saving the gili’s aquatic disneyland

On the Gili Islands, within eyeshot of Lombok, Indonesia and less than two hours by fast boat to Bali, every question about environmental leadership has one common answer: Delphine Robbe.

As coordinator of the phenomenally successful Gili Eco Trust (GET), Robbe, 35, has transformed a tiny group of volunteers into a highly influential and effective grassroots environmental organization. Passionate about SCUBA diving and the marine environment, Robbe created a tidal wave of environmental initiatives designed to protect the stunning natural beauty of the Gili Islands, Indonesia.

Gili’s troubled waters

For the fish and coral, it wasn’t a moment too soon. Gili’s coral reefs were brutally bombed to provide construction materials for development (fueled by the rapid growth of tourism) and to give the increasing number of boats easy access to the shores.

Uncontrolled growth led to erosion and sewage pollution, while overfishing, cyanide poisoning and dynamite bombing of the coral reefs in 1999-2000, caused massive decline in stocks of multiple species. Meanwhile, the impacts of global climate change were becoming more fierce, causing record levels of coral bleaching and destruction.

Facing many environmental challenges, this  once pristine tropical paradise was increasingly looking like a desolate lunar landscape.

Diving into a challenge

Enter Robbe, a world-traveling backpacker. On Gili Trawangan, the largest and most tourist visited of the three island archipelagos, she initially trained as a SCUBA  diving instructor, and later was inspired  to get  involved in local environmental conservation. “I wanted to give something back to that amazing place.”

Indeed, Robbe has unleashed a seemingly endless number of environmental initiatives, overcoming a host of cultural and bureaucratic roadblocks.

Learning Bahasa Indonesia has made her efforts even more successful. “I was never good at languages,” she says in perfect, if slightly French-accented, English. “But now that I can communicate in their language, the Indonesians trust me more, and I can explain issues and concerns much more clearly.”

Gili dive shop détente

Much of GET’s success derives from unparalleled cooperation by the 20 dive shops operating on ‘Gili T’ (as Trawangan is known locally) a competitive détente to protect their shared environment. All have agreed to charge their customers an annual fee of 50,000 rupiah (about US$5). Today, that translates into a monthly operating budget for GET of nearly US $4,000, a huge sum in Indonesia where, in 2008, the average annual income was less than $400 per person.

“We are now the island’s largest funder of environmental and social welfare projects,” Robbe says. In one innovative project, GET pays 13 fisherman  families about six million rupiah per month not to overfish.

Success, of course, presents its own challenges. “Not long ago, a fisherman purposefully caught a leopard shark and brought it to me, knowing that I’d pay to have it released,” Robbe laments with a barely controlled look of disgust. Then she shows me pictures of a bloodied manta ray that she paid to have released a month before. Robbe notes, however, that the government is setting up new ‘protected zones’ which would outlaw destructive fishing practices altogether. “We are still happy to pay so that they don’t fish anywhere, but we will see how the government wants to control things.”

Rebuilding Gili’s reefs

Conservation and restoration of fragile coral reefs—a critical component of marine biodiversity restoration—are a top priority for conservationists and the environmentally savvy tourism sector.

GET’s most successful initiative to date has been reef restoration, building so-called constructed reefs to replace those that were either  bombed or damaged from global climate change. Simultaneous efforts including patrolling, placing mooring buoys, and organizing garbage clean-up days around these “reef incubators” have helped revitalize coral and fish populations.

Around the world, significant changes in water temperatures have caused reefs to die off from “coral bleaching.” In some aquatic wonderlands, such as the Maldives or Malaysia, more than 70% of coral is dead. Here in the Java Sea, the dead coral remnants scattered along the beaches and littering the sea floor are primarily the result of the deliberate blasting to extract building materials. Dead coral crumbles away, and injured coral grows back excruciatingly slowly (2-6 cm/year—about 0.75”–2.5”).

New coral’s best chance of long-term survival rests on a solid infrastructure on which to grow, and that’s where the underwater scaffolding of these constructed reefs comes into play.

BioRock on … and on and on

Robbe’s first project in 2006 was to organize an international workshop on coral reef restoration, which has since grown under her leadership and continued every two years. The 4th Gili T conference, held in November 2012, drew nearly 100 attendees, including formerly skeptical Indonesian government officials, engineers, dive professionals, marine  biologists, environmentalists, lawyers, and global experts on marine conservation.

At that inaugural 2006 event, Robbe teamed with the Global Coral Reef Alliance and an international team of scientists, engineers, and even artists to prototype BioRock, an artificial reef system that creates underwater habitat for corals and, as a result, lots of fish. BioRock reefs are made from welded metal rods, which are often worked into creative shapes, that are connected to an extremely low electrical current.

The resulting electrolysis produces a thick layer of calcium carbonate, the perfect substrate on which to regenerate the broken-off pieces of coral that divers collect from the sea bottom, then tie to the structures. As a marine habitat, results are nearly instantaneous. Fish arrive within minutes. And, because of the tiny electrical charge coral on BioRock grows 2 to 6 times faster than normal.

Robbe, the world’s only certified instructor in BioRock coral construction, has trained hundreds of volunteers. To date, 78 BioRock installations have been  successfully created around the Gili Islands, with dozens more in the planning stages. The largest is a metallic-framed dome 40 feet in diameter with  specially designed tunnels in which divers train to control their underwater buoyancy.

Not all her reef tales, Robbe points out, have happy endings. Despite being surrounded by protective moorings, one boat dropped anchor on the original BioRock dome, crushing a large section. Another BioRock structure was stolen. And some of her painstakingly revitalized coral itself is being choked to death by a bacterial sponge that’s fed by discharges of raw sewage from Gili T’s mushrooming forest of hotels, restaurants, and homes. These setbacks only spur her on.

To tackle the issue of shoreline erosion, she points again to the invaluable reef. “Those huge holes in the coral shelf around Gili T which fishermen blasted have been causing horrible erosion. You can even see it clearly on Google Earth.” I didn’t doubt her word, but she insists on showing me the live images on her BlackBerry. “The erosion has intensified from this year’s unbelievably large storms.”

After conferring with scientists and engineers, GET attempted to plug these reef holes with gabion baskets (rubble-filled Gortex sacks). “It worked for a few months, until massive storms broke everything. A few baskets are still in place, but trying to reconstruct nature is not always successful.”

Future efforts may include using an experimental combination of Gortex and Biorock technologies, creating wave-breakers to reduce the erosion-causing intensity of the crashing waves. They’ll provide the necessary low-current electricity with a custom-designed, underwater wave-powered generator. GET also plans to build a pier so that boats can dock safely beyond the coral shelf, and at the same time expand an erosion-preventing native plant project along the crumbling shores.

GET-ing Gili’s future

Robbe truly believes Gili’s coral has a fighting chance. But there’s so much yet to do.…

“More eco-activists need to get involved,” she declares. She is GET’s only full-time employee. Foreign volunteers, while plentiful and helpful, don’t stick around very long. But volunteers do continue to arrive, with no dearth of new projects to harness their talents.

Little slows Robbe down, including a 2011 surgery for skin cancer when she was 33.  “My father died when he was 33 years old,” Robbe confides. “But I’m just getting started.” Last September, Robbe gave birth to her first child, Evan … a water birth, of course. Rather than take time off, Robbe has learned to delegate, training a dozen team leaders to oversee the recent conference.

Read next >> costa rica “pura vida”: a peaceful country without an army