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Fires in the Tanimbar Islands

Jun 28, 2017
Smoke rises from fires on the Indonesian island of Yamdena.

Smoke rises from fires on the Indonesian island of Yamdena.

Tom Bailey

To the editor: Our boat Oddly Enough motorsailed alongside our cruising companions on the 40-foot Auspray. We were going up the calm strait separating the main Tanimbar island of Yamdena from a string of sheltering islands to the northwest. After a week in Indonesia, we were learning to fend off local canoes that sometimes chased us a mile from shore, wanting “rokok” (cigarettes) or fishhooks or just to gawk at us.

On the distant horizon, smoke drifted up. As we got closer we saw individual tufts from an island to starboard that appeared to be deserted. For a lunch break, we anchored off and then took our dinghies through an alley in the mangroves to a hidden beach where we could pull out. We hoped to walk, something that we had been denied for three days at anchorages that had no public access. 
A hillside near the small beach was covered in burned-off trees; still-burning stumps choked us. Rough human shelters made of branches with their leaves still on stood watch among young plants.

The islanders were practicing slash-and-burn, a quick way to deforest land for agriculture often practiced by people without legal access to land they want to plant. During the dry season in Indonesia, smoke from the annual burn-off causes health problems as far away as Malaysia and Singapore. In 1997, smoke was blamed for the crash of an Airbus A300 that killed all 234 people on board. In 2015, El Niño was partly to blame for a late rainy season and extremely dry conditions; extended months of fire and “haze” caused by more than 100,000 man-made fires burned an area over four times the size of Bali, and carbon emissions exceeded those from the entire U.S. on 47 out of 74 days. This 2015 “smoke event” probably caused more than 100,000 premature deaths. Some of the fires were also set by large companies with commercial designs on the forests.

The Tanimbars feel wonderfully off the beaten track. They are off course for American circumnavigators who stage in Australia starting in June and go west into the Indian Ocean by the end of August. Yamdena and about 65 smaller islands form the group, which is 120 nautical miles long and located 330 miles north of Darwin.  Saumlaki, the main town on Yamdena Island, is not a port of entry but, with a CAIT listing the ports you want to visit, you can get clearance to hopscotch through the Banda Sea until you reach Ambon. Saumlaki has phone stores, markets and local guides to help you clear customs and find craftspeople who make cloth and wood carvings. You can eat delicious meals for cheap or drink at expensive tourist resorts. November is between monsoons with variable, generally light winds and is a good time to cruise the islands as many of the places we visited can’t be depended on to have fully protected anchorages in stronger trades or monsoon winds.

For those like Tom and me on Oddly Enough who prefer a zigzag pattern, the trip north opens new worlds; it’s even a way to regain American territory, with Palau at the end. The Tanimbars are part of the Moluccas, known since Dutch colonial days as the Spice Islands when they acted as middlemen for the nutmeg, mace and cloves produced in East Indonesia. Just the name “Spice Islands” conjures up exotic seas, and certainly Yamdena seemed idyllic. Yet there was the smoke.

European explorers used to pass over the seas in a kind of eminent domain, but even they both affected and were affected by the land and people. Some cruisers are on a short time schedule, but others who step off the milk run gain a deeper experience of places and the time to notice that we owe something for our presence, even if it’s just simple, useful stuff.

The cove where Ann Hoffner landed to investigate the fires.

Tom Bailey

According to Kate Schecter, head of the development group World Neighbors, the way to start reducing slash-and-burn is to address the legal status of small-scale farming communities.

Forests cover a large portion of Indonesia. There has probably always been a tussle between powerful groups and local people over ownership; but, starting with the Dutch in the 17th century, laws were written that laid out both who could exploit the forests and how to protect those affected by the exploitation. Out-islands like the Tanimbars relied on traditional adat laws — individual ownership didn’t exist and land was held communally. Early colonial rule accepted adat. But under modern law based on ownership, islanders found themselves shoved away from the bargaining table. After gaining independence, the new Indonesian government focused on managing resources as national property for the good of the country instead of the colonials, and the remaining forests were designated as State Forest Land. Efforts to protect access for indigenous people to land they had traditionally managed were inadequate, ill-designed or easily corrupted, as government concessions were granted to loggers and plantation owners. While villages were allowed to remain in place, villagers could no longer plant gardens, a traditional way for them to supplement food supply or income, in the newly designated state forest.

Undeniably, the annual smoke event is harmful. But to get islanders to invest in sustainable agriculture practices that don’t involve burning requires secure access. Humans aren’t prone to investing in something they can be kicked off at will. The process of securing access is beyond the scope of individual communities. Development groups like Schecter’s World Neighbors help with the legal process as well as training in sustainable farming and forestry techniques.

Hoffner inspects a burned hillside.

Tom Bailey

Where cruisers can help is in areas they often do. I’ve encountered sailors who teach in schools or develop programs to help communities achieve goals. Such cooperation is one of the best attributes of the cruising community. To thrive, communities need to learn basic finances and marketing techniques. We’ve all encountered peddlers in the islands. The instinct to sell is human. But cruisers from developed countries can learn what new steps might be taken by these communities and help get them interested and involved. This is hampered by language barriers, but cruisers are adaptable and most of us become polyglots.

I adored sailing the Tanimbars. Visiting Indonesia requires getting a cruising permit called a CAIT, a process that can take up to seven weeks and be arranged through the Indonesian consulate in Darwin, where you must also apply for a six-month social visa that permits 60 days of travel in the country. There is also a dearth of official cruising information, and potential visitors should gather advice and local information from cruisers who have been there. It’s good to do this in Darwin while you wait for paperwork. While you’re at it, decide on the rest of your Indonesian itinerary to add to your CAIT.

The Yamdena Strait has hazards; the pilot guide points out that turgid water masks bottom changes, and indeed we sailed over an unmarked 15-foot spot that rose from off soundings and never saw a change in water color. Cruising here is largely finding your own spots on sketchy info, but it’s a small, varied ground with plenty of beauty, friendly people and those nail-biting moments that make it feel great to be tucked into a safe place for the night. And if you see a bit of smoke coming from the islands, think about what it might mean.

—Ann Hoffner cruised aboard her Peterson 44 Oddly Enough for 10 years.

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