Whales and Indonesia's ancient way of life - endangered species

When church bells ring out in this corner of Indonesia's vast archipelago, it is not always to call the faithful to prayer. The Roman Catholic mission, like every self-respecting institution in this tiny village, is also on the look out for whales, and alerts villagers when one is sighted. Perhaps Arnoldus Dupont, the Dutch mission father, has heard of the campaign to save the whale. But for most people in this ancient whaling station, the concerns of the modern world, like many of its comforts, have still to make their mark.

In many respects, Lemalera is a test case for the development policies underpinning President Suharto's regime for the past 20 years. Lemalera is a fishing village in a region where most communities are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Perched on the barren tip of a small volcanic island, the village has no farm land of its own. Its population is declining. Those who remain survive cheek-by-jowl, hunting a mammal the rest of the world seems determined to protect.

In practice, the ban on commercial whaling agreed to by the London-based International Whaling Commission does not extend to traditional fishing communities. Like Arctic Eskimos, Lemalera's 3,000 inhabitants have no other source of livelihood. Lemalera's primitive methods would make Captain Ahab seem the master of high-tech. Only once in 30 years have its painted rowboats caught more than 50 whales in a season. That was in 1969. Today the catch is less than 10.

In the mid 1970s, Lemalera attracted support from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) under its ``Freedom from Hunger'' program. The project introduced hunters to harpoon guns and grill nets. It brought the first whiff of commerce to a community which had bartered whalemeat for vegetables grown elsewhere on the island.

The project's aim was to raise living standards in what is one of the poorest regions of Indonesia and every year suffers a three-month seasonal shortfall of basic protein foods. But the project was abandoned after two years.

``It was a high-technology answer to what was really a low-technology problem,'' one FAO officer now concedes.

Political reasons helped to shut down the project. The FAO was facing mounting pressure from its environmental lobby at its Rome headquarters. The project also ran afoul of the Indonesian military, then embroiled in nearby East Timor, the former Portuguese colony Jakarta invaded in 1974.

Villagers greeted the collapse of the project with mixed feelings. ``No one understands our ways,'' says Mattheus Bataona, a member of Lemalera's leading family.

The most disruptive element of the project was the sheer size of the catch once hunters began using harpoon cannons. During two seasons using FAO's fiberglass boats, the project caught 31 sperm whales. The traditional crews in their 15 rowing boats managed 44 kills over the same period. The result was a glut of whalemeat and oils, half of which was left unsold. A report by Dr. R.H. Barnes, an Oxford anthropologist, showed that every whale landed by the project was worth $6,500. Under the traditional barter system, a whale was worth $280.

More than 10 years after the abandonment of the project, the village's situation does not seem to have changed. ``These days we just sit and wait til we see a whale,'' says Mr. Bataona from his modest brick-built home.

But most villagers today would jump at the chance of alternative employment, Bataona says. As it is he takes work every year in the government shipyards in Surabaya, earning more in eight weeks there than in a whole year in Lemalera.

``The whaling is just about over,'' says a former whaler, now working in the fisheries department in nearby Larantuka. ``Everyone wants an education and a job.''

Many villagers have made use of their boat-building skills, working as carpenters throughout the region. Some have proved more fortunate. Bataona now works in Indonesia's Embassy in Tokyo.

Mr. Barnes notes that the slowdown in population growth in Lemalera is greater than elsewhere in the province.

Lemalera itself is more isolated then ever. When the World Bank came to fund a paved road for the island a few years ago, it failed to reach as far as Lemalera. Ferry service from other islands comes just once a week. Newspapers rarely make it this far. TV and telephones have yet to reach this remote village.

With further social dislocation likely, Barnes predicts Lemalera could soon become a ghost village.

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