Reef Avengers

Indonesia’s reefs have been poisoned or blasted to smithereens by the very people who depend on them the most. Now islanders are working to restore the coral, and recover the resources they’ve lost, piece by piece.

Published May 16, 2017

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Badi is a tiny, white-sand droplet of an island that pokes out of the Indian Ocean as though it’s gasping for air, just meters above the sea. It’s even tinier than it was a few decades ago—though rising sea levels are not, for once, the main culprit. Fishermen, using bombs and cyanide instead of hooks and nets to increase their catches, destroyed much of the protective coral barrier that normally surrounds the island. It’s a pattern of destruction that extends across the Indonesian archipelago, even in the marine region known as the Coral Triangle, an area that, in its natural state, looks like a gigantic tropical aquarium without walls.

Badi’s fisherfolk added to the destruction of their outer reef by mining coral for houses. The losses left the island vulnerable to waves and currents. So much of the shoreline eroded that an entire row of houses had to be dismantled before they washed away. On satellite images, the evanescent sand from the island trails like a ghostly shroud across the seabed, sucked out to the deep sea through the gap in the reef.

As the reef died, the fish disappeared, and locals on Badi wanted them back. In 2006, Noel Janetski, a hard-charging Australian exec who led the Indonesian arm of Mars, the corporate giant that produces everything from candy to pet food, started trialing solutions to rebuild the reef. It was part of a long-term initiative by the family-owned company—which incorporates fish and seaweed into some of its products—to help support the oceans. Seven years later, Janetski finally settled on a method he could scale: attaching coral fragments to hexagonal metal frames known as spiders, which he locks together on the ocean floor.

Destructive fishing practices on Badi, in the Makassar Strait, took out a large swath of reef and led to erosion on the southwest side of the island. Photo by Google/DigitalGlobe

In 2014, after around 18 months of work, everyone on Badi could see that progress had been made. Clownfish danced in the anemones; seahorses swayed with the seagrass; gaudy nudibranchs lounged on young coral. It was then, in the dead calm of a November night, that Badi’s cyanide fishermen went out to catch fish for the aquarium trade, spraying poison on the new-grown reef.

This push-pull between locals who sign onto long-term economic and environmental goals and those who fixate on short-term gains—and sometimes people cling to both at the same time—is one of the most basic problems of sustainable development. Out of all the islands in the South Sulawesi region of Indonesia, Badi has one of the best chances of winning the long game—if fishermen can resist temptation.


Life on Badi, as on thousands of islets like it, is a fragile affair. Around 2,000 people pack into its 10 hectares like farmed salmon. Rows of primary-colored houses spiral around the island’s epicenter, a brushed-sand soccer pitch. Trash-fattened goats and emaciated ducks patrol the crumbling graveyard; mothers tend minuscule general stores and jumbo babies; barefoot children play outside the three small schools. Occasionally, a slick youth cruises past on a shiny motorbike, a signifier of urban sophistication that feels as out of place as it is unnecessary here, 30-odd minutes by speedboat from Makassar, the nearest city on the Sulawesi mainland.

A couple of generations back, Badi was a different place. Island elders remember when the well provided fresh water—not the undrinkable saline that comes up now. Houses had gardens; people grew mangoes, guava, breadfruit, and vegetables; the seas were alive with fish. One successful fisherman in his 60s, who now sends his boats more than 1,000 kilometers north to catch and trade, remembers schools of tuna just a few hours from home.

The shore of the island of Badi, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

So far, nearly two hectares of reef have been restored on the small Indonesian island of Badi. Photo by Theodora Sutcliffe

Back then, the diverse reef system around Indonesia—a scattered nation with almost six million square kilometers of marine territory and perhaps as many as 18,307 islands, depending on whom you ask—seemed like an inexhaustible source of food. Generations of fisherfolk took the rich reefs for granted. Aside from blasting the reef with bottle bombs, poisoning it with cyanide, and mining coral to build their homes, they hurled anchors into the sea with blithe abandon and strolled across brittle table coral as though it was already white sand. It’s easy now to blame the islanders for their lack of foresight, but as in most socioeconomic-environmental scenarios, the problem is more tangled than it may seem, with roots in the last century’s tumultuous period of globalization.

The practice of blast fishing is even older than the nation of Indonesia. In South Sulawesi, the province to which Badi belongs, it almost counts as traditional fishing. During the Second World War, Japanese soldiers first showed indigenous fishermen how to toss bombs into schools of fish to stun or annihilate everything within range. Around one-third of the booty floated to the surface; freedivers picked the rest off the shattered reef. The skills of locating schools of fish, and assembling and timing bombs, are passed down the generations just as line fishing or freediving techniques are.

A typical bottle bomb, a mix of liquid fuel and smuggled ammonium nitrate fertilizer, shatters corals within a meter or so of the blast epicenter into fine rubble and fragments colonies up to four meters away. A single blast is recoverable—reefs can grow back within five to 10 years—but in modern Indonesia, blast fishing is no cottage industry, and fishermen rarely limit themselves to a single bomb. The gut-juddering boom of an explosion is a routine accompaniment to an hour-long dive in some areas. Where fishermen have systematically blasted entire swaths of reef, recovery can take centuries.

The technique of blast fishing with bottle bombs, popular in Indonesia, can instantly flatten a coral reef. Photo by Underwater/Alamy Stock Photo

Cyanide fishing is a younger trade than blast fishing. The practice most likely reached Indonesia around 1970, initially to service Hong Kong’s hunger for large, live, high-status fish: a humphead wrasse, for example, can sell for US $50,000 to the restaurant trade. Divers, who breathe through long hoses connected to the type of compressors used for spraying paint, squirt a fine mist of cyanide into the water, paralyzing their prey and killing corals and smaller fish in the process.

Although both kinds of fishing have been illegal since 1985, the solution is not as simple as convincing the average local fisherman to adopt more sustainable techniques. A sophisticated mafia organizes the distribution of smuggled fertilizer and the collection and sale of the catches. Typically, wealthy investors provide loans to middlemen to buy equipment—from fuses to diving gear and boats to satellite phones. They, in turn, loan money to uneducated, small-island fisherfolk, who repay their debts with bombed or poisoned fish at rates set by the men who lent the money.

Officials have historically tended to look the other way, if it’s worth their while—as a nation, Indonesia scores just 37 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (with zero defined as “highly corrupt”). The people who police Indonesia’s islands have often paid to acquire their jobs in anticipation of later receiving lucrative bribes. Locals report that some officials on long-term postings to remote islands even set up their own illegal fishing businesses.

Mohammad Hidayat, a charismatic career cop, is one exception. During his tenure in South Sulawesi, he worked both to educate islanders and enforce the law. Accompanied by a full squadron of police photographers and videographers, signet ring flashing, he visited Badi and other islands and struck fear into illegal fishermen. He set up turtle sanctuaries and wrote and recorded ditties about reef protection for schoolchildren to sing. His officers, dressed in full uniform and dive gear, posed for underwater photos. As his finale, last year he and his successor, Edi Kurniawan, blew up confiscated bombing materials in a blaze of publicity.

Mohammad Hidayat, an enthusiastic karaoke singer and a former chief of police in the South Sulawesi region, recorded this ditty about ocean conservation. Courtesy of Mohammad Hidayat

While the national government has also tried to do its part to curtail destructive fishing and restore reefs, the sheer scale of Indonesia’s marine territory makes many high-level initiatives ineffective. Reef restoration and protection works best when managed at the grassroots level, especially in a place known for hyper-local loyalties.


Faced with diminished marine stocks, islanders have begun counting the costs of reef destruction and are working, in disparate ways, to bring the fish back home.

Jochen Schultheis, an eccentric German transplant who runs a dive resort on the island of Selayar, roughly 160 kilometers southeast of Badi, guards a no-take zone established for his resort. He defends the reef, and the fish he considers his friends, by boarding passing boats and sabotaging dive gear used for illegal fishing, mounting night patrols along the shoreline, and raiding camps and large ships alongside police.

On Cengkeh, a tiny islet roughly 20 kilometers north of Badi, octogenarians Daeng Abu, who is blind from leprosy, and Daeng Maida raise turtles. When not preaching to visitors about the evils of blast and cyanide fishing, they chase intruders off the reef in their tiny skiff.

Octogenarians Daeng Abu and Daeng Maida have lived on the islet of Cengkeh (a former burial ground) and raised turtles since 1972. Today they are advocates for the area’s reefs. Photo by Theodora Sutcliffe

Muhammad Ramli, a nurse in training, regularly leads a group of fellow students on a 24-hour journey by public boat from Sulawesi to the district they all originate from, Liukang Tangaya—a cluster of 30-odd rocky islands 185 kilometers south of Badi. They educate locals about the dangers of destructive fishing and encourage illegal fishermen to pursue more sustainable lines of work.

But it’s Badi that has received the bulk of attention from the Mars company, NGOs, and government, and Badi that remains the poster child for reef rehabilitation.


On a sunny September morning, the shallows around Badi are alive with fisherfolk and the scent of clove cigarettes fills the air. Paid islanders, with the hardened, nimble fingers of men who deal with hooks and nets, attach spiky coral clippings to the metal-frame spiders and zip them tight with cable ties. Other workers transport the spiders by boat to the reef, where Janetski, aided by a team of snorkelers, carefully connects them on the seafloor; if the spiders aren’t properly secured, entire sections of new reef can roll up like a carpet when tough conditions blow in.

Illustration by Mark Garrison

Over the years, the workers have restored about two hectares, which Janetski believes makes this the largest contiguous coral reef rehabilitation project in the world. And in an attempt to create an economy that can draw people away from destructive fishing, Mars has helped two families start seahorse and clownfish farms for the aquarium trade and is trialing barramundi cod farming with a third. The company provides everything from expensive technology, such as solar panels, to juvenile fish and helps establish routes to market.

The reef is returning to health. The fish are coming back. Many islanders have bought into the program, and Badi seems a stellar example of how reef rehabilitation could and should work, given sufficient resources. Janetski hopes to create a template that can be rolled out across Indonesia and has started work on a second, similar island called Bontosua, not far from Badi.

The success is encouraging, if tenuous—there’s always some risk that what happened in 2014 will repeat, when the pull of quick cash overpowers the push for long-term gain.

With an election process underway, the atmosphere on Badi in late 2014 was a perfect storm of dynastic grievances and local politics. When the island’s cyanide fishermen descended on the newly restored reef, there was uproar. “Other local people reported them to the police. The police came out, picked them up, and brought them back to Makassar,” Janetski recalls. Island gossip indicates that their boss in Makassar simply bought the fishermen out of jail.

When they returned from prison, a senior member of the cyanide-fishing pyramid fueled their rage with beer—a rare indulgence on a Muslim island where a fisherman might earn only US $30 per month. Full of alcohol and indignation, the men and their allies waded out into the shallows where Janetski was raising coral for transplantation. They ripped his nursery out of the water, smashed it to pieces, and topped the spiky pile of rubble with a white flag. Other islanders stood on the shore and wept.

This video clip offers a fish-eye view of a coral reef in Indonesia. Video by longjourneys/videoblocks

Today, something of a truce has been reached: islanders, protective of their community, deny to outsiders that cyanide fishing exists, and Badi’s cyanide fishermen stay off their home reef. But, unless and until they adopt a new trade, rehabilitation efforts won’t solve the problem—only relocate it.

Promisingly, the initiatives on Badi and other islands in South Sulawesi seem to be sparking a movement; with government support, many communities now boast their own no-take zones—and some even enforce them. Jamal Jompa, a marine biologist and dean of marine sciences and fisheries at Hasanuddin University in Makassar, recalls dropping anchor to dive at some remote islands when a speedboat of locals swung by to check he wasn’t using cyanide or bombs.

“That’s not an initiative by the government. It’s their own agreement,” he says. “[I] believe that the solution is … to make the people of the islands know their problem and find their own solution and facilitate them to agree on their solution that they can implement.”


Out in the clear waters of Makassar Strait, it’s difficult to see in places where Badi’s original reef ends and new growth begins. Within two years, if left undisturbed, the steel spiders become almost completely covered with young staghorn and table corals. Damselfish, butterflyfish, and angelfish flit around them; a young grouper flutters below a table coral; a couple of turtles nap on the deeper reef; and sleek barracudas cruise by, all re-establishing their own push-pull of a healthy ecosystem.