trying to buy time for the village by equipping the Orang Laut for sustainable tourism. One ongoing project is the development of mangrove tours. A few of our students sampled this possible activity, taking a fishing boat out into the calm waters of the mangroves, where they were introduced by a local boatman to the numerous species of plants along with their uses. We also visited a workshop where the women were being taught to make roses, vases, baskets and other handicrafts out of recycled newspaper. The little bit of time we spent talking to them as they showed off their handiwork was not a great sacrifice on our part, yet seemed to mean a lot to them.

Heena had informed us that  helping the villagers build up self-confidence is an important part of TIF’s mission. The Orang Laut have, over the course of history, lost their status in society, eventually becoming an ostracized people, beheld with suspicion as practitioners of black magic. Though the sea-workers bring in their catches by relying on highly developed navigation skills and an instinctive ability to predict weather, their successes in fishing are often attributed to supernatural causes. Such is the prejudice against the Orang Laut that some locals still believe that if one were to offend the Orang Laut, that person would be cursed and compelled to follow the coastal people’s lifestyle. Over time, the people have become accustomed to viewing themselves as inferior, as outsiders, and therefore getting them to view themselves with confidence, as productive and worthy – truly a sensitive task –  is imperative.  TIF works to enable the villagers to take control of their lives, to carve their own paths out of their current predicament.

In the few hours we were in the village, I made friends with a one year-old boy. I picked him up after seeing him squatting despondently on the grass after apparently having decided that he was too small to run with the big boys. Picking him up, we ran after the other children. He never smiled, never laughed, but also never let go of my hand, except to climb into my lap as we sat watching the older children play soccer in the makeshift soccer field. It pains me to think that Anak (his name, as I found out from an older girl before she took him home to have lunch) and the other children here, carefree as they are, will grow up to face a whole host of issues – the loss of their livelihoods, having their villages encroached upon by the government’s plans for development.

Tourism has brought a new-found prosperity to Bintan, prosperity that is in accordance with imported Western notions and ideals of progress. But so much else has been, and is being eroded by this ‘progress’: livelihoods, ecosystems, cultures. So, while this island continues to develop and rise, what should we make of the parts of it which are dying?

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