Bringing the reefs back to life

Imagine diving off one of the beautiful shores of the Gili islands in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, and finding yourself facing fishermen equipped with dynamite and destroying the coral reef.

It would be far from picture perfect, but this was the reality before the Gili EcoTrust, a not-for-profit environmental organization, was set up in the area in 2002 and signed an agreement with fishermen a few years later in collaboration with the local Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA).

The fish bombing has now ended, thanks to the action of the local protection and conservation officials. But there is a need to continue supporting the action to ensure fishermen no longer return to their old practice and damage the reefs.

Following joint efforts by officials, the Gili EcoTrust and the local dive centers, fishermen from Muroamy on the Gili islands are only allowed to fish in two designated areas.

They also receive a monthly compensation that will be considerably reduced if they are caught out of the designated areas or fishing with invasive methods such as dynamite and cyanide. The compensation system is funded by a fee collected by dive centers and has proved to be very successful.

“It was hard to convince the fishermen, but now our islands are more beautiful and more and more tourists come to the Gilis. It has benefited us all,” says Hari, a resident of Gili Air.

Through the years, the Gili EcoTrust has expanded its activities that now include a range of actions focused on the protection of the environment in the islands as a whole.

The group has a lot of work left to raise awareness among local people and tourists to reduce their environmental impact on a delicate ecosystem that has already been irreparably damaged.

Information boards have been placed all around Gili Trawangan and Gili Air to provide basic tips about eco-friendly behavior for taking a shower or walking on the beach.

In Gili Trawangan, a Clean-up Day is held every first Friday of the month, and students from the tourism school and Islamic school are given ecology classes.

Group effort: Divers take part in Biorock workshop to restore the reefs off the Gili islands in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. Thanks to these Biorock structures, the reefs are now undergoing a rapid restoration process.Group effort: Divers take part in Biorock workshop to restore the reefs off the Gili islands in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. Thanks to these Biorock structures, the reefs are now undergoing a rapid restoration process.

The Gili EcoTrust is actively involved in the implementation of the Biorock project in the Gilis. Thanks to these Biorock structures, the reefs off the Gili islands are now undergoing a rapid restoration process. The structures are electrified steel structures allow mineral accretion and therefore speed up the process of growth of the pieces of coral attached to them.

To date, 33 structures have been put place to restore the coral reef, making the Gili islands the second-largest Biorock site in Indonesia after Pemuteran in Bali.

The Gili EcoTrust also hosts regular international workshops on Biorock technology. Participants learn every step of the installation of Biorock reefs: how to survey suitable sites in terms of the seabed, currents and waves; how to connect the cables; how to attach the coral and ensure the maintenance of the structures.

The workshops, organized in close collaboration with Mataram University, address worldwide participants, with emphasis given to teachers and students’ participation to ensure the project’s sustainability.

The Gili islands are also the testing ground for erosion-resistant Biorock structures.

It is one of the few sites in the world where the experimental structures have been placed. There are currently three such sites around Gili Trawangan.

“It’s not very nice to look at, but it’s working,” says dive master Seb.

“You can see them at low tide, sticking out of the water. It looks like a bunch of steel, cement and building material. But in only 10 months, the beach is already back.”

Young spirit: Local students do their part during the Clean-Up Day.Young spirit: Local students do their part during the Clean-Up Day.

It is part of a more comprehensive erosion-resistance scheme on the islands, where land erosion is a real problem as the beach is fast disappearing.

In Gili Air, there have been attempts to counter the erosion by placing rubble or growing mangroves on the shores. Another technique introduced by the Gili EcoTrust is the planting of vetiver grass.

“This is the best and most sustainable method to preserve our beaches,” says Gili EcoTrust manager Delphine Robbe.

She says hotels and businesses tend to place sandbags or to build seawalls, which actually do not slow down the waves but deflect them, thus taking more and more sand off the beach.

The roots of vetiver grass can reach as deep as 5 meters, so it holds the sand much more effectively and also provides a more natural look.

The organization is now working to create a network with other environmental organizations, industries and businesses, such as by establishing eco-guidelines for their properties and collecting an “Eco fee” from guests. Recycled bags are also being printed and distributed in order to phase out plastic bags.

In Gili Trawangan, garbage is collected and brought to the dump in the middle of the island. A new incinerator will be built and a path made of recycled material leading to the dump is under construction.

“Rubbish is a major problem on all three islands,” Hari says. “There’s an urgent need to tackle the issue seriously.”