The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, July 21, 2005


A FATE WORSE THAN TRETES © Duncan Graham 2005

Eco-tourism is big business in Europe, Australia and the US. Indonesia is a late starter but wants to catch up; Duncan Graham reports from the slopes of Mount Penanggungan:

At the heart of plans to encourage nature tourism in East Java is this question: Can the virginity of the pretty little hill town of Trawas be saved from the sad fate of its raped neighbor Tretes?

Tretes, a one-hour drive southeast from the East Java capital, was once a charming upmarket weekend getaway for harassed Surabayans. Now it’s so full of villas many vistas have vanished. The tiny wending streets are choked with traffic and pollution. Prostitutes wander the streets in daytime.

Property developer Adelie thinks there’s hope for Trawas – provided he can get a little environmental advice from Indonesia’s Mr Green, Suryo Prawiroatmodjo, who shares his passion for preservation.

It’s an odd couple; corporate tsar and grass-roots activist. But both are educators and nature enthusiasts. Adelie is president director of PT Grand Interwisata that owns and runs city serviced apartments and hotels, including the spectacularly located Grand Trawas.

Suryo began his career as a Surabaya Zoo vet. Later he worked for Yayasan Indonesia Hijau (Green Indonesia Foundation) in Jakarta, went to the US and then started Environmental Education Centres around the country with the help of international green groups.

With a knock-out view of Mount Penanggungan, the sacred mountain of the 14th Century Majapahit kingdom, the Grand Trawas seems to have it all: Cool climate, views to distract even on a honeymoon, and peace – though the birdsong can be little unnerving if you mistake it for HP ring tones.

But like all good businessmen Adelie wants more – in this case more appreciation of the glories of the environment surrounding his company’s hotel. And these are spectacular indeed, from cascading rice fields to puffing volcanoes and pristine tropical forests – rare in East Java where the axe and chainsaw have ruled long and hard.

So the two men are planning a series of educational walk trails around Trawas. They hope that if managed correctly foreigners will stop off to try a bit of eco-tourism on their way to and from Yogya and Bali, for Trawas is about midway between the two top tourist spots.

It’s happened in the past. Before the Jakarta riots of 1998, the Bali bomb of 2002 and the deterrent of relentless government travel warnings Europeans loved the place for its serenity and difference. Most were young backpackers who stayed with villagers and explored the land themselves. Their impact was minimal and presence benign. No Coke machines and golden arches followed and the locals overcame their natural suspicion of blondes in shorts.

Now the idea is to introduce eco-tourism for all, whatever their age. This means the trails have to be safe, well marked and accessible. At the moment they’re fine for those with the ability to dance across mud-smeared boulders (watch out for the dangling vines) and dart up vertical slopes wrapped in mist. However but not everyone is so nimble and fearless.

There’s much to do. But Adelie, a quietly spoken and cultured man, thinks it’s all achievable with the cooperation of local authorities.

‘We’re not looking for them to make financial contributions, but we do want the people to appreciate that nature trails are major attractions in other parts of the world and create employment,’ he said. It was difficult to hear his voice in the rain forest above the roar of ten thousand wings as he was sitting under a yellow butterfly flight path. They were being lured by treetop blossom, white as snow.

‘We’ll be seeking sponsorship from major companies who are also keen on preserving the East Java environment,’ he said. ‘So far tourism promotion has concentrated on Mt Bromo but the Province has so much more. It has to be done carefully. Tourism mishandled can also pollute and corrupt.’

To achieve that worthy aim is going to require some nifty social engineering. During one planning trip visitors were admiring the view across shimmering irrigated terrace that Suryo hopes will become the centrepiece of a rice education tour. To the onlookers’ dismay children from a nearby primary school and under orders from a teacher cheerfully emptied their classroom’s rubbish bin straight into an adjacent stream.

‘If it was organic waste it wouldn’t matter, but most is black plastic and styrofoam which doesn’t break down,’ Suryo moaned as the noxious black bags bobbed away. ‘People can change their habits but they must understand why.

‘I’ve escorted enough bule on tours to know what they want, and that means a clean and unspoilt environment. And of course that’s also essential for everyone’s health.’

So how did Trawas get to escape the machete and firestick? Some slopes are just too acute to farm, while valleys have a spooky reputation. Many villagers are followers of Kebatinan, the original religion of Java, and they respect the spirits who lurk in the dense, dark undergrowth. To disturb such ancient places may bring awful misfortune – as indeed it has; last year almost 50 were killed just a few kilometres away after heavy rain caused landslips on newly cleared land.

So in Trawas you can still get up-close and personal to towering, straight-backed giants, touch the much-torn trunk of the pule tree whose bark is used as a malaria medicine and wonder at a banyan which may have been a seedling when Raffles ruled Java. Now the great trunk has rotted away; it stands supported only by its aerial roots.

On one hillside a giant weather-damaged Buddha Akshobya, maybe 700 years old and only recently discovered, surveys his luscious landscape. Is this the mysterious statue which was said to have been struck by lightning in 1331 and then vanished? Certainly this is Java Wild as it used to be – before the Dutch brought the tools and botany of Europe to assault this lovely land then plant it with alien seeds.

A small eagle glides above the treetops; swallows dart among the mayflies, shiny-carapace beetles, half the size of a golf-ball, plop onto palm leaves. Across the valley is a vertical curtain of multiple greens. In the distance a horizontal carpet of incandescence; Joseph would have envied such a coat.

Said Adelie: ‘The air is clean, the water sweet; agriculture is still practised here much as it was when wet-rice growing techniques were imported from Vietnam 3,000 years ago. We have culture, history and beauty, much of it untouched by modernity. And it’s all accessible.

‘Yet we have to be realistic; it will take time before the bule return. In the meantime we must bring schoolchildren here so they can appreciate their heritage and understand the issues of good planning and preservation for the future enjoyment of all.’

(Published in Jakarta Kini, July 05)


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