Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Mentawai Islands

Latest in this line are the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra, the most westerly of the main Indonesian Islands. The Mentawai Islands provide a good example of the development of upmarket surf tourism, and the issues involved for tourism entrepreneurs, local communities, and sustainable development. Here, therefore, I examine the current status of tourism in the Mentawais with particular reference to surf tourism; and the factors which may determine whether or not it follows the same path as other Indonesian surf tourism destinations.

The Mentawai Islands lie along a curving diagonal line between 98° 55’E, 1° 20’s, and 100° 20’ E, 3° 00’S. The four main islands are Pulau Siberut in the northwest, Pulau Sipura and Pulau Pagai Utara in the centre, and Pulau Pagai Selatan in the southeast (Persoon & van Beek, 1998). There are many smaller islands. The smallest islands are reef islets scarcely above sea level, most of them long since cleared and planted with coconuts. The smaller islands, and the coastline of the larger islands, are occupied by coastal villages which rely principally on a traditional fisheries economy.

There are at least 30 surfable breaks in the Mentawais (Great Breaks International, 2001; Surf Travel Company, 2001; Indies Trader, 2001), and most of them are potentially surfable every day of the year, though better at some seasons than others. Currently, there is an effective surfing season of about 30 weeks per year.

Pulau Siberut, largest of the Mentawai Islands, is a mountainous baserock island about the size of Bali. It supports a large number of plant, bird and mammal species of major conservation value. The whole island has been recommended as a UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserve. To date, however, only a relatively small area is protected, as Siberut National Park (WWF, 1980; Mitchell, 1982; Persoon and van Beek, 1998). Much of the island has already, been logged, and this is continuing (Indonesia, Ministry of Forestry, 1995).

Most recently substantial areas have been cleared for oil-palm plantations. The coastal areas and smaller reef islands have been planted with coconuts for copra. Despite these changes, the Mentawai Islands are highly scenic, and less modified than much of Indonesia. The mountainous forests of inland Siberut are occupied by a people with different origins, language and lifestyle, with traditional religious practices which in themselves form a cultural tourism attraction.
The Mentawai islands are located some 130 km to the west of the west coast of central Sumatra, specifically the province of West Sumatra and its provincial capital Padang. There are four islands in the group. The largest, and most northerly is Siberut. Immediately to the south is Sipora which lies a little way to the north of the two islands which complete the group, North and South Pagai.
The islands are administered under the umbrella of the province of West Sumatra, one of 33 constituting the Republic of Indonesia. They form a lower level adminstrative unit on their own, the recently formed Kabupaten (Regency) of (the) Mentawai (Islands) (Kabupaten Kepulauan Mentawai, formerly Kabupaten Padang/Pariaman) which is further divided into a number of districts, or Kecamatan. The islands are divided amongst four such Kecamatan: North Siberut, South Siberut, Sipora, and North and South Pagai which together constitute one Kecamatan.

The inhabitants of the islands in the present can be divided into indigenous and immigrant populations. The origins of the indigenous people are briefly described elsewhere. They all speak dialectical variants of the language indigenous to the Mentawai Islands, with most speaking the Indonesian national language and a minority the Minangkabau language. The indigenous language dialects are spoken in North Siberut, South Siberut, Sipora, and the Pagai Islands. Immigrants include people from North Sumatra (Batak), West Sumatra (Minangkabau) who represent the bulk of the non-indigenous population, and Javanese, along with representatives at one time or another of most of the other ethnic groups in Indonesia as well as the odd Euroamerican residing in a professional capacity (missionary, research, social/humanitarian aid).

On Siberut people mostly live in small settlements dotted along the major rivers or close to the coast. They commute back and forth between dwellings in the settlement and dwellings located on ancestral land at varying degrees of distance from it. There they raise pigs and pursue a variety of horticultural activities, such as harvesting fruit when in season, durian and jackfruit for example, along with many other naturally occurring species. Chickens are often raised close to the settlement. Sago palms are also tended in low-lying swampy locations, usually contiguous with a river. The pith is processed and forms, along with taro, a dietry staple. Virtually every settlement has at least one shop where rice and instant noodles along with the basic items found in any similar establishment throughout Indonesia can be purchased. Hence rice and noodles are often consumed. These purchases are financed by a number of petty-trading activities which include the sale of rattan, collected from the uncultivated areas of forest, and durian when in season (being the opposite of the durian season on the Sumatran mainland creates demand). A load of durian might be transported by canoe to the coast, the cash obtained being used to purchase fish or machete blades and other items rarely obtained upriver. Trade is almost exclusively dominated by members of the Minangkabau immigrant group. The religious orientation of most people is Catholicism. A good percentage follow Islam. Most people are still immersed, although some more than others, in the beliefs and practices that have their origins in the period prior to the coming of the world religions. Most people have access to primary education should they wish their children to attend. A small number of graduates attend secondary school in Muara Sikabaluan or Muara Siberut, or even in Padang on the mainland where a sizable student population lives and studies. There are no roads apart from those within and in the immediate vicinity of Muara Sikabaluan and Muara Siberut.

The situation on Sipora and the Pagai Islands differs to Siberut to the extent that further dialectical variants of the language are spoken in each region respectively. These regions have been subject to colonial and post-colonial influences for a longer period resulting in considerable changes in cultural beliefs and practices. Much of the literature concerning Sipora and the Pagais portrays beliefs and practices that have all but disappeared. Most communities are Christian with some Muslim, and are mainly located along, or in close proximity to, the coast. The presence of these world religions has heavily impacted upon indigenous cosmologies and belief systems. Raising pigs and horticulture are important subsistence activities. Sago is not a dietry staple but rather rice, purchased from Sioban or Sikakap or at a local shop supplemented with horticultural produce.

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