Campaign to protect divers from disability

Down to Earth No. 45, May 2000

The environmental NGO, WALHI Central Sulawesi, has launched a campaign to try to stop injury and death among divers who work for pearl and speciality fish exporters. Local people are supplied with compressors and explosives or poisons (Potassium cyanide) by companies who then buy the pearls and fish - including the endangered Napolean Wrasse - for low prices. Divers are only permitted to sell their catch to the captain who provide the equipment and chemicals, enabling companies to keep payments to divers low. The company ships collect the catch twice a month then sell it on to traders or export it directly to Hong Kong.

A study conducted by WALHI with a German organisation, Mitwelt Netzwerk, and the local indigenous Badjo community, found 130 fatalities in the Togean Islands during the past two decades due to diving accidents. In the Banggai Islands, they collected data on 30 deaths, and 100 people disabled by diving accidents. Many of the accidents happen because the divers are not taught how to use the equipment properly. They often stay down too long and suffer the potentially fatal effects of the "bends" when they resurface.

WALHI believes local people do the work because the opportunity to fish using traditional line and hook methods is now so limited. The situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past two years.

WALHI has also listed the companies involved in the reef-damaging activities. They include a Japanese-funded venture, PT Tamatsu Cahaya Indonesia, which controls 6,000 hectares in two locations, and an Indonesian company, CV Cahaya Cemerlang Indonesia, which controls 4,000 hectares. Australian investors are reported to be involved in other companies.

The coral reefs and the marine life they support have been badly damaged by these companies: a study by Mitwelt Netzwerk found that 40% of the corals in Togean had been destroyed and in the Banggai Islands 52% were in poor condition.

The four-month WALHI campaign, aims to visit local communities and provide training in the use of diving equipment in order to reduce the number of accidents. WALHI has also heard from its sister organisation, WALHI North Sulawesi, that fish and pearl exporting operations active in the Togean and Banggai Islands are moving to the Bunaken National Park area. In response WALHI Central Sulawesi has written to the police authorities urging them to take action against a named police officer involved in one of the companies moving to Bunaken.

(Source: WALHI Sulteng, 1999)