Eco-tourism with the Kamoro the Mangrove Coast of Irian Jaya

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					Eco-tourism with the Kamoro: the Mangrove Coast of Irian Jaya
By Kal Muller

Fresh fish of many delicious varieties, just caught, still gleaming. Grilled, baked or boiled with spices?
Complemented with rich-textured sago, pipin' hot off the grill. More exotic? Try the mangrove crabs,
cooked to perfection and cracked for easy pickings. How about an Obelix-sized chunk of wild boar to go
with that? Still more exotic? Try the long, slimy tambelo worms, related to boring ships worms, pulled out
of rotting wood. Not nearly as bad as it looks: its really a bivalve mollusk, tasting like a sweet, delicious
oyster. And the ultimate in exotic fare: fat, wiggly sago worms with hard, biting heads. Eating technique:
hold it by the front end and bite off the head; flick head away and nonchalantly chew slowly, then swallow.
If you chewed enough, the legs have stopped squirming to protest outrageous fate. Voilà: grub down your
gullet. Note: the sago grub is the larva of a beetle specialized in a special palm trunk. It only eats the pure-
starch sago pith, thus efficiently converting carbohydrate to protein. Can you eat one? Try it: if you do,
following the above technique, the village chief will reward you with a fine locally carved wood figure,
absolutely free of charge. If all this is just a bit beyond your gastronomic level of competence, the grubs
can be cooked: but no sculpture for eating these. And no one forces you to eat any of the native fare: what
you try is completely up to you.

Nature and culture, comfort and adventure, all in varying doses, add up to an extraordinary experience
waiting to happen in Irian Jaya. Most people, even the majority of outsiders working and living there, hold
the wrong idea about Irian: unfriendly locals in awful, primitive conditions amidst non-existent
infrastructure: a savage place. Well, yes, there are plenty of areas still like that in Irian, except for the
unfriendly natives. In the years I've traveled around this wonderful island, there has never been an
unpleasant encounter with the Irianese.

While in much of Irian the word infrastructure in meaningless, on the flip side of the coin, there are several
areas in this province with more than adequate facilities, including accommodations and transportation,
along with food for the body and the mind. The ever-varying aspects of nature on this island, combined
with a set of fascinating cultures combines to offer a unique opportunity to those willing take a flight, a
leap from Jakarta or Bali..

Of all the areas in Irian providing more than rudimentary facilities, none has a better combination of
attractions than the area of Timika. What? Timika? If anyone has heard of Irian, it's either the Baliem
Valley or the Asmat. But those places are not so easy to reach, and once there, the facilities are short of
stellar. While in the Timika area, thanks to the investment in infrastructure by Freeport Indonesia (a huge,
American-based mining company), you have the best landing strip east of Ujung Pandang, the best hotel on
the island (along with a many lesser and cheaper accommodations), a good network of roads, the boom
town of Timika. And thanks to the mining company's wide-spread malaria control program, this disease
has been brought under control in the area.

Starting eco-tourism
The potential for of eco-tourism has always been present on the south coast of Irian Jaya, but the lack of
infrastructure prevented any serious development of this idea. Now, thanks to the facilities which have
developed in conjunction with the mining activities, the possibility is definitely there. Following
preliminary discussions between Conservation International and Freeport, in September 1998 an initial
survey trip was made to determine the potential of the area for eco-tourism. Dr. Yance de Fretes, the

director of the Irian Jaya office of CI and Ary Suhandi, their eco-tourism expert, spent a week in Kekwa
village with me. We took several tours of the area by dugout canoe and held long meeting with the chief
and men of the village to explain tourism in general and eco-tourism in particular. The response was
overwhelmingly enthusiastic, perhaps too much so as we were not certain if the people really understood
everything we were trying to communicate. Why would anyone be interested in coming to see the
mangroves? Who would be interested in Kamoro culture? We did out best to answer these and many other
questions, as well as trying to explain that outsiders were different in their requirements and needed to have
fairly well fixed schedules, unlike the very loose Kamoro system of living only by the flow of the tides.
How well they understood these strange concepts and to what extent will they made allowances for a
different life-style? Only time will tell. Be that as it may, on our suggestion, they started building a
spacious house, using only traditional materials, as proof of their willingness to participate.

We had picked Kekwa Village for several reasons. Not too close to the modern developments around
Timika, yet not too far way as to make the boat ride there a brutal experience. The best combination of age-
old traditions and opening to the modern world. A picturesque village on the coast, with the only concrete
remains of World War II: two shore batteries left over from the Japanese occupation. Kekwa, located at
one end of a fighter strip, was the easternmost Nippon advance on the south coast of Irian. Kekwa Village
had won the dance competition at the first all-Kamoro festival and one of their carvings had fetched the
highest price in the auction of sculptures. But we picked Kekwa for the enthusiasm of the people as much
as for any other reason.

The mangrove eco-system
The south coast of Irian Jaya holds the world's largest and most diverse mangrove eco-system. The town of
Timika, lying some 25 km. from the coast of the Arafura Sea, lies just outside this zone. But the mangroves
are easy to reach: an all-weather road heads south from Timika, to the village of Pomako from where
motorized dugout canoes (called Johnson for the former brand name of the outboard engines, which today
are all Yamahas). Less than an hour on the Wania River, and the mangroves begin.

At first glance, it certainly does not seem that mangrove swamp forest should rank among the world's most
productive eco-systems. But it is, along with the tropical rain forests and coral reefs - and unfortunately it
is as fragile as these two other super-producers. The muddy substrate, made up of minute alluvial particles
lacks oxygen and stability. For most humans, it just a muddy mess which stinks: this is the smell of
hydrogen sulfide indicating the completely anaerobic (lacking in oxygen) property of water-logged soil.
When combined with the daily doses of concentrated salt water, no self-respecting plant would want to
make its home in this environment. Yet the thick mass of trees and shrubs fills all spaces where the
essential sunlight can perform its photosynthetic miracle. Plant species are restricted to a few dozen
belonging to a number of very wide-spread and different families. All the different mangrove species had
to evolve physical characteristics to adapt to the same milieu: a three fold system consisting of aerial roots
to cope with low substrate oxygen and soil mobility; salt-extrusion strategies via specialized glands and
vivipary, or seed germination prior to parental release. Adapting to the same conditions was the only way
for these species to survive.

As a factory of biomass, mangroves are the green machine, the efficient
converter of nature's limitless resources: the swamp produces raw material, lignocellulose, from sea water
by using renewable energy source, mostly sunlight, along with tidal energy. The fallen leaves and rotting
wood of the mangroves are recycled by many microscopic organisms such as bacteria and a few large

animals like crabs. There is a wealth of food to be had in the mangrove swamps, a fact well known to many
a fish and invertebrate species which use the area as a nursery and often a permanent home. Many
commercial species, especially large shrimp and fish such as snappers and breams, barramudi and mackerel
grow up in the protected mangrove nurseries. Smaller, non-commercial species also spend their juvenile
stages in the mangroves, to be later gobbled by larger fish when they migrate to the open ocean.

The Kamoro take advantage of the variety of foodstuffs and other resources found in the mangroves.
Almost every tree, leaf, sap or bush has a use in their culture, in house construction, medicine or the myriad
of necessities such as glue to fix the lizard skin top of a drum. The men fish with line and hook in the
swamp's waterways and with nets in the river estuaries and just off the beach. The ladies set out on a daily
round of gathering in the mangroves. They bring back bivalve mollusks of many kinds, gastropods, fish
caught by laying down screen-dams across tidal creeks, delicious mangrove crabs. It is not unusual to see a
man and his wife, sometimes with the kids, in an idyllic scene quietly fishing by the side of an open
waterway in the swamp, each with a line in the water. Families also get together in the cutting and
processing of sago trees which are found in strands just inland from the sago forest, at the edge of the tidal
movements. A man and his wife can process enough sago in a day to last the family for a week.

It was during my work as a consultant with Freeport mining company that I found out about the Kamoro
life-style, with its almost complete reliance on the mangrove swamps. Over the past four year period I
visited every Kamoro village, often staying overnight in many of them, because of timing (nightfall),
circumstances (rough seas) or just to have the opportunity to talk to the villagers about their culture, history
and problems. It was during these fact-finding trips that I found out that every village had a government
built clinic but almost none had a nurse or medicines; that all villages had a primary school but many of the
teachers were absent during much of the year, attending to administrative business. That most villagers had
no way to market their surplus products or to purchase the necessities of life such as cooking oil, parangs
or mosquito nets. In fact, from a health, educational and economic point of view, the Kamoro villages were
far better off during the colonial era than under the current administration, in addition to the fact that since
the economic crisis various programs have been cut back or stopped altogether. The Freeport Malaria
Control teams provides the only regular health service to many Kamoro villages, all eight within its Project
area and once a month for six others within reasonable boating distance.

A village opens to the outside world
Kekwa Village combines most of the Kamoro's traditional life style while opening to the outside world, a
difficult process. While traditional medicine, based on plants with an occasional dose of magic, is still
used. But the effects of western medicine are also most appreciated and sought. This village is one of the
six which receives a monthly visit by the mining company's medical team. Not only do the people get
checked for malaria, but they are examined for any complaints and ailments, given the proper medicines
and transported to a hospital if necessary. Unlike some other villages, Kekwa shows a high degree of
enthusiasm and participation in community projects while it has adhered to the traditional style houses with
gaba-gaba walls and thatch roofing instead of the more practical (lasts longer) but awful looking tin roofs
which turn homes into ovens under the hot sun or reverberate with an infernal crescendo during a heavy
downpour. While many parents are apathetic about their children's schooling, Kekwa has produced more
than its share of well-educated Kamoro, including the bupati of the Mimika kabupaten, a school principal
and a record of 23 primary school teachers.

Protected by a wall of casuarina trees, the village sits on a wide sand strip making the shore of the Arafura
Sea. At the opposite side of the village, the mangroves forest begins, stretching inland well over ten
kilometers. This is the Kamoro supermarket, where the ladies fetch food for their families every day, with
the timing of the shopping expeditions determined by the tides. A man and wife team, accompanied by
their small children, might go together but only to process sago or to fish using hook and line. The
gathering of mangrove bounty is usually a ladies-only activity. This is usually performed in small groups of
women who are related by blood or marriage ties. They make sure that the family has enough to eat every
day. The men might go hunting or fishing, but they are really none too dependable for providing food
every day without fail.

The eco-tourism program set up at Kekwa starts in Timika, and includes an outboard-powered canoe ride
to the village. The trip takes in as much of the Kamoro daily activities as the participants' time allows,
along with traditional dances and paddled canoe rides in the mangrove swamp. The facilities provided
include a traditional house with kitchen and bath (ladle-kind) and toilet, as well as local food. The Kamoro
fare is based on sago, made from the pith of the sago palm, and fish. This basic starch-protein complex is
supplemented with all sorts of goodies from the mangrove swamps. Almost no store-bought items are eaten
as the Kamoro lack cash to make these purchases. The program at the village also includes a traditional
reception and dances in local costumes and finery. But the total experience adds up to much more than the
sum of its parts. This is a very real cultural experience of a kind difficult to achieve with the Bali-is-best
mentality. For those with an open mind, this trip can enrich one's experience and vision and understanding
of a cultural group living in harmony with their unique environment.


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