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Materials in English
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|Just Below the Surface: Environmental Destruction and Loss of Livelihood on an Indonesian Atoll|
Early one morning in March 1992, I was sitting at my desk, getting ready for another day of fieldwork on the remote and generally peaceful Indonesian island of Balobaloang, one of dozens of coral islets scattered near and far along the coast of South Sulawesi. Lost in my thoughts, I was startled by the sound of a distant bomb going off. Running out of my house and down to the shore, my next-door neighbor, a military officer posted to the island, sensed that I was off to find the source of the sound. He waved to me and pointed in the direction of a fishing boat just beyond the edge of the reef flat. “They are bombing for fish,” he explained. “What?” I exclaimed. “They threw a bottle bomb from the boat.” He looked at me and then back out at the boat rocking back and forth in the distance. “The bomb goes off under water and stuns the fish. Then they swim and dive to gather the fish. They catch a lot all at once in this way.” Although I knew very little about blast fishing at that time, I understood that it was highly destructive to the aquatic environment.
In fact, the fishermen had dropped the bomb in a place where I often snorkeled, captivated by the luxuriant variety of colorful and exotically shaped corals and tropical fishes. “Isn’t that illegal? Why don’t you stop them?” I wanted to ask the officer, but thought better of it. I was, after all, an American graduate student and guest of the Indonesian government and the local villagers. I was living on the island for a year and a half to study navigational knowledge and practice among the island’s ethnically Bugis seafarers, long renowned across Southeast Asia as deep water navigators and inter island traders. I had been trained as an anthropology student to be a “dispassionate observer,” and I had been warned by my local host that I should stay out of politics or risk being asked to leave the country before my research was completed. In 1992, Indonesia was still ruled by President Suharto, a former army general who held dictatorial control of the military and country and who allowed little dissent. No, challenging an army officer would not be a good idea. After a few more minutes observing the blast fishing boat, I took leave of my neighbor and went back to my house to finish preparing my list of questions for that day’s fieldwork.