We journey east from Bali to the islands of Nusa Tenggara; past the verdant crumple of Lombok with its soaring peaks and plunging valleys, past the strangely flat sprawl of Sumbawa – a patchwork of neat fields and industry, not a forest in sight – to Flores.
We arrive at the port town of Labuan Bajo, a Muslim enclave in this majority Christian island. It has a desolate frontier-town feel – a haphazard mess of corrugated metal sheets on timber and bamboo houses is carved up by open sewers that steam with their fetid content, and the two rough roads that are unpaved tracks leading to either the airport or inland to the island’s heart. About half of the population are fishermen and the rest are traders or middlemen, fixers who ply the town offering to arrange trips, tickets, drugs, whatever. They all know a man who can give a good deal, but none is that man. Alcoholism is a big problem here. The corners are huddled with men who sit around drinking from bottles of arak, the 50%-proof local rice wine.
Captured first by the Portuguese (who gave the island its pretty name), then by the Dutch, Flores’s affairs are now controlled by Kupang, the capital of the Nusa Tenggara province, in West Timor. It’s a source of bitter contention that Flores, which is ethnically, culturally and industrially distinct from its neighbours, should be run first by Timor and then by Java. Perhaps this is why the people here seem so much more politically aware. Everyone I speak to is voting and has made often complicated plans to do so. Even big earners like diving trips have been changed or cancelled so that crews can get to the polling booths on Wednesday.
Megawati is most popular here, in part because her father Soekarno, the first president of independent Indonesia, lived in Ende on the south coast of Flores after being exiled by Soeharto. But one local woman I spoke to says she will vote for Megawati “because she is a woman and therefore a far better choice to be in charge of a country” than a feckless man. (I have my sympathies with this view, particularly since Indonesia, like so many other of the developing countries we’ve visited, appears to be populated by industrious, caring women and a large number of idle men.) Yudhoyuno (the incumbent) is not popular here, but by many he is seen as the best of a poor offering. “He has only visited Flores once in five years,” one fisherman complains. But Y’s policy of decentralization – offloading control from Jakarta to the archipelago – is welcomed. “In five year’s time, we will see Flores as its own principality, not ruled by Timor.”
The western end of Flores, where we are, drops into the spectacular Komodo National Park, a marine protected area and a World Heritage Site. Dynamite and cyanide fishing continue to occur in the ‘protected’ area, supplying live fish to Chinese markets. And there are other threats. Rounding the headland we see the deep, red-earth scars of a newly cut open mine carved into the hillside. A Chinese mining company arrived here six weeks ago, searching for gold. Boring tens of metres down to the water table, they pump up gallons upon gallons of the islanders’ precious freshwater for the seiving process, and flushing the run-off down the hillside onto the coral reef below. Fish numbers have declined already in the silted, polluted area, I’m told, but Paulus Chung, a local boatman, is most concerned about the effects on tourism. It will ruin the prospects for future generations, he tells me. “This area is only making money from tourism. Without tourists, we will have nothing.” His usually placid face turns angry and hard: “The Chinese paid a lot of money to the district govenor to come here, and he doesn’t care. Next year he will leave his post with full pockets, but then it will be too late for us.” The open mine is certainly a blight on the landscape and, in a region with so many other dive sites to choose from, Labuan Bajo is right to fear tourism’s fickle favours – the town certainly has little else to offer.
A few days ago, Paul and his fellow townspeople took matters into their own hands. Five thousand people congregated for the third and biggest protest demonstration in as many weeks and forced the miners from the site, closing the road to the open mine. Both sides are biding their time in the town, with the Chinese forced into uneasy exile in a local hotel, while they await a ruling on the matter from Jakarta. The Indonesian government is greedy for tax revenue from foreign mining companies, no matter the environmental or social toll, so I fear that the Chinese will soon resume, but perhaps this time with military support.
Although corruption continues to be widespread throughout the country, fuelling logging in Kalimantan and the continued civil war in Irian Jaya (Papua), the independent anti-corruption agency does seem to be having an effect, albeit an unwelcome one! One guy, who heads an NGO that uses its funds matched by government funds to improve sanitation, tells me that whereas the government contingent of the funding was signed off in a day or so from Jakarta, he now finds it almost impossible to secure the monies from the Kabumatin (district heads) who fear that releasing funds will trigger an investigation from the anti-corruption squad.
We take a wooden boat from the port to a tiny offshore island called Seraya. A pod of eight dolphins curves out of the water in parallel, like an Archimedes screw breaking the surface. We watch until they vanish, holding their breath long enough to disappear from sight. The island is beautiful, surrounded by a healthy coral reef and is home to a small fishing community. A few stilted bamboo huts line the beach and we rent one. It has a mosquito net and a mandi (bucket) shower. Nick walks the few steps down to the sea to fill the toilet flush bucket, and at 6pm the generator is switched on for a few hours, providing some pumped freshwater (shipped from the mainland) for the mandi shower. It is incredibly quiet and peaceful. Eagles glide above and goats and deer (they are surely imported) poke about in the scrub, jumping up for for low-lying tree leaves.
We will stay here a few days I think, as I string up my hammock.