Island nonprofit makes impact overseas

Marcy Summers, director of AlTo, presents a Tompotikan village with an award for its contributions to the conservation of the maleo. The award was designed by Vashon artist George Wright.  - Courtesy Photo
Marcy Summers, director of AlTo, presents a Tompotikan village with an award for its contributions to the conservation of the maleo. The award was designed by Vashon artist George Wright.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

When Islander Marcy Summers spent two years working for the Nature Conservancy in Indonesia, she left the country with one request from its conservationists: Help us save the maleo.

A beautiful bird found only on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the maleo, which Summers described as “Sulawesi’s bald eagle,” was in danger of extinction if island villagers continued to poach their eggs.

Five years later, the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo), the organization Summers began and built with the support of Vashon environmentalists, has not only helped to reverse the fate of the maleo but also has grown into a thriving nonprofit that is beginning to change the face of conservation on the Indonesian island.

In true grassroots fashion, Summers, who is fluent in Indonesian, began to work directly with the people of Tompotika, a region of Sulawesi, persuading them to guard the eggs maleos laid on island beaches rather than poach them.

“They could earn more money as guards than poaching the eggs. … Most of what they cared about centered around their pocketbooks. That’s how it was initially, but it really changed,” Summers said.

AlTo volunteers, including members of AlTo’s boards in both Indonesia and on Vashon, headed a campaign to educate villagers about the maleo, instilling in them a sense of pride and a desire to protect the unique bird that made its home there.

“The village has totally embraced the program. ... We’ve totally reversed the decline, and the population appears to be increasing,” Summers said.

Indonesians who worked to bring the struggling maleo population back to life were recognized with an award at the first-ever international maleo conference in Sulawesi earlier this year.

Summers said that while many Tompotikans used to think of the maleo simply as a source of revenue, conversations about maleos now center around pride for the birds, the Tompotikan community and the international recognition it received.

“That was a thrill for them and for us to see them recognized for that work,” Summers said.

Building on that success, AlTo has branched out with several other projects in Tompotika in the last five years, including sea turtle protection and rainforest preservation. And while Summers has recently garnered some significant grants to support AlTo’s operations, Vashon residents continue to donate their time and money to help AlTo preserve one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.

Sandra Noel, a Vashon artist, said that as a wildlife illustrator she was excited by the opportunity to use her skills to contribute to AlTo. In addition to designing notecards, fliers and other materials for the organization, Noel has gone on two service trips to Tompotika. Last year, she worked with high schoolers there to create a 2010 calendar that features Tompotikan wildlife drawn by the young artists on each page as well as descriptions of the butterflies, birds, frogs and monkeys that are featured each month.

“We designed it here, but they did all the amazing artwork,” Noel said. “Those kids worked so hard. … The quality of art is stunning.”

Sales of the calendar in Washington allowed AlTo to distribute about 1,500 of the calendars in Tompotika. Hanging in local homes and businesses, they serve to further educate Tompotikans about the diversity of animals on the Island that are in dire need of protection.

“I really believe in this organization,” Noel said. “Nothing gets done from the top down in this environment. It’s bottom up, and that’s what (Summers) does. … I don’t get preachy about many things, but I do feel that way about AlTo.”

Jack Barbash, who serves on AlTo’s Vashon board, echoed Noel’s thoughts. He has also travelled to Tompotika on two service trips with AlTo.

Most recently, Barbash, who was initially interested in Tompotika because of its great coral and marine diversity, helped lead a public awareness campaign in 2008 to protect the Island’s sea turtles, which were being hunted for their meat.

“We give them the seeds of understanding, and that germinates into knowledge,” Barbash said. “They go and persuade their follow Tompotikans about the importance of not killing bats, turtles and maleos, and that’s enormously gratifying. …. The fact that we were actually able to save some turtles from the dinner table was the most powerful experience.”

AlTo’s most recent undertaking involves teaching Tompotikan farmers new agricultural techniques that will allow them to cultivate the same plot of land for years, facilitating the preservation of the Island’s rainforest.

“It allows them to grow more food on their existing land instead of slash and burn more forest because they exhausted their existing fields,” Summers said.

Ellen Kritzman, who

chairs AlTo’s Vashon board and went on AlTo’s first service trip to Tompotika in 2006, said the fact that four of the five Island board members have been with AlTo since its beginning speaks volumes about the organization. She attributes much of its success to Summer’s skillful leadership and knowledge about conservation.

Kritzman said serving AlTo is a joy made even sweeter by the organization’s continued successes in a part of the world she feels passionate about preserving.

“I think that we’re learning more and more about the fact that we are losing so much of our planet, what makes up our world. … It’s becoming more and more important that we hang on to the places that we have that are still intact,” she said.

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