Changing Lives – The Impact of Development

Whilst at a glance Raja Ampat appears a tropical paradise where a lucrative tourism market exists, an imbalance is present; as the industry thrives (prior to covid-19), local villages remain undeveloped with limited infrastructure for basic services such as running water, power supply, education, healthcare and livelihood opportunities.  Ten to fifteen years ago, tourism development was seen as the solution to a number of socio-economic and environmental issues; it provided a seemingly sustainable source of development, informal regulation of extractive or destructive behaviours, and in some cases greater opportunity for alternative and improved livelihoods.  In many instances past and present, this is indeed the case. Tourism operators offer opportunities for employment, skills based training, and ultimately better salaries – all of which were previously unattainable to many members of the local community.

In the more heavily touristed areas such as The Dampier Strait, tourism and associated development has also brought with it better access to transport and logistics between the islands and region hubs (Sorong, Waisai), which in turn increases access to the services found in these locations. The development of a tourism industry has also served as a profitable and mutually beneficial platform for conservation and community work in the region, with several operators and tourists establishing and supporting local projects and NGOs. At its most successful, tourism has provided the platform, logistics and funds to support the establishment of a community lead ranger patrol, protecting an MPA from illegal fishing activities in parallel with local authorities – an extraordinary example of tourism being driven by the necessity to protect environments and support local communities.

But whilst this is the case, a tourism industry in a developing region is a double edged sword, and it is important that all impacts are considered in both existing, and future development of the region. A tourism industry brings with it ecological impacts (see Reefs at Risk), along with socio-cultural impact, something which should not be overlooked.  The advent of tourism in Raja Ampat has brought with it change to the daily lives of many local people. And whilst much of the focus of conservation in the region is upon the marine environment, this sudden and rapid development brings potential risk to long-standing cultures and value systems of local communities. Culturally sensitive sustainable tourism planning is necessary at all levels in order to avoid unnecessary cultural erosion or dilution, and potential cultural clashes.

As with any population of humans, culture and traditions change over time; where the standards and norms of today may not apply in the future.  However, in the instance of Raja Ampat, any cultural evolution, slow or rapid, must be lead first by local people, with the support, acute awareness and sensitivity of the new industry.  The below outlines some of the issues that must be considered, as the absence of such consideration could leave the long standing communities and traditions of Raja Ampat’s people radically altered, or lost forever.

Socio-Cultural Impacts of Development

Cultural dilution: when cultures are blended and the process of our lives becomes similar, at the expense of one or more of the cultures involved. 

The socio-cultural impacts of tourism and development in undeveloped regions are wide and varied, and often result in the host community becoming the weaker party, whose way of being can become altered dramatically.  At its best, tourism will support and uphold local culture and tradition, and model their operations in a mutually beneficial manner around this.  At its worst, a tourism industry can change local value systems and behaviour, threatening local identity and long held cultural beliefs. In this instance, the impact and influence reaches deeply into the heart of communities bringing about change in community structure, family relationships, traditional lifestyles, ceremonies and cultural morality.

Raja Ampat is as diverse culturally, as it is ecologically. A series of 1411 unique islands both large and small it is a melting pot of people from all over Indonesia, previously isolated from one another, yet for many years now existing together across the region in a mix of ancient traditions and local cultures.  Rapid or mass development can lead to changes to, or loss of, local identity and values of local communities via the following influences:

Click each question to expand

The Meeting of Cultures

Tourism in Raja Ampat sees people from all over the world including wider Indonesia, entering a region that was, until a short decade ago, almost completely disconnected from a global community. This rapid introduction to the outside world has resulted in interactions and social relations between very different people and cultures, leaving opportunity for misunderstandings or even clashes.

With this in mind, it is extremely important for individual tourists, and the industry as a whole to understand that their presence has influence, and that in order to obtain an authentic cultural experience whilst visiting Raja Ampat without causing disturbance or offence, it is essential to acknowledge the existing local culture, and do everything possible to integrate and be respectful.

A simple method of doing this is to mimic the behavior of local community members, ie: observe how they dress and interact, and do the same. For example; in Raja Ampat you would not see women walking around communities in revealing swimsuits, short shorts or mid-rif tops, indicating this is culturally inappropriate from the visitor as well.  Alternatively, by offering to share tea, coffee or a meal with locals, you can show a greater respect for local culture and subsequently will have a far more enriching and authentic experience.

Unfortunately, there are tourists in Raja Ampat who are unaware or make little effort to understand cultural norms and unwittingly breach them, or worse blatantly ignore them, causing offence to older community members, and serving as poor examples that support or enable culturally inappropriate/unacceptable behaviours and ideals to younger community members. Examples include; open and/or liberal use of alcohol, loud activities on religious or ceremonial days, or particular interactions between males/females that are unfamiliar or culturally unacceptable.

It’s important for us all to remember; when tourists visit our own home countries we expect them to behave in a way that suits our culture and causes no offense. Therefore, it is the same when we are tourists; it is our responsibility, and that of our chosen operator to be culturally aware of the communities in which we are entering, and pay full respect to the ways of the local people an customs at all times.

Commercialisation of local culture

In a rapidly developing location, tourism activities can, and do, serve as a useful mechanism to preserve local culture and the artifacts it contains. However, it can also “Disney-fy” local culture and turn it into a commodity, whereby traditions, ceremonies and other local customs are displayed to meet tourist expectations in a form of reconstructed ethnicity.

Standardization – the Tourist Paradox

Whilst many tourists visit remote destinations to ‘get away from it all’, desiring a landscape, culture, accommodation, food and drinks that are new and unfamiliar, at the same time these experiences must not be SO new and unfamiliar that the tourist becomes uncomfortable. In reality, there are few tourists who are actually looking for completely new things.  This can result in the dilution or removal of more traditional ways in favor of what is more familiar to the tourist.

Loss of Traditional Knowledge

As is the case in any modernizing population, as the use of technology increases and in many ways improves lives, traditional knowledge becomes diluted or forgotten.
In Raja Ampat, the service based need for more modern, bigger and faster boats means greater efficiency and better access to services, yet it has lead to fewer people having the skills to carve a traditional canoe or use tides and currents to optimize fuel costs.  In more developed areas, fewer local community members still retain the ability to navigate using stars and the moon, thus altering long held fishing practices.

Most noticeably, with each passing generation the use of local Papuan languages becomes reduced; Raja Ampat is home to 15 known local languages and dialects, yet many of younger generations speak primarily Bahasa Indonesia and perhaps some English, with limited knowledge of local languages.

Inequality in Employment Opportunity

For a multitude of logistical, economic and cultural reasons, local people have more limited access to higher levels of education, professional training and work experience.  This often results in lower skilled positions going to local people while higher skilled and more prestigious managerial or technical jobs going to foreigners or more urbanized nationals. 

Physical change causing Social Stress

Increasing tourism can have a physical influence on a destination, which can cause social stress when it impacts the local community. This can include:

  • Cultural deterioration and damage to cultural heritage or natural resources from vandalism, littering or removal
  • Change to culturally sensitive landscapes and ecology as coastal development increases
  • Conflicts with traditional land-users when construction restricts access for local communities to land or traditional fishing grounds 
  • Stress over the use of natural resources, for example –fresh water.

    Again, it is crucial that any development activities take the time to become aware of cultural sensitivities that may be present or arise, and take them into consideration during the planning phase.

Raja Ampat is Changing

For better or worse, Raja Ampat is changing rapidly.  It is currently characterised by a rapidly expanding and modernising population who is influenced by the presence of tourism and development. These changing demographics drive cultural adaptation and change and increased natural resource extraction, which subsequently threatens the ecosystems that underpin the culture and livelihoods of Raja Ampat’s local people.

Ongoing resource and cultural commercialisation, loss of traditional knowledge, governance structures that are still developing, and on top of this the effects of human-forced climate change present unprecedented challenges to local communities and the environment that supports them.

The SEA People seeks to work with all stakeholders to ensure that local communities are involved in the planning and execution of development in their own region, by empowering and supporting culturally appropriate, sustainable resource management.

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