This blog was originally written for ExChange The World.
Find out more about at Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life Below Water.
Hell and Paradise
BLUE LIFE | Malaysia
Mantanani, paradise and hell.
When after one hour on the boat we reached this tiny, Malaysian island, to the northeast of Borneo, we couldn’t believe our own eyes. One of those mesmerizing places you just see in travel agencies’ ads was right in front of us. The deep blue of the ocean, golden beaches, the intense green of palms, small rustic jetties serving the few local boats. Space, silence, freedom: a paradise. At least that’s what we thought.
After a few more minutes the paradise started to reveal its dark side.
At first, it was the rubbish. Although our place was literally 10 steps away from the ocean, the volunteers from Blue Life - the NGO which hosted us on the island - told us from the very beginning: if you want to swim (that’s all we dreamt about!), you better go to the other end of this island. Here, close to the village, it’s one big dump. And sadly that was true. For generations, the inhabitants of the island have thrown out their waste into the ocean. The problem is that before it was the organic matter. Now, in the best-case scenario, it’s plastic, which waves bring back to the beach. In the ocean, you can find everything – clothes, bags, batteries, even a television.
A second evil mark occurred to be tourists. A horde of tourists who come to the island at 11 am and leave at 3 pm. Four hours of noise and selfies, with no respect for local people, or for us.
Fortunately, with a 20-minute walk, we could reach the place where we helped build the Green Lounge. There the beach is still untouched; isolated from noise and rubbish, with cool, crystal clear water of the ocean and fresh coconuts from the palms, admiring one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen, we could reflect upon our existence and life of the planet. And the outlook is not quite optimistic.
The Green Lounge is one of the projects initiated by Blue Life in its struggle to save Mantanani from going to hell. The place is going to be the nest for visitors and volunteers and it features an aquaponic system, where the water of a pond for fish breeding is filtered by flowing under a mat of vegetable plants, which feed themselves with fish manure. This is just the latter of the many projects that Blue Life organized („Alternative Livelihood for Fisher Folks”, “Mantanani Agriculture and Homestay Initiative”, “Mantanani Island Gardens Aquaponic”, “H2O Help to Offer Clean Drinking Water for Mantanani” to mention a few).
Picture: Malaysia, January 2016. First view of Mantanani island while coming from the mainland by boat.
Fred, Blue Life director: Blue Life was created because we wanted to help to develop ecotourism on Mantanani island and ecotourism is not only about receiving guests and offering them a good stay, ecotourism is about the marine environment, social environment, relations with villagers. Our aim is to build good relationships with the local communities and contribute to the development of their infrastructure and livelihood.
Collaborating with local communities though can be quite complicated and it requires a lot of patience and understanding. Some of the inhabitants never leave the island, it’s difficult for them to see things from a broader perspective, understand why throwing rubbish into the ocean is not the best idea. Fred recruits volunteers for his projects from outside as local people, for whom the projects were created, are often not really interested. Or maybe, based on their previous experience, they know that most of the projects stop in the middle. Because of lack of resources, and a drop in enthusiasm. But Fred, in spite of the many day-to-day challenges, is determined to continue.
Fred: The driving force for me and for this NGO is that we started to interact very closely with the local community and because of that we have a responsibility for the long run. You have to show that you are serious with your project and you are really willing to bring it to the end, to the point when the community can take over and see it as its own achievement.
But it’s not easy. Among the daily challenges, you can name those connected with the workers’ mindset, lack of resources, politicians’ irresponsible attitude generating a reliance behaviour that keeps the locals waiting for funding and unwilling to take initiative on their own. Unpredictable money discourages them from taking action and in the long run, takes away their sense of influence and in consequence also the sense of dignity. Their life is just waiting, most of the decisions are made for them. Politicians and businessmen exploit the villagers’ low level of education and naivety to achieve their own aims, which usually contrasts with people’s and the environment’s interests.
What’s the consequence?
We spent one week on Mantanani. And from a lot of points of view, this week changed our life. It opened our eyes and allowed us to see what everybody knows but not many really manage to cope with.
Picture: Malaysia, January 2016. Mantanani, although looks like paradise, has its dark secret - tons of rubbish which can be found literally everywhere: in the land, on the beach, in the water…
Our planet is dying. We don’t have much time. If we are lucky, our children, maybe their sons and daughters, will still have a chance to live on Earth. Most probably though, already our generation will witness the destruction. We cannot tell whether it will be nature rising up or rather a war as a consequence of scarcity of food and resources.
Earth is dying. We have less time than most of us think.
It’s not the first time we hear about those threats. Why only in this tiny little island have we really got the point? Probably because, besides speaking with specialists in the topic, we’ve seen it. We have seen it reaching even a pearl of inconceivable beauty such as Mantanani. And that was brutal. We’ve seen the ocean dying. Oceans provide about 70% of the oxygen we breathe. Trees, about which we learn at school, produce less than a third of it. The death of the ocean’s ecosystem means the game is over. And the ocean is dying incredibly fast. Mantanani is the perfect example. There is more coral washed off on the beach than standing on the reef. Around the few that still resist there is even some fish. Nothing compared to the hundreds that should be happily swimming around it. And it is going to be worse. With more and more tourists, more rubbish, the local community is pushed out by greedy investors. And Mantanani is not an exception from those points of view.
Earth is dying. It’s enough to check scientific data.
As in The Matrix, we have got to choose among two pills: You can come back to your life and believe this is not your problem. Or you can swallow the red pill and follow the rabbit: check, read, listen, understand and accept that –whether you like it or not – this is our reality.
If you choose the first option we still wish you a beautiful life.
If you consider the second option to be more reasonable, in our opinion there are two main points we all should work on. First and foremost we have to focus on doing what makes us happy. Now! Right away. We don’t have much time. Quit everything that holds us back and start doing the things we really want to do. Love, experience, feel, follow one’s dreams, live every single moment of our lives.
Picture: Malaysia, January 2016. Wall of the house built on Mantanani island by Blue Life organization. Bricks are made from bottles filled with rubbish.
Then, we have to contribute to change the world. Think carefully about what is worth investing our time, energy and resources on. Which actions are crucial and will truly change something. Which changes have to happen right now, immediately. Decide also if we want to start your own initiative or rather join one which already exists. Collaboration is very important. We need a massive movement, which will lead us to a global change. It’s not enough to stop using plastic bags or recycling waste. It’s nice and right to do that, but it will not change the situation. Every one of us should start to change the world, now. This will not happen just like that. This is not something we can delegate to others. We cannot expect the government to take care of it. It’s our life. And the life of our children.
Both options include change. We always believed that life has sense only if we follow our own path, trying to leave this world a little bit better than we found it. Considering that we may be one of the last generations on this planet, this thought is more important than ever before.
Live. Too late can come sooner than you think. The good news is that more and more people understand this point. Going around the world we see clearly that big change is coming. People start to realize that we can’t keep going the same way if we want to save our planet and our own lives. People like Fred from Blue Life are everywhere, literally everywhere. But they need our help. Help from every single person. Together we can do so much. We can do everything.
Picture: Malaysia, January 2016. Breathtaking sunset on Mantanani island. Photo of Anna Książek on the pier.