"Water is our blood. The stone is our backbone. The land is our flesh, and the forest our skin." – Mama Aleta
Laughter resounds from a hut on the island of Timor in Indonesia. Women and children prepare food for their village, protected from the mountain winds by a hay roof and strong bamboo walls. The people here are happy. They have everything they need. Or I should say, they had.
For thousands of years, rural villages in Indonesia have survived using what the land provides — the trees, the stone, the water. "We use what we have," says Mama Aleta, founder of the Mama Aleta Fund, a nonprofit empowering people in rural areas (especially women) to fight for environmental causes.
Aleta organized a three-year sit-in protest to shut down marble mining operations in her community. The marble mining company destroyed 90 percent of a mountaintop that the people of Timor believe is the origin of all life. "This is not our nature. It was here before us,” Aleta explains, "We do not destroy it, and we use only what is there."
Much like other Indonesian islands, first-world demands have cracked the rock face and polluted the rivers on this Maritime Southeast Asian island located across the Timor Sea from the northern end of Australia. These islands, and similar places around the world where the people hold true to their roots and rely solely on their resources to survive, are under siege by big industry.
It may seem like a strange question, but, can paddlers help? If we've learned anything from water, it is that everything is connected. Paddling is not only a leisure activity for self-reflection or a means for exploration. Paddlesports can play a role in the future of the global economy and the preservation of natural places across the world.
A few years ago, local leaders on the islands of Sumba and Timor in Indonesia started a conversation with Oru Kayak, an American company that creates folding kayaks, about visiting their islands to explore new opportunities for ecotourism and outdoor recreation. Increasing tourism around their natural resources could allow the locals to share the unbelievable natural beauty of the home waters, increase the flow of foreign capital to their economy, and improve their livelihood without having to depend on industries that destroy their land and pollute their water. Like Mama Aleta said, they use what they have, and they have amazing rocks to climb and crystal blue waters to paddle.
Last summer, a group from Oru, together with journalists, climbers, photographers, and adventurers, set off to explore recreational opportunities on the islands of Sumba and Timor. The seemingly untouched natural wonders of the world are not easy to get to, but they are worth the journey. Our group flew, drove, hiked, climbed, and kayaked (we brought eight Oru folding kayaks with us on the adventure) on and around the islands to experience what could be future ecotourism destinations for travelers across the world. Locals warmly welcomed us into their villages. They shared their stories with us, expressed their hopes for the future of their land and water, and brought us to heavenly landscapes that blew preconceived images of paradise out of the water.
"We've never had kayaks here before. It's a game changer for us," said Sarah Hobgen, after Oru donated two folding kayaks to support their efforts to increase eco-tourism on the island of Sumba. There, we paddled, cliff-jumped, and swam in the clear waters of remote rivers and kayaked along sea-cliffs in the Indian Ocean. Hobgen, her husband Uman, and a local tour guide Erwin Pah have been working to build infrastructure for outdoor recreation. They recently started the Sumba Tourism Association to make information about Sumba more accessible to tourists. Currently, the unique Ikat weaving on Sumba brings some tourists to learn about the six-month process to create intricate tapestries from natural dyes made on the island. The larger Ikat weaves, used during ceremonies, are said to pass on messages to future generations and to predict the next year's harvest. Perhaps a kayak will appear on a woven prediction someday.
On the island of Timor, the villagers of Naususu greeted us with song and dance. Their song, translated from their native language, says "Whatever direction my eyes turn, I will see green." We hiked, paddled, climbed, and explored old marble mining sites. Sleek marble slabs now lay abandoned where a lush mountaintop once stood. We took locals out paddling on a sacred lake that they walk by almost daily, and, for many of them, it was their first time on the water. The smiles and laughter of the children clamoring to get into a kayak led Oru to donate two more folding kayaks to the cause.
I’d always considered paddling to be an empowering act, but it wasn’t until we paddled that sacred lake near Naususu that I’d realized how it can empower paddlers to do greater good in the world. Many paddlers crave that sense of purpose in their travels. That reward is amplified when our desire to learn about new cultures and to paddle new waters in distant lands just happens to align with a larger need in the world.
The next daydream I have about launching a new paddling adventure, I’ll factor where I want to go, but also that beautiful places in the world want me to visit them, narrowing the choice to those places where my presence might contribute to direct sustainable growth. The traveler’s dollar makes a difference in the livelihood of local people and helps to protect wild places, near and far. Locally and globally, we can weave our colors together to generate a unique way of protecting the world’s last remaining healthy ecosystems.
-- Natalie Warren regularly reports on the Next Best Paddling Towns, profiling North American paddling communities making positive strides to developing infrastructure catering to paddlers.
-- Check out C&K’s Carry-on Adventures series with Oru.
-- Watch the The Indo Project and check out more of Oru’s custom products and nonprofits in Indonesia that the team worked with.