Surfer’s Paradise Has a Price

Bethany Hamilton doing what she does best and what most of us wish we could do half as well.  Photo: Justin Wright

Original post Save The Waves, Notes From The Field: Uluwatu – Bali, Indonesia

This past June I was given a new home for three months:  Suluban Beach, home to the world-famous surf break, Uluwatu.  Made famous by the likes of Gerry Lopez and Albert Falzon’s Morning of the Earth, Uluwatu remains one of the world’s premier surfing destinations today.  As surfing tourism grows, so do the environmental issues that stem from waste and use of the natural resources by over 250,000 people every year.  As Save The Waves Coalition’s World Surfing Reserve (WSR) & Surfonomics Coordinator, I hoped to use STW’s toolkit to help protect the marine environment in the Uluwatu area, on the Bukit Peninsula of Bali.
Returning less than a year after launching our Surfonomics study with Conservation International and Center for Surf Research, STW’s aim was to lay the framework for Uluwatu to become Indonesia’s first World Surfing Reserve, underpinned by economic data.  The Surfonomics study in 2013 (link) found that surfing tourism contributes approximately $35 million US dollars annually to the local economy.  This enormous number represents surfers’ willingness to spend both time and money in in order to surf the famous surf breaks of Racetracks, The Peak, and Outside Corner. Unfortunately, not three days after arriving in Uluwatu, I found the Uluwatu Gorge (the watershed adjacent to the surf break) being deforested and clear-cut for the development of a proposed resort with more than 40 villas to be built almost literally in the river basin.  The consequences that this development will have on the famous surf break remain to be seen.

While this discouraging setback slowed the WSR planning process (as STW must allow a full wet season to occur to ensure the health of the surf break), it opened up new avenues for thoughtful environmental activism to take place.  Working with Save The Waves, Project Clean Uluwatu (PCU) and Conservation International Indonesia (CI), and with help from the professors at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, I researched best management practices, drafted letters, and persuasive arguments encouraging developers to build in the most environmentally friendly manner possible.

Along with hopes to build a proper sediment retention fencing system, PCU took the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue about the importance of building adequately sized, long-term septic facilities that will not be overwhelmed by the increasing trend of tourism.  This opportunity allowed Save The Waves, Project Clean Uluwatu, and Conservation International to brainstorm effective solutions for future development projects that will undoubtedly continue to threaten the natural environment around the iconic surf breaks at Uluwatu.
As this difficult conversation remained in process with the developers, I had the opportunity to collaborate with PCU, in efforts to help grow the environmental consciousness of everyone living in or visiting the area.  PCU moved into a new office in early June amidst the warungs and bars in the small community of businesses directly above the entrance to the cave (and Uluwatu surf spots) at Suluban beach.

PCU used activities such as community gardening, volunteer composting, recurring tie-dye activities, movie nights, waste-water garden maintenance, and beach clean-ups to help foster a stewardship ethic with everyone making use of Suluban beach.  Thanks to the amazingly dedicated hard work (and surfing prowess) of Curtis Lowe, PCU’s manager, Project Clean Uluwatu is quickly becoming prominently known, accepted, and respected by the Indonesian community, the ex-pat surfing community, and visiting surf tourists. Despite the constant setbacks and slow pace of work in Indonesia, PCU is making the area around the Uluwatu surf break cleaner by the day.

Setting up for the goods at Uluwatu.  Photo: Justin Wright

On the ground, the biggest issue curbing the speed of developing a long-term management plan for the pending World Surfing Reserve is local social cohesion.  Working with Conservation International, we have identified the main goal to be community building within the boardrider groups of local surfers at each local surf spot along the Bukit Peninsula.  The pending WSR is slated to span from Uluwatu, Padang Padang, Bingin, all the way to Balangan.  Though the geographical range of this WSR is smaller than Santa Cruz’s WSR, there are many conflicting social community structures in the small geographic range.  Each surfing area is built around complex Indonesian family/community structures that may have different goals from their neighboring surf communities.

That said, if the local members of each surfing area that make up the pending WSR can work together to create the Badung Regency Surfing Association (BSA), they will have established a union eligible to receive some of the several millions of dollars that the Balinese government has reserved for environmental projects.  This money is reserved for cohesive Indonesian groups that have environmental stewardship projects planned, of which PCU and STW will help plan and organize.  If the local community strives to work together and build the BSA, this project will be an extraordinary success.

Given that the surf around Uluwatu generates $35,000,000 US annually, Uluwatu should be universally known as a surf break worthy of protection.   The planning of the WSR continues to move forward in a positive direction, but at a slower pace than previously anticipated.  It will take serious commitment by local Indonesian surfers and non-surfers alike, but if successful, the Bukit Peninsula of Bali will be able to demonstrate a new hope, and offer a blueprint for the neighboring Indonesian islands to follow, based on proper environmental stewardship of the surf breaks that surfers travel across the entire world to celebrate.