Karimunjawa reflections

Back from a few days in Karimunjawa. A rest from the city and the noise and laptop screens. This is the third time I’ve been to Karimun, a tiny outcrop of islands in the middle of the sea between Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Its central position is highlighted by the different communities who call the island home. To the south of the island lies the small town of Karimunjawa populated by those whose roots lie primarily in Java, and Kampung Bajau, the village for the Bajau ethnic group who are famous for their nomadic lives on the sea. 45 minutes along the coastal road you find yourself in Bugis territory, more houses are built on land on stilts than found in the other areas. You can notice slight differences in use of space, less bird cages, more grass in front. The island is also home to a small Ahmadiyya community, a group who have for years experienced persecution for their faith, as well as the Mandar who originate from Sulawesi and a small number of Madurese. For generations, different peoples from larger islands have sailed and discovered this land, some moving on when necessary, some becoming permanent residents. It has been a home for fishermen and small scale farmers. Everyone lives alongside the fish, birds, crabs, bats, snakes, butterflies and monkeys who claim their space on the hills and beaches.

The main island of Karimunjawa and the little islets that surround it are breathtaking. The water shimmers against white sand, hills cloaked in green stand tall against the sun, the palm trees bend towards the sea like they do in Windows screensavers. Along the one main road around the island, families sit chatting on their verandas with doors perpetually open because it’s just so safe to do so. Children play in paddling pools, cats stretch lazily on the grass. When the evening comes and the waves lap gently on the shore under the glow of the milky way. As a tourist to this place I have felt every time I have been there like there could be nowhere more beautiful, although this time pressures on Karimun were a little more visible than before.

As with islands all over the world, there are challenges. Rising sea level has caused abrasion across the beaches. In 1990, the creation of the Karimunjawa National Park was meant to stop over fishing in certain zones, but also allow the potential for tourism. In recent years that has meant a boom in both local and domestic tourists like myself, a wealth of new resorts and hotels and a depleted coral due to up to 200 people snorkelling in one spot at any one time during peak season. The opening up of the land to commercial interest has also meant that fish farms have been carved into the landscape, sand is dredged for building and land reclamation elsewhere. Plastic waste from the island and nearby Java, as well as used oil tossed into the sea by near by tankers, floats to the beaches and creates a new manmade shoreline – although most beaches remain remarkably spotless as beach caretakers meticulously pick up floating debris. It’s really sad, my friend Morgan who works as a guide told me, and people are giving up too much for too little. But people need money and jobs. What if a family member gets sick and has to go to the hospital? He asked, I couldn’t do anything but agree. I was there, after all, as a tourist, fuelling and propelling some of the very issues that were painful to see.

A huge beach club being built on the shoreline among mangroves stood out like a metal, gentrified sore thumb. I remembered the first time I came to Karimun a few years before, all toilets and showers had little stickers telling users to be mindful of water consumption due to the limits of the island’s capacity. That mentality didn’t seem to apply to places like this. The manager of the small homestay next door, overshadowed by the large new concrete construction, grumbled – but what could he do? He shrugged. These people had money and could do what they liked.

The continuing pandemic has been a struggle for communities on Karimun, large building sites and cleared plots sit empty, tour guides and hotel workers struggle to find employment, most men have turned back to fishing and the sea becomes alight at night with boats looking for a catch. Islanders were expectant for after Lebaran, hopeful that despite the continuing pandemic the beginning of the holiday would bring back tourism to some levels of normality.

I think islands are important to look at because due to the sheer limit of ‘resources’ on these masses, the small amount of land, of creatures, of space for people, of water — the impact of climate change and -dare we mention it- globalisation is so much more exaggerated and visible than on large patches of land. Both on the environment and the people who call it home. I read online that the Karimunjawa National Park is a collaboration between local government, local citizens and NGOs, a transformative connection of interests to manage the different challenges and needs of human and non human subjects, but this doesn’t seem to be enough. How can you effectively manage and balance not only what is happening on the islands – the economic and short term and long term issues that will always exist – but also the larger ecological crises that are being caused elsewhere?

Yet despite its issues, life on Karimun remains warm, welcoming, safe. Everyone knows everyone. In the evenings young people gather at the only angkringan to eat nasi bakar and maybe sing karaoke. As it was during Ramadan, at dusk the roads were closed for neighbours coming to sit together and break the fast. Children ran to buy fireworks and firecrackers. The is stress and there is happiness and sometimes you have to focus on the latter to try and get through the former.