SULAWESI, INDONESIA — A fingernail of a moon hung in the sky as a small group of Americans and Indonesians gathered in the village to join hands and dance on a dusty road that dead-ended at the sea.
Rhythmic music blasted from a large boom box set on someone’s porch. Dozens more villagers appeared, some joining in. Round and round we went — step, step, kick, kick — smiling into the darkness, drinking in the night air. Every few rotations, Will Forrester, a Vashon artist, broke from the circle, turned to the dozen or so children watching us and performed a Kevin Bacon-inspired dance from “Footloose.” The children laughed uproariously.
Save for Forrester’s comedic touches, this was the modero, a traditional Indonesian folk dance. And for the tiny village of Taima on a remote peninsula in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, our bilateral street dance marked the culmination of an arduous but ultimately life-affirming project.
For the past six days, a handful of us — working on behalf of the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo) and under Forrester’s patient tutelage — had joined forces with several Indonesians to paint a mural celebrating the region’s rich biological diversity. Another group, working simultaneously, had created a mural in Teku, a village 25 miles away.
It had been sticky, sweaty, messy work, made complicated by the complete lack of modern conveniences — electricity, running water, a hardware store. But now, vibrant paintings graced the sides of two primary schools in a part of Indonesia that is, at once, biologically rich and under enormous pressure from nickel mining companies, logging companies and the palm oil industry.
Marcy Summers, a Vashon resident who has given over her life to trying to protect this biological hotspot, was pleased with the results. As she took in the mural in Taima — the docile face of an anoa, the sweep of a colorful hornbill, a sea turtle clambering towards the ocean, a chicken-sized maleo laying its prized egg — she smiled.
“I think it’s fabulous,” she said.
Summers founded AlTo six years ago, determined to do what she could to protect habitat supporting dozens of imperiled species in a region known as Tompotika — the so-called bird’s head of a long peninsula ringed by coral reefs and dominated by the heavily forested, 5,000-foot Mount Tompotika.
Her work with The Nature Conservancy had taken her there. She visited the peninsula in 2004 in an effort to “ground-truth” a comprehensive environmental assessment of Sulawesi that she was helping to write as a conservation planner for TNC. In the process, she learned of a communal nesting ground for the critically endangered maleo, a large, charismatic bird that digs a hole for its egg in sheltered dunes, then leaves the egg there to incubate in the warm sand.
The site was well-known to villagers, who had developed a highly organized system of egg collection: Men from 12 different groups, each one assigned a different month, would hide in the bushes on a near-daily basis, wait for a maleo to deposit her egg, then dig it up. The eggs weren’t needed for food; the people of Taima, poor by Western standards, are rich in chickens, fish and fruit. The eggs were a status symbol, Summers said, and the long tradition of collecting them had put this bird — found only on the island of Sulawesi — on the brink of extinction.
Summers gave a presentation to the villagers about the findings from her exploration of the peninsula, ending with a discussion about the maleo. Fluent in Indonesian, she spoke candidly about the significance of the nesting grounds — one of the bird’s last best strongholds but at risk of being destroyed by the villagers’ unsustainable practice.
A few villagers approached her afterwards, saying they didn’t want the bird to disappear under their watch and asking if she’d help them save it. Summers left TNC’s Indonesian program a few months later. And after several discussions with people on Vashon, a most unusual effort was born — a sister-island relationship, if you will, between Vashon and this remote swath of Sulawesi.
From her home on Vashon, and with a board comprised largely of Islanders, Summers has slowly built AlTo into what it is today — a community-based effort to conserve habitat in a region that harbors animals found nowhere else in the world, attempting to do so by working closely with villagers on a range of intensely local issues. Four years ago, she also established an Indonesian board and registered AlTo as an Indonesian nonprofit.
“Working with communities is the hardest part,” Summers said one evening. “But if you don’t have community support, it’s pointless.”
Her success, by some measures, has been remarkable.
Gradually, the organization worked toward what is now a complete moratorium on collecting eggs at the site. Instead of selling the eggs, villagers now make money guarding them. The bird itself, not simply its egg, is slowly becoming a source of pride. Perhaps most importantly, the maleo — at this one critical site — is on the rebound.
Summers said the adult population has tripled at this small site outside of Taima according to logs her staff methodically maintains. In years past, the birds visited their nesting grounds an estimated 1,300 times in the course of a year; now, her staff has recorded about 4,000 visits. The signs of a cultural shift are also evident. In an airport in Luwuk, a city in Central Sulawesi, T-shirts and buttons picturing maleos are for sale; they weren’t there a few short years ago, Summers said.
The small organization has gone beyond protecting this iconic bird. AlTo is now working to safeguard the highly endangered sea turtle that lays its eggs on the beaches; it, too, is facing threats from illegal poaching. And it’s working to protect Sulawesi’s increasingly fragmented forests, home to a small, doe-eyed primate called a tarsier, a shy, tree-loving marsupial called a cuscus, a rare pig-deer called a babirusa and many other species found nowhere else in the world.
Those forests are under threat in large part because of the world’s increasingly voracious appetite for nickel, used to make batteries for a variety of Western gadgets, and oil palm plantations, which are replacing native forests at a rapid clip. Summers is currently in negotiations with the government and private owners to put 25,000 acres of critical forest into long-term conservation management.
But the work is slow-going and painstaking, in part, Summers said, because of her determination to not simply save habitat but to also build a conservation ethic that she hopes will sustain AlTo’s efforts over time. She’s launched awareness campaigns about the importance of bats in pollinating the region’s beloved fruits and the impact garbage can have on sea turtles. She’s hired Indonesians to work on conservation issues in the villages’ small schools. And increasingly, she’s using art to tell the story.
“We’re trying to support life at its best, and that means those aspects of our human life that matter most. And that’s what art is all about. It’s the best of the human spirit — people coming together to create something beautiful and moving,” she said.
Thus was born the mural project.
Two years ago, Summers asked Forrester — a gifted illustrator and experienced muralist — if he’d create the scenes that would adorn the two schools, then go with her to Indonesia and lead the artistic venture. His job, on the ground, was to oversee the team in Taima. She recruited Sandra Noel, a Vashon illustrator who has worked extensively with AlTo, to come as well, heading up the team in Teku. Others — including Mark and Nancy Kinney of Lisle International, Rayna Holtz, an AlTo board member, and me, a longtime friend of Summers — were asked to join the effort. AlTo covered the costs of the artists; the rest of us paid our own way, with AlTo subsidizing some of the costs. Miller Paint, headquartered in Portland, Ore., donated paint for the project.
The idea: To work with the people in these two tiny coastal villages to paint murals depicting animals unique to their area, “billboards,” Summers said, “that could act as a constant reminder of what it is that we’re working to protect.”
There were similarities between the two murals: Both featured several of the same animals — anoas, babirusas, macaques, hornbills, sea turtles. But both also included scenes and animals unique to each village. The mural in Teku is dominated by a lagoon that harbors crocodiles; on Taima’s mural, a distant island — home to the area’s famous flying foxes, a kind of fruit-eating bat — appears on the horizon.
In Taima, where I was based, we stayed a couple miles outside of the village in a cluster of small, unfurnished bamboo huts Summers and her staff built, about a quarter of a mile from the maleos’ protected nesting grounds. The sound of waves crashing on a coral reef was a constant backdrop, as were the mellifluous voices of her small Indonesian staff singing to the strains of a guitar each night — mostly in Indonesian, though occasionally I’d hear words from a Beatles song and join in.
Early each morning, we’d climb in a car and head to the village, where we’d begin to paint, pausing from our work to watch village life unfold. School children and villagers sometimes joined us. Summers’ Indonesian staff — some of whom were very artistic — worked with us. A peanut gallery, as we called it, would form during the day, until sometimes when I turned from my work to take in the scene I was greeted by the smiling faces of dozens of villagers.
Cows and goats ambled past. Motorcycles pulling carts heaped with coconuts headed down the road. Boys selling fish stopped and gazed at our mural.
When I wanted to take a break one afternoon, an AlTo staff member suggested I wander through the village accompanied by three girls, and while we didn’t share a spoken language, we became fast friends, laughing and smiling and attempting a conversation. They picked scarlet-colored flowers that we put in each other’s hair. We used my camera to take pictures, and they delighted in the images that I showed them.
There were also delicate, even sad moments. One afternoon, a boy appeared at the schoolyard holding a month-old macaque, an endangered primate that lives in Sulawesi’s jungles. A rope was tied to its waist. It was a tiny creature, with dark eyes and a face so human it looked like that of an old man. Children clustered around it, while the animal wiggled, jumped and pulled at the leash.
Summers crouched before the boy and the macaque, studying the pair intently.
“It’s illegal. But there’s no enforcement,” she told me in English.
She spoke gently to the boy in Indonesian, asking him if he considered the animal a friend. He nodded. What will you do when it gets big and begins to bite, she asked. The boy shrugged. “Then don’t do this again,” she said.
The boy turned and left, and Summers began to paint again. This is what she is up against, I realized, the reason that working to instill a conservation ethic is critical to AlTo’s mission.
The next day, at the official conclusion of our project in Taima, villagers gathered under a late afternoon sun and watched as the mural was unveiled. Though most of them had seen its progress, there was still a moment of drama as a plastic tarp, our makeshift curtain, was dropped and the mural appeared. A few officials spoke, including the district secretary, a small, dignified woman wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf.
“Thanks to God that this has all come together,” she said in Indonesian. “This makes the district government very proud — and especially Taima village. Thanks for protecting the rare animals and the lands of the district.”
Summers also spoke. “It’s just a gift given,” she told the villagers, arranged in wooden chairs in the schoolyard, “a way to recognize that Taima is a very special place.”
A similar scene unfolded in Teku two days later, this time replete with girls from the village performing tightly choreographed dances. As the ceremony broke up and we began sipping a sweet soup made of mung beans, Forrester gazed at the artwork — a scene he had crafted on Vashon, made into a mural by the team Sandra Noel had headed up.
“It’s beautiful,” Forrester told her.
Noel smiled. “I wanted all the animals looking at everybody, saying, ‘Don’t forget us.’”
Photos from the slideshow are by Mark Kinney and Leslie Brown.