Aru has held a special place for me ever since reading Alfred Wallace’s book On the Natural History of the Aru Islands many years ago. When this particular opportunity to actually go there came up, I couldn’t resist. I knew Aru would not be the romantic, exotic place I had read about so long ago. What remains fixed in my memory of actually being there, however, is the sea and its central place in the life of the people.
Standing on the back veranda of my hotel in Dobo, I am looking for it. Instead of the sea, there is this wide expanse of mud, filth, stench, green slime and thousands of plastic bottles, bags, and wrappers, the colorful reward of no waste management beyond tossing it all in the sea. The sea provides the bounty of life and livelihood to these people. Yet all they give in return is their garbage. I see children and dogs digging through the mud for something to eat. The sea has gone so far out that I can’t imagine why it would bother coming back. It doesn’t need these offerings from the ungrateful. When the seas depart for some other region of the world, I can imagine it running from the stench and garbage. But it always returns to take these offerings and provide again its gifts of food, transportation, life.
The sea is the rail upon which people in the rural parts of Aru ride in and out of their villages. They have paths that run between the dozens of small, grass and wooden houses, but to travel further, you need the sea. No roads link the villages to one another; no newspapers, electricity lines, cell phone towers, or TV signals link the villages to the outside world. Small dug-out canoes carry villagers to their daily fishing grounds, to other villages, to the springs from which they fetch water, and to the fields in which they grow their sago and coconuts. Isolation is the word that comes to mind – and appears in NGO proposals that “bring support to isolated villages”. NGOs with their huge budgets and egos come and train villagers to fish and farm, things they have already been doing well for hundreds of years. They talk about market access to sell their fish and strengthen their incomes, without recognizing that the only market is 8 hours away by boat – when the weather is fine. Yet, everyone fishes here. How can they possibly compete with sellers who live near the markets and don’t need to add the price of transport to the fish they sell?
We hired a light boat to take us to a village a few hours up a shallow pass. This village was different than others I’d seen on this trip. The homes were all made of grasses and wood. They were shabby and sad looking. During the course of our interview with groups formed by the NGO that sent me to evaluate their ‘development’ project, the truth about isolation was revealed. In the late 1970s this village was visited by the Indonesian Wood Company (Perusahaan Kayu Indonesia) or PKI for short. The villagers were told that if they joined this firm, who would then pay them well for the right to cut trees beyond the village, they would receive many gifts in the form of development programs for their village. The offer seemed sincere and beneficial so the village head and all the village adults signed their name or placed their thumb print on the dotted line. When the PKI left, a military troop came and arrested the entire village as members of the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia), or PKI. The adults were tied up and taken on the 8 hour trip by boat down the river and along the straight to Dobo. In Dobo they were terrorized and interrogated. They were held for two days in a small cell – so small, no one could move or sit down. Finally, they were all led out, stinking from their own excrement and given a piece of paper with 3 symbols on it – a red bull, a green box and a yellow tree. They were told to pierce the paper over the tree. After another day of being terrorized, they were taken back along the sea channel and up the river to their homes where their terrified, hungry children were waiting.
They told me that it took a few days for them to gain the courage to face the sea again. Their stomachs were demanding fish and sago so after several days of soothing their children’s tears and nightmares, fathers once again got in their boats and returned to the sea. Mothers took canoes and crossed the river to gather food and water. Over time, the village returned to normal but no one forgot that horrible experience. The horror returned again when several of the village children who attended school in Dobo were told they could not take their final exams. As ET (ex political prisoners) they were banned. It has been more than 10 years since any NGO ‘assistance’ has been offered this village. When the NGO I was currently evaluating had come with their offers of ‘development’, the villagers were so scared that they ran and hid in the forest. It took nearly a year to gain their confidence.
We headed back to our perahu and slowly pushed away into the river. The sun set as we were still trying to make our way back. I sat in front beside the local man who was punting our boat along the shallow river. The mangroves reached out to caress us as we pushed slowly past. There was no moon so the mangrove forests were no more than pitch black holes below a sky that was bright with stars – more than I have ever seen before. As I pondered the fate of these people, amazed by the cruelty of isolation in this modern age, I looked down into the water we were so silently passing and noticed thousands of lights.
“No”, our boatman said. “The seaweed, jelly fish and many of the fish too glow in the dark here”.
“How can that be?” I asked naively.
“A gift from God”, the man said.
The bounty of the sea and its gifts of life stand in such contrast to the cruelty of isolation and the dangers of ignorance. I most likely will never get back to Aru, but these sights, sounds, smells and stories will remain, like an unearned gift, to haunt me.
23 November 2009