Protecting the future of Mentawai

Whether we choose to ignore it or not, tourism does impact local communities and their native environment in a big way – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. What is important, however, is that we do have control over the decisions we make and therefore a choice in whether we’d like our travel ventures to either be of help to the people and places we love, or to be destructive.

Young Mentawai boy practicing surfing on an old plastic door

Mentawai, arguably the most sought-after surf destination in the world, is now at a very critical stage of this evolution. More and more surf resorts and land-camps are being erected each year, bringing more and more people and – in a business sense – more competition. This, however, is where our choices become empowered and extremely important. This is why each and every person who travels to Mentawai now plays an influential role in what this island community and its habitat is going to look like in thirty years time.

Sikerei standing by a large waterfall in the Mentawai rainforest

Of course the Mentawai Tourism department is not oblivious to this influx and in fact, for years, they’ve been discussing proposed methods to develop a better system here – even suggesting the SAPNG model as a worthwhile reference. These negotiations, though, still remain on the table. But that aside there is a great deal that we – the surf and tourism industry – can do to support.

Mentawai surf photography by John Barton

First and foremost and on behalf of the local Mentawai community, what we encourage is a very simple yet effective action. Next time you’re planning a trip, remember to ask your tourism operator ‘what actions are you taking to support the sustainable future of the local community and environment?’

Mentawai woman fishing in a small dugout canoe

Are they employing local Mentawai staff; purchasing local produce; investing in sustainable, community-driven initiatives; how are they disposing of their garbage and waste; are they using environmentally-friendly boat engines and machinery; or, have they even considered what their social and environmental responsibility might be? Of course it is possible they have but just haven’t publicised their activities on the website or promotional documents, which we also encourage them to do, so best to make the enquiry.

Mentawai youth in a dugout canoe, laughing

The reality is that we, as a community of surfers and travellers, have the ability and – at present – opportunity to ensure the local Mentawai people and environment benefit equally and in a self-sustaining way during this pivotal period of increased foreign development. We’ve all seen the ruin that sudden rushes of development can bring to a people and their homeland when there has been no support for sustainable, long-term community-development planning. This behaviour has been happening for decades, all over the world.

Mother and her children sleeping on the streets in Bali, Indonesia

The awareness we’ve gained through this, as travellers, witnessing substantial social and environmental change to communities within a very short period of time – many of which we now neglect as destinations and who are left suffering the consequences of having been disconnected from themselves, their culture and their land – is reason enough for us to make a stand. Reason enough for us to offer our guidance by simply making ethical and sustainable-based choices. By banding together on this we can give back to a place that has already given us so much.

Epic barrel shot surfing Mentawai, by John Barton Idyllic looking waves and tropical island destination in Mentawai, by John Barton

Whilst we’ve yet to visit and discuss with each individual Mentawai tourism operator – though this is something we’re trying to do – we can recommend a few businesses that are taking action and in doing so making a clear statement that they do care about the future welfare of Mentawai and its people. Pitstop Hill Mentawai, for one, have supported the development of the Suku Mentawai cultural-education program since conception and continue to do so as an annual partner, donor, and sponsor of fundraising events. Others include Togat Nusa Retreat, Uma Maonu, and Wave Park, who have recently been evaluated and rated as a ‘Sustainable’ business by Stoke Certified.

Underwater photography in Mentawai by John Barton

Being a travelling surfer it is quite common to hear or even make comments about ‘how beautiful this place used to be’ or how ‘prior to these developments the local people used to be really vibrant, friendly and welcoming’, but at the same time what actions are we taking to prevent the continuation of this destructive cycle? By not speaking up, or supporting these businesses that are aware and actively making improvements to the way they operate, aren’t we – perhaps unknowingly – in fact giving to the very cause of this destruction?

Mentawai shaman gathering medicinal plants in the rainforest Mentawai man drinking water from a vine in the Siberut rainforest

Mentawai really is a magical island destination – so rich in culture, resources, biodiversity, and indeed wave quality – but what will this look like in the years to come? Will we be looking back and, again, wishing we’d done more to protect the livelihood of a place and people we love so much? We all have a choice and, whether we choose to ignore it or not, we do make an impact. What will yours be?

Young Mentawai surfer looking stoked

*This article was written by Rob Henry and first published on Swellnet

Surf photography by John Barton

Leave a Reply