Behind the beauty of Indonesia’s Raja Ampat islands lie poverty and neglect

For the month of October, people walking past Times Square in New York City will see a large billboard with a picture of Indonesia’s Raja Ampat islands, accompanied with the tagline “escape to a magical place”. But the appeal of the image hides the abject poverty of the people living on the islands.

A cluster of islands in the Bird’s Head peninsula of West Papua in Indonesia, Raja Ampat is one of the best diving spots in the world. It’s a pristine and biodiverse marine environment where you can see colourful tropical fish with the naked eye from above the water.

Formerly known as Irian Jaya, the western half of the island of Papua was claimed by Indonesia in 1961. The people of West Papua voted to become a part of Indonesia in a widely disputed plebiscite in 1969 and in 2003 the territory was divided into two provinces – West Papua and Papua. But they are generally referred to together as West Papua.

There is a pro-independence movement across Papua, especially in the highlands, and the police and military frequently crack down on separatists. But the coastal areas, including Raja Ampat, is politically stable and safe.

The islands have abundant natural beauty that make them look like an earthly paradise. But of the more than 45,000 residents, around 20% live below the poverty line with poor access to education, health care, and markets.

Data shows that in 2015, a household of four to five people in Raja Ampat spent an average of US$65 a month on food and other consumables. That’s 10% higher than the national average because the cost of living on the islands is so high.

Relative isolation

It takes around eight hours to reach Raja Ampat from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta. From Jakarta, you either get a direct flight to Sorong, or have to stop in Makassar, on the island of Sulawesi between Java and Papua, and then continue the flight to Sorong, on the northwest tip of Papua.

Then you get on a ferry to Waigeo island (also known as Amberi, or Waigiu), one of the four main islands of the 1,800 that make up Raja Ampat.

Waisai, the capital of Raja Ampat, is located on Waigeo, the largest island in the group. It houses several cottages, mostly owned by local elites. Most of Raja Ampat’s government and administration activities are centred in Waisai. But the population is scattered across many islands.

For my doctoral research, I stayed on Mainyafun island, four hours by boat from Waisai, in April 2016. Mainyafun is home to 55 households, with each family having between nine and 12 members.

Like in many towns in Raja Ampat, Mainyafun doesn’t have a water treatment facility. Clean drinking water is transported from Waisai either twice a month or once every two months depending on the season. Villagers also collect rainwater for drinking. Water from the mountain is piped into the village centre, but it has very high mineral content.

There’s no electricity and no phone signal. Most people refer to education as “prestigious goods”, and only study to the end of elementary school – the highest level available on the island.

To continue schooling beyond elementary level, students in Manyaifun have to go to Waisai. The journey costs US$100 one way and takes four hours by fibreglass boat, often without safety equipment.

Scraping a living

Being in an area abundant with fish, most people on the island earn their living as fishers. But a lot of them still live in extreme poverty. Most families are indebted to the local mini store owner who sells staple goods.

The price for the fish they sell is so low that even if they catch ten kilograms of fish every day, they still lose money. Fishers need five litres of fuel a day to operate their small boats. But fuel is scarce and very expensive, and five litres costs US$12.50.

The fishers sell to a collector in Mainyafun who processes them into salted fish. The maximum selling price in Mainyafun is US$0.20 for a kilogram, so ten kilograms of fish gets around US$2. After the cost of fuel, that’s a loss of US$10.50.

Most people on the islands earn their living as fishers.
Adam Howarth/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The price of fish in Waisai is ten times higher, and it’s 20 times higher in Sorong. But fishers in Mainyafun have to sell their fish right away because there’s no electricity to power cold storage.

People need bigger boats, cheaper fuel and access to Waisai or Sorong markets to get a better price for their fish. But a decent boat with an engine that can carry a larger volume of fish costs more than US$10,000, which is impossible for them to afford.

Lack of health care

There’s a small public community clinic in Manyaifun. The one doctor and four nurses who work there serve seven sub-districts scattered on neighbouring islands.

Working conditions are hard. Many of their patients are the fishers who leave their house at five in the morning and return at five in the afternoon. Health workers have to be on standby all the time.

The most common issues are malaria, skin infections and respiratory diseases. Death in childbirth is common for women. Only basic and generic medicines are available in the clinic, and sometimes stock is scarce.

Living on an isolated island with no phone signal jeopardises both health workers and the people they serve. Patients needing emergency care, such as chronic malaria, often die. The only hospital with decent equipment is located in the mainland city Sorong, 135 kilometres away.

A nurse in Mainyafun searches for phone signal.
Author provided

The health workers sometimes have to go to neighbouring islands for health emergencies on small boats. They have to ignore the fact that sometimes the waves reach up to three metres. It’s worse if they have to go at night time because there are no modern navigation tools or any information about the expected weather.

Health workers are only able to meet their families once or twice a year. Most of them come from Sorong and South Sulawesi, which is 1,532 kilometres away. The basic salary of health workers as civil servants or contract workers is US$150 a month. This is the same all over Indonesia, but that’s very small compared to the demands on the health workers on Manyaifun, who are also sometimes paid late.

Getting better services

While Indonesia promotes Raja Ampat to the world, local people and health workers feel abandoned. They rarely see government officials in their district. According to my interviews with the local doctor and nurses, bureaucrats in Waisai, especially from the health agency, don’t care about their lives, safety or emotional needs.

The local government officials I interviewed told me they tried to improve welfare by teaching people how to build homestays for tourists and how to promote them online. But locals and health workers said they had never met any official who’d visited their district.

The poverty in Raja Ampat is a reflection of the vital role of the state in the development process. Only through proper attention from the elites in Raja Ampat, and supervision from the central government, can change come to the impoverished people in the area. Until then, Indonesia may want to think twice about advertising Raja Ampat as paradise on Earth.

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