Restoration or Regret: The Rehabilitation of Coral Reefs in Bali, Indonesia

By Shirin Asgari
Contributing Writer

South East Asia makes up the Coral Triangle Region which spans across six different countries. This region is vital to global marine life because “it is a global hotspot of marine biodiversity, and contains more than 76% of the world’s shallow-water reef-building coral species, [and] 37% of the world’s reef fishes.” Bali is one of the contributing regions of the coral triangle region and currently, 85% of its reefs are threatened by human actions. This is what motivated the United Nations to create the initiative, “life below water,” as goal 14 in their Sustainable Development Goals. This initiative strives to create sustainable methods of human and ocean interaction, which is directly at odds with current practices that result in the destruction and bleaching of coral reefs in South East Asia.  


Coral reefs provide many invaluable resources that the Balinese depend on. Since most communities are built around the coastal areas of the island, many Balinese depend on seafood for their basic daily sustenance. The economy of this region is driven by tourism which promotes businesses such as fishing, restaurants, recreational activities, hotels, and more. In fact, one of the most influential confounding factors for the 85.31% drop in unemployment rates in this region between 2010 and 2015 was due to consistently rising rates in tourism. For this reason, Bali’s ever-growing popularity as a tourist destination makes it one of the most valuable, yet vulnerable areas in Indonesia. Reef degradation due to current tourism practices has lead to further environmental damage, since the surrounding reefs protect the island from erosion by acting as barriers to incoming waves. Coral reefs produce wave refraction and diffraction, which slow the process of coastal destruction. Coral reefs are appreciated and admired by many, but if current practices continue we will lose these highly regarded ecosystems.

Fisherman on the shore of Sanur, Bali.

The driving factors behind this issue can be traced to a lack of awareness and economic pursuit. Beginning in 1972, the Indonesian government constructed a model for mass tourism with the intention of making Bali its main attraction. This push for rapid tourism was promoted, even though Bali lacked the necessary infrastructure and development to meet the growing needs of its visitors. In addition to economics, ignorance and lack of government enforcement has contributed to detrimental actions by tourist industries operating irresponsibly, such as: recreational diving and water activities, improper waste disposal, and unregulated pollutant creation. These activities have led to the accumulation of mass pollutants within the water, disrupting the “the coral–algal symbiosis [that] is needed for protection and conservation of coral reefs.” This has led to a process known as coral bleaching, which causes the devastation and death of coral communities.  

The last major source of destruction that the reef systems experience are destructive fishing practices, which were induced by the drastic devaluation of the Rupiah during the latter-half of the 1990s. Locals searched for the most effective and cost effective methods to acquire income, leading them towards unsustainable fishing practices. Current catastrophic business practices that locals engage in entail poison fishing, explosive fishing, coral mining, sedimentation/pollution, and overfishing. These practices not only devaste reef ecosystems, but also make it impossible for these reefs to recultivate and recover. If Bali does not start implementing sustainable fishing practices that hold major players accountable, it will no longer have access to the economic profits, employment, and food source that the reefs provide.

International and local actors have been attempting to address this problem with varying degrees of success. Realizing the severity of the issue, Reef Check, the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), and the Conservation and Community Investment Forum (CCIF) partnered in order to implement the Marine Aquarium Market Transformation Initiative program (MAMTI). This program is aimed at the “certification of the marine ornamental trade to international standards, improvement of the business and financial skills of fishers, and establishment of resources.” In these efforts, local communities have been encouraged to engage in data collection of reef conditions of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPAs are designated areas that are presided over and have been zoned-off by the government and have explicit rules meant to preserve biodiversity. The researcher’s data indicates that MPAs are associated with healthier conditions for coral ecosystems than unprotected areas.

However, it is quickly apparent the obstacles that arise from the local communities and the government, when such policies are implemented. First of all, a lack of education by locals and tourists of MPA sites, along with a lack of governmental enforcement hinder overall effectiveness. Second, without reliable and regular monitoring, it is difficult to measure the success of MPA policy implementation in these areas. Moreover, even when the government creates new legislation, the lack of accountability for businesses and locals hinders the effectiveness of these zones.

A severe limitation to this policy is that it requires that these MPAs be consistently monitored and managed by specialist reef management groups. This makes maintenance an issue since most locals are not properly trained, making consistent foreign management unrealistic. Lack of defined roles of authority and illegitimate delegation of powers makes oversight even more difficult. Further, past policies have indicated that when local communities and industries are left uneducated and uninvolved in the policy making process, it stifles any possibility for success. 

Considering the severity of the issue and past actions, what realistic and feasible options do we have to redress this problem? One possible solution is the creation of Marine-Eco Parks (MEPs). The success of this policy is assessed on the basis of its affectability in the case study conducted in Chumbe Island, Tanzania. This region, much like Bali, was also renowned for its marine biodiversity; however, lack of education, awareness, tourism, and unsafe fishing practices had left it in danger of widespread environmental damage. Through implementation of a multifaceted MEP policy plan, this region “has become a successful ecotourism destination and an internationally recognized conservation success.”

Chumbe Island Coral Park off the coast of Zanzibar: A private nature reserve used for ecotourism, conservation, research, and education.

Unlike MPAs, MEPs are privately owned and managed marine park zones that allow for local employment, education, and protection, while still producing market profits. Marine-Eco Parks are much more effective than Marine Protected Zones (MPZ) for a multitude of reasons. For instance, they allow for better accountability, management, awareness, educational opportunities, and local involvement and employment.

To begin with, partnership building between local governments, schools, and MEPs will allow for consensus-building regarding the implementation of the Environmental Education Program (EEP). This program will educate and enlighten younger generations about the costs and consequences of reef degradation, which promotes sustainable approaches to marine use. Schools will have the opportunity to take field trips to MEPs where they will be taught about the importance of marine conservation through real life experiences. Local schools will encourage teachers to integrate marine preservation and sustainability into their curriculum.

One of the main focuses of MEPs is that they provide vocational training and education for locals. Accurate and continuous data collection pertaining to the conditions of various reefs is a  crucial step in order to evaluate and properly protect these sites. Hence, partnerships between NGOs and local fisheries will provide courses that train locals as park rangers and as biophysical data collectors and analyzers. Locals will be educated about sustainable approaches to fishing and tourism. Furthermore, park rangers will educate tourists and other visitors about the benefits of ecotourism. In order for MEPs to continuously receive sponsoring from their partner NGOs, they will be required to meet specific criteria for development. MEPs are also encouraged to partner with local businesses in order to transport and use biodegradable resources, which will help promote internal growth for the country.

Part of the partnerships with local businesses and fisheries will require that they participate in Environmental Educational Programs aimed at educating locals through training exercises. The curriculum of these courses will be determined by locals who have an understanding about the social, cultural, and religious values of the community. Therefore, the key to the success of this educational program is that the input and insights of local people are highly valued and addressed in each step of policy implementation.

By assessing Bali’s past economic, political, and social history concerning reef systems we can better come to understand the current causes of reef degradation. Effective plans must therefore keep in mind the importance of local involvement and education. If Bali continues on this path of destruction then it will soon be faced with the devastating reality of the disappearance of coral communities and the marine biodiversity that comes with it. All relevant actors-NGOs, local communities, governments, and the UNEP-must work together to produce proactive resolutions to protect these reefs before we lose another sacred and invaluable natural resource.

Photos by:
Ilse Reijs and Jan-Noud Hutten

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