Thu, 24 Jul 2003

Illegal turtle trade, an ongoing battle

I Wayan Juniartha, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar, Bali

The outcome of the fight by local environmentalists, against the illegal yet excessive sea turtle trade in Bali, relies on many factors -- their ability to stir up public sympathy, gain support from the traditional community and religious leaders, soften the poacher's hearts and most importantly, secure the support of the local government.

The recent reaction of members of the village of Tanjung Benoa to anti-turtle poaching regulations was another indication that confrontational approaches to the problem only breed hostility. The villages demanded authorities revoke the regulation which had been instigated by various local and international NGOs.

For years outsiders have publicly labeled the Tanjung Benoa people as heartless slaughterers and even threatened to stage an international boycott against the island's tourism. Only 50 out of a total of 783 households are involved in turtle poaching but this kind of criticism alienated and angered the whole village, crushing the hope that the villagers might help to protect the turtles in the future.

Such crude approaches caused the trade to operate underground. Now it is difficult to estimate the current number of turtles being caught, and shipped into Tanjung Benoa, as the trade is almost undetectable.

The village was once known as the heart of the turtle trade in Indonesia. In the late 1990s, a single year could bring 27,000 turtles, from locations around the country, to its rudimentary port.

Efforts to engage and pressure the local police to take firm action against the trade has generally resulted in the arrest of poor men, who turned to poaching in the struggle to make a living, and small-scale traders. The trade bosses, who provide the ships and capital are left free to continue the business.

The recent protest was undoubtedly triggered by off-shore raids conducted by the sea police in Bali and East Kalimantan, in which hundreds of green turtles (Chelonia mydas) were seized from poacher's ships that had originated from Tanjung Benoa.

Esxcorted by traditional security guards (Pecalang), the protesters, mostly dressed in Balinese costumes, protested loudly and concluded by burning a blue WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) banner outside the office of the its Wallacea chapter in Denpasar.

Claiming they need turtles for religious purpose, the protesters demanded the government grant the village a special turtle quota. Moreover, they insisted that NGOs should provide former poachers with alternative source of income, and accused environmental organizations of inciting the police to take tougher measures toward poachers.

"The protest provided us with a better and clearer understanding of the dynamics of this problem, particularly the issues we must address -- alternative sources of income and the customary and religious need for turtles," WWF Wallacea's Turtle Campaign Leader, Windia Adnyana said.

From a respected Brahmin family, Windia is well-versed in ancient Balinese Hindu traditions, and knows that certain sacrificial rituals require meat from the turtle and it's head.

"Religious authorities have stated that only 70 turtles are needed for religious purposes in the regency each month. If that is really the case, I believe we will be able to find a solution that accommodate the villager's needs without sacrificing the future of the species," he said.

For years WWF had been allocating a significant amount of energy and funds to non-confrontational programs. It was remarkably successful in Perancak, West Bali, when it managed to facilitate the transformation of a group of turtle poachers into conservationists.

By establishing the Adopt the Nests program, WWF channeled funds -- generously donated by local companies and concerned individuals -- to reformed turtle poachers, who were tasked to protect the turtle nests at their beach. Thousands of turtle's eggs were hatched safely as a result of the program.

However, WWF still faced a dead-end when it came to Tanjung Benoa. A program, organized in collaboration with Ecosafe -- which involved providing the poachers with wood carving skills and marketing their handicrafts -- failed to stimulate a sufficient response from local poachers.

The government's help and assistance would surely have boosted the program. With the government's assistance it may have been possible to set up a soft loan scheme, to help the poachers learn new skills and to start new trades, while simultaneously imposing a deadline for the end of the turtle trade.

Unfortunately, local politicians and bureaucrats were busy rustling up support for the Bali governor's election and the 2004 general election. NGOs should not have too much faith that government-led initiatives will come to the rescue of the turtles, or fix the problem in Tanjung Benoa.

After field research, Windia then tried to sell the idea of establishing a turtle center to the people of Tanjung Benoa. The center would be comprised of a hatchery facility, turtle cultural museum, training center and on-site display facility. Tanjung Benoa was designated as the core of turtle-based ecotourism in Indonesia.

The development of the center was expected to be co-financed by NGOs, the tourism industry and local turtle trade bosses.

"The problem now is whether the people of Tanjung Benoa are still willing to talk to us," he said.

To communicate the NGOs would have to first convince Tanjung Benoa people that they came not only to save the turtles, but also to help the people.