SAVING GILI T
From the effects of unrestrained tourism
13 December 2015
**With special thanks to the Lee Foundation for supporting our research.
Direct flights to anywhere are symbolic of convenience and progress. But for the person in search of something more – whether out of pure interest or simply for bragging rights – transits and transfers are a must.
How else would they gloat about the exoticism of their travels?
The Gili Islands off Lombok are one such destination that requires some transiting and transferring. When one finally lands on those sandy beaches, one can pretend to be a semi-hardened traveller deserving of several beers and behaving badly.
As we stepped off the fast boat from Bali, putting our feet into the clear waters of Gili Trawangan, or Gili T for short, we were immediately struck by what we saw. There was a certain familiarity. Sun-kissed bodies in tank tops and micro-shorts; young (and mainly Caucasian) men and women speaking and laughing loudly, beer in one hand, Sampoerna cigarette in the other; and tanned leathery locals shouting, “Taxi? Taxi?” It was as though someone had carved out a chunk of Bali’s Kuta and transplanted it onto Gili T.
Gili T is the largest of the three Gili islands off Lombok; the other two being Gili Meno and Gili Air.
During the high season, Gili T, which is approximately three kilometres long and two kilometres wide, welcomes up to five thousand tourists every day. No less staggering is the two thousand tourists that flock to the island daily in the low season. We spent a week there in the low season, but can be forgiven for believing otherwise because we narrowly avoided accidents on the road with other cyclists and the cidomo or horse-cart taxis.
But, we weren’t there to sip on cocktails or to plait our hair. We were there to see the uglier side of Gili T.
FIVE THOUSAND TOURISTS?! THAT'S A LOT OF RUBBISH!
Gili T doesn’t produce or manufacture anything apart from perhaps seafood, coconuts and drunk tourists. The island’s supply of drinking water, primarily for visitors, is bought and transported from Lombok, in plastic bottles big and small. It was only in 2011 that Berkat Air Laut started its desalination operations, selling treated water to certain hotels, restaurants and private residences. Even so, businesses such as Aston Sunset Beach continue to buy their drinking water.
In addition, Aston has in-house water treatment equipment that further treats the desalinated water for use in cooking and washing. They also treat waste water that is used on their grounds.
“The desalinated water is may be OK for cooking and washing, but we don’t serve as drinking water to our guests,” says Emanuel Prasodjo, Aston’s general manager.
That would explain the very salty water that we showered with at our hotel, Coconut Garden. And my green tea was so salty that I had just the one cup the entire week. Having said that, I can’t be sure if we were washing with and drinking desalinated water, untreated well-water or even plain seawater.
Whilst 10-litre water dispenser containers can be cleaned and reused, the standard 330ml or 1l bottles are discarded as trash, whether in the sea, by the roadside or on the island’s main rubbish dump site. Plastic drinking water bottles aside, the average holidaymaker’s daily waste includes human waste, toilet paper, food bits, plastic wrappers for this, that and the other, empty suntan lotion bottles, laundry detergent packets, Bintang beer bottles, plastic lighters and anything else that you can think of. Multiply that by five thousand, add the islanders’ own waste, and that’s a whole lot of rubbish.
Moreover, the construction of new resorts and villas is relentless and all along the many unpaved roads on the island lie piles of construction material and furnishings – cracked toilet bowls, broken floor tiles, plastic pipes.
Jalan Kelapa, a key arterial road that leads from the island’s main drag straight into the centre of the island, seemed to be a popular dumping ground. In between higher-end and ostensibly more exclusive villas lay piles of rubbish on either side of the long road, some still smoking from fires lit the night before.
From our own experiences in other developing parts of Southeast Asia, it’s safe to say that the locals are as much to blame as foreigners and tourists for litter and waste pollution. I remember a boat trip on the Nam Ou in Laos from Nong Khiau north to Muong Noi when a young woman nonchalantly flicked her food wrapper out to the side of the boat, letting the wind and current take it away.
It’s gone, it’s disappeared, it’s dealt with.
On the northern tip of Gili T is Oceano Resort Jambuluwuk. It is garish in theme and décor. The first thing people see is the giant bow of a ship in a front garden made to look like a zoo with plastic animal sculptures. Zebras, elephants and monkeys never looked so odd.
But, it wasn’t the front bits of Oceano that we were interested in. Riding on our bicycles, we took a side road off the main tourist trail and found ourselves on a dirt track used by locals. We knew this because as we taking photographs of Oceano’s de facto dump site just behind their walls, a workman from the resort next door called out, “Tourist road up there. Why you come here? Why you taking photo?”
It seemed to us as if Oceano literally dumped their rubbish over their garden wall. Either that or they and everyone else around them used the back roads as a rubbish dump.
It reminded me of my time in China where people swept the dirt and litter from their house or restaurant onto the road and left it there.
It’s gone, it’s disappeared, it’s dealt with.
This is a video of the surroundings outside the villa walls of Oceano. It highlights the wanton disposal of rubbish behind the resort:
REDUCE, REUSE AND RECYCLING EFFORTS
“If people and the government don’t start doing their part, this island is going to sink in garbage and there won’t be any Gili to speak of in five may be 10 years,” says Bryce Adamson, owner of Gili T Resorts.
“Nobody’s going to want to come to an island full of garbage,” Adamson adds.
Delphine Robbe, project manager and co-ordinator at Gili Eco Trust (GET), knows this all too well. Since around 2009, Robbe, who has lived on the island since 2003, has been working the ground with local and foreign businesses encouraging them to sort their rubbish, reduce waste and to start composting where possible. Rubbish that has been sorted is sent to Lombok where it’s sorted again and either recycled or upcycled, incinerated or dumped into a landfill that is already full.
“The islanders are now more co-operative because they know that they can make money out of collecting and sorting trash. But, they [and others] were resistant at the beginning because they thought I was using the NGO money for my own business. But, now they know that this is not the case,” Robbe explains.
GET is an NGO that was started in 2000 to protect the Gilis’ coral reefs from destructive fishing practices. Its work now extends to other eco-conservation projects and animal welfare. GET works with several NGOs including Front Masyarakat Peduli Lingkungan (FMPL) on the rubbish project.
Adamson adds, “What GET is doing is very important. If all the 600 plus businesses pitched in to do their bit and to pay the monthly trash collection fee, we could really clean up this island!” According to Adamson, the island administration charges businesses 500,000 rupiah (approximately SGD50/USD35) a month for rubbish collection. But, it would seem that not everyone pays this fee. And yet, the rubbish is collected without question.
“The rubbish is collected anyway because people can make money from selling the rubbish to GET. So, the businesses aren’t motivated to pay the monthly fee. But it’s only 500,000 rupiah. It isn’t a big deal. Sadly, so many of the business owners here are just out to make the most money they can in the shortest possible time. If they sense a problem, they’ll sell their business and move on,” Adamson laments.
Adamson, who is married to a woman from Lombok, owns his property, which is his vested interest in the island. This is why he supports Robbe’s efforts and has offered her the use of his barge should she need to transport large quantities of rubbish or other items to Lombok and/or Bali. Because there is no sewage system on the island, Adamson uses a septic tank on his premises, which is emptied regularly and the contents sent to Lombok for treatment and disposal.
“But so many owners I know just dig a hole and dump everything in there because they don’t want to incur the expense. A lot of the island’s well-water is already contaminated. And there’s nothing that anyone can do about it because there’s no real government here - no paperwork, no certifications, no safety standards. There’s an island head, but you don’t see him. Many of the decisions are made by a ‘mafia’ and corruption is a very serious problem.”
Photo: Robbe's tenacity has encouraged islanders to sort their rubbish. Many of them earn a small income from doing so.