Tourism that protects

Interview with Andrew Miners, diver and owner of the Misool Eco Resort

Andrew Miners owner and founder of Misool Eco-Resort

The unique underwater world of Raja Ampat is being saved by a combination of tourism and protection, involving local inhabitants and making profits.

Andrew Miners and a small team of committed people have achieved the establishment of a marine sanctuary, a "no-take-zone", in one of the world's most bio-diverse reefs. Thanks to this the marine life will get a chance to recover and replenish. The project is financed by the income of his eco-resort and donations.

A conversation about wasting time and the necessity to choose the right thing.

Manuela & Carsten: Can you tell us a little bit about how it all started?
Andrew Miners: It started back in 2003, when I first came to Raja Ampat on a live-aboard. After about a year and a half on the boat I started to look for a place on land. It's such a beautiful area and I used to explore between the dives and take the guests to different beaches. My hidden agenda was to try and find a place which is good for the resort, so I came upon this place (laughing).

M&C: What was your motivation to create a place like this?
AM: Surveys by conservation organizations show that this is the most marine biodiverse area in the world. My original plan was to open a conservation and research center where scientists can come and do their work. But I couldn’t actually see a way to fund it, so the idea of the resort grew out of that. It was more the resort coming out of the conservation as opposed to the conservation coming out of the resort.

M&C: You call your resort "eco". How did you build it to ensure sustainability?
AM: We wanted to build it as sustainable as possible, we wanted to really see if we could do it the “right way”. Not just to build a resort and think about the money and the business but also to see if eco tourism is really a way to protect pristine eco systems like this!

M&C: What exactly does that mean? Can you give us some examples?
AM: The main thing was that we sourced all the timber from salvaged wood, so we didn’t cut down any trees to build the resort. Before we started on the island we got a portable saw mill which can be operated by only two people. Basically when you find a tree which is washed up on the beach or naturally fallen into the jungle you can break the saw mill down and rebuild it over there in about twenty minutes. We then started this very long process of looking for driftwood, dragging it here, rolling it up the beach and cutting it up. Basically all the money for the wood went into the local community, we paid the people who worked on the saw mill to carry the wood and load it onto the boats. We cut about 600 tons of wood.

From the very beginning we wanted to design as energy efficient as possible. For example, all the roofs are “langalang”, which is a grass thatch roof and we use this because a. this is a local natural material and b. it's a very good isolator. Also the roofs are long, they overhang the walls so that the sun doesn’t go directly on the windows and walls. We made them very thick so that the rooms don't heat up from the sun. We also made thick walls with coconut fiber to isolate them. Already the design naturally keeps the rooms quite cool, so that when it comes to a fan or air condition you only need very low power.

Another challenge was the treatment of the shower and toilet water, the grey water. We built the cottages over the water and obviously we couldn’t just put the waste into the water. We did some research and found these waste water garden systems, which is a completely natural system where the water passes into a subsurface irrigation tank which is full of small stones and many plants. Naturally occurring bacteria on the roots of the plants break down all the waste. After a certain retention period of the waste water inside the garden it is fine to put it back into the ground.

M&C: When did you feel you must do something that helps the environment in the long term?
AM: Already some time ago both myself and Marit had come to the same conclusion. We had both been thinking about the environment for most of our lives and were concerned about all the things that are happening. We got fed up with talking about it and not doing anything. So we made an agreement that we wouldn't talk about it anymore, unless we were going to do something. Just to complain is a waste of time!

M&C: Wouldn’t it be much easier to run a normal resort?
AM: It's definitely much easier and cheaper to build a normal resort! But you get what you pay for and what effort you put into life is what you get out of it. Yes, you can just build a normal resort and forget about the environment. We could have just bought our wood, it would have been much cheaper. But it's tropical hardwood and would have been coming from Papuan forests which are of the last remaining, relatively intact rain forests. It's rapidly disappearing. So it would have been incredibly hypocritical just to say we want to build this beautiful place but we are going to destroy this other beautiful place only a few hundreds miles from us. How could we then possibly say to someone who wants to come here and cut down the trees: "Oh no, you can't do that!"

Another important point is the business side of things, in the last 10 years there has been a big shift. As a result more and more people are aware about the environment and when they're choosing to go on holiday they prefer of places and resorts that are supporting and protecting the environment. So it's not just altruistic, it also is very good business sense. We are seeing a lot more companies now, as well as existing resorts changing their standards, changing to try and become more environmentally friendly and I think a lot has to do with the pressure from guests. That is very good!

M&C: What are the main problems regarding the reefs in Indonesia?
AM: There are a lot of pressures! One of the major ones, which is diminishing now but has had a huge impact all over South East Asia, is dynamite fishing. Essentially, fishermen use a beer bottle which they stuff full of fertilizer, put in a little fuse and then they light the fuse, throw it in the water, it sinks and explodes. It stuns or kills the fish. Some of them float up and they collect them and sell them at the market. As side effect the impact destroys the corals. In fact they get the fish, but in the whole area where they bombed they have completely destroyed the corals, which means that the fish won't come back. The corral reef regenerates very slowly, particularly when it has been bombed.

Another significant pressure we have here is Cyanite fishing, which is for the aquarium trade for Europe and particularly the US. People go down with a little bottle of cyanite mixture and they squirt it at the fish and it stuns the fish, then they capture them and put them in a bag. Some fish recover, some fish die. There is a high mortality and the cyanite, too, kills the corals.

Beside from that there is shark finning for the shark fin soup trade, mainly driven by China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Sharks are apex predators, that means they are on the top of the food chain and very important for the stability of the ecosystem. It's estimated that over a hundred million (!) sharks are killed every year. Just for their fins. Over the past twenty years most big shark populations have dropped to a 10 percent of their original population and that creates a very unstable ecosystem. One of their roles in ecosystems is to clean the populations of fish. For example in a population of tuna, sick or injured fish swim slower and sharks catch and eat them first. That means when a new disease comes into a population the shark wipes out the disease. A lot of marine biologists are very concerned, because we have dramatically diminished the shark populations and stopped that function in the ecosystem. For Indonesia the vast majority of the people get their protein from fish, particularly form bonito tuna. So if the bonito tuna population collapses you have a massive problem for the country.

Some of the other things that are important here is over fishing, which exists all over the world. In Indonesia, particularly in the Java Sea which is close to the very populated centers of Jakarta and Surabaya, it's massively overfished and now lots of these fishing fleets are coming towards eastern Indonesia to exploit the areas over here.

Another pressure is from the life fish trade, particularly in Hong Kong. There is a desire to have fish alive in the restaurants, normally groupers or Napoleon wrasses, or have them in big tanks so people pick them out and eat them. Therefore big collection boats come in from Hong Kong and they either have their own fishermen or pay the local fishermen. The people go out and just target the same species of fish and catch them even down to tiny fish and put them in a tank on the big boat, to keep the fish alive and bring them to Hong Kong. In many places the groupers and the Napoleon wrasses have been almost completely wiped out. And again they are key apex predators. For example the Napoleon wrasse is one of few things that eats the Crown-of-thorns starfish that eats coral. In a few places in the world they had massive outbreaks where millions of these thorn starfish covered huge areas of reefs and destroyed it.

One of the things we have done here is to create a "no-fishing-zone" which covers the area around the resort island and many islands and reefs in between. We made an agreement with the local community that has the fishing rights to this area, to protect it. We ourselves don't fish here, they don't fish here - that's part of the agreement. It's a complete no take zone here. They have other fishing grounds they can go and fish in, but this area is protected so the fish stocks stay healthy, the fish mate here and produce young. After a while the young swim out and they can catch them. Thus this area can't be overexploited.

M&C: Can you tell us more about the no-take-zone?
AM: When I was having my meetings with the local community to rent the land for the resort, I also wanted to make a lease agreement on the area of sea to establish a no-take zone. After many open meetings with members of the communities and all the heads of the families and traditional leaders, we reached an agreement to set aside a certain area of 425 square kilometers as a no-take zone. That meant no fishing, no shark finning, no collecting turtles eggs, no collecting turtles for their meat - taking nothing from the ecosystem. The idea behind it was to protect this area as it is. I've lived in Indonesia for about ten years and spent most of that time diving and sailing around different places, and I have seen so many reefs degrade very rapidly through fishing pressure. The effects can be staggering within one or two years, you can really see shark populations or groupers just disappear from a reef.
In Papua, the different villages own different areas of the sea as their fishing areas. They also have an old tradition, called "sasi", of opening and closing fishing areas. They open an area for a certain period of time and then they close it and no one is allowed to fish there. Traditionally they had fines if someone broke the rules. It's a very strong system that became weaker in the last generations, because a lot of people moved in from other places of Indonesia who don't know the traditions. So, particularly the older people were very happy, because we weren't introducing something new, but supporting an old tradition and helping them to enforce it. The elders had the experience of seeing what happens when you look after your resources. The local people traditionally free dive for different types of shellfish and sea cucumbers, so they are very connected to the reefs and they have seen over the last generations the effects of dynamite fishing. There is a very clear understanding of how the ecosystem works, which we seem to be lacking in Europe and the US in terms of our fishery policy (laughs).

We agreed to patrol the no fishing zone to ensure people from the outside don't come in and fish. We raised money to buy a small speed boat and we spent some years training the rangers from the local community. Normally they go out every other day, sometimes every day if we see lots of people coming in. Basically, if it is someone from the local community our approach is to talk to them and explain why we are doing this, that it is good for the community, for their children and grandchildren. Over time we have seen that less and less people from the local community come in and fish. When it is a boat from outside, the first time we just go and explain to them that this is a protected area. Normally that is enough and they leave. If they keep coming back we take a harder approach, we call in the navy and the police, they go out together with us and board boats and kick them out from the area.

M&C: Where does the money to maintain the no-take-zone come from?
AM: The lease of the no-take-zone was payed by Misool Eco Resort as well as current expenses that are necessary to support it and we also payed the speedboat and the wages of the rangers. That was in the beginning. Since we've been trying to operate this more as a distinct charity we have been raising money. We have had donations from our guests and support from Wild Aid Canada and the Coral Reed Alliance.

M&C: Why is it so important to involve the local community?
AM: It is absolutely essential because this is their area and they are hosts and we're really only there because they have invited us. It is one thing to come in as an outsider and say: "You should protect this and that, don't do this, don't do that…". But it's much more powerful when it is a community member saying: "Ok, we shouldn't do it, because if we continue to do this there is going to be no fish left for our children and grandchildren to eat." Right from day one we have tried to involve the local community as much as possible. The vast majority of our staff comes from the local community, about 60 people work here.

We wanted it to be the people from the local communities working here, so they benefit from it. It also is a very powerful tool to get the conservation message across. They work at the resort and see we're building the resort with salvaged wood, we're not cutting trees. They see that we're not throwing our waste into the sea and recycling all our rubbish, composting all our food scraps. Without even telling them about what we're doing, they see it and they go back to their family and their friends in the village and tell them about how it is.
The message goes across, because it is not us telling them, it is them seeing what is happening. I think this is the best way!

M&C: Can you give us an example for that?
AM: Recently the traditional leader who actually owns all of this area was over to the resort. He leases to us and also to the pearl culture farm which employes two thousand people and has been here much longer than us, about 15 years. We were chatting and he was complaining about the pearl farm, saying: "You know, they cut down trees without permission, then they take bamboo from the forest they don't pay anything to the village, they take sand and don't pay anything, throw the rubbish into the sea and go fishing. And then I look at Misool Eco Resort and it is great. You don't go fishing, you don't cut down trees, if you want to use bamboo for your buildings you come and ask for permission first, you pay money to the village and you're really protecting the environment." Now he is really unhappy with the lease agreement with the pearl farm and he wants to gather all the heads of the families together and discuss it again and tell them that they have to be more like us which is very funny (laughs). Now the elders already told them they can't throw rubbish into the sea, that's a huge impact. It is very nice to think we have an effect on the wider picture.
It doesn't always need to be a government or a big cooperation making decisions. There is a butterfly effect where small things make big changes.

I personally believe in a critical mass theory when it comes to big changes. You have lots of individuals pushing and not a lot seems to happen until you get a certain number of people and then suddenly everybody is talking about it, it's in all the major newspapers and magazines, and then the government has to make changes. Then the government makes a legislation and then you get massive changes. When I think about the issue with CFC a decade ago, scientists have been talking about CFCs and its effect on the ozone layer for 20 years. Then suddenly it got to a point where everybody was talking about it. Then the consumers were saying: "I don't want a product with CFC anymore" and the manufacturers had to change, and they changed it very fast. Individual people or small companies can make a big difference!
If everybody who is choosing to go on holiday choses to go to somewhere that protects the environment, every single resort would have to change their policy, otherwise they go out of business. So it comes down to the individual person booking the holiday. It doesn't need to be a choice of cheap or expensive, there is something in every category.

M&C: What was your most beautiful experience here?
AM: Aside from being proposed to by Marit on the beach? I think that was the most beautiful experience (laughs).
But aside from that, one thing that made me really happy was: the first time I arrived on this beach there was a reminiscence of a shark finning camp. There were dead finned sharks on the beach. When we started building we never used to see any sharks. But after the first year we already had a first little litter of baby sharks and we started seeing them on dives and now, I think, we have around seventeen juvenile black-tip reef sharks in the bay, and we see sharks on almost every dive. Things like that make me really happy!

Also, when I hear some of the senior members of my staff talking to other people in the community and explaining them why conservation is very important, without it having anything to do with me. They are not explaining it to them because it's their job, but what they believe. Now most of them are very passionate about conservation and that is really surprising. That's really good, really positive.

M&C: Do you have hope?
AM: Well, that's a big question. At the moment we're trying to expand the no-take-zone to include a group of islands to the east of us. That would more than triple the size of our no-take-zone and that group of islands is owned by another community. Those islands are very far from those communities, so actually they don't really utilize it much for fishing. Their main fishing grounds are much closer to the villages so fishermen from outside come there and are basically free to do whatever they want. Including shark finning, fishing turtles or dynamite fishing. We've been in negotiations with those community members for more than a year now and hopefully within the next six month we can actualize that.

I guess generally the main hope is that we can hold on to this area and keep it in the state it is, and improve it by allowing the sharks and bigger fish to come back and having the local people themselves be the stewards and guardians of this area and us in the end more in the background. 

M&C: How can readers support you?
AM: We have a few different projects that need support. So everybody can do something to help support what we're doing over here, to support the protection of this area. There is a few ways people can do it. We are setting up the conservation side of things as a charity, so people can donate to support the ranger patrol and we also have a project with the local school providing a library for them, school material and paying the wages of some of the teachers .
But also, people can choose to come and visit this place on their holiday and know by choosing to come here, Misool Eco Resort is using the money to  protect this beautiful reef.

M&C: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
AM: There is an important lesson I learned: I went through quite a few years of just despairing that the whole world is finished and there is nothing we can do for the environment. But it's just not true! It is a big picture and there are huge challenges but just one person can make a big difference. It's just a matter of many individuals doing what they feel is the right thing. So the right thing for one person may just be recycling or to go to a holiday destination that supports the local people or the environment, or donating 50 Euros to a project that helps protecting the environment. But everybody can do something! And the more people will do something, the faster we get to the solution - and the more people despair and say it's a waste of time, the longer it will take us to get to that solution. The time it takes us to get to the solution is directly related to the amount we will have left to give to our children and grand children. The longer it takes, the more gets wiped out and when it gets wiped out, it is not coming back.

We met Andrew in February 2010 at the Misool Eco Resort in Raja Ampat, West Papua

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