The Mentawai Islands, off the coast of Sumatra, were discovered by surfers in the late 1980s. They were a carefully guarded secret enjoyed by a handful of surfers for several years. The classic breaks and idyllic tropical islands found there are the stuff of surfing dreams. Yet conditions on land for many of the Mentawai’s 65,000 inhabitants is a daily battle for survival.
The Mentawai people’s traditional way of life has been under increasing pressure in recent years from international loggers, fishing boats and widespread health problems. Most Mentawai people survive on subsistence farming, fishing and a few small cash crops such as copra (dried coconuts). The rainforests of the islands are considered by naturalists as one of the world’s great tropical storehouses and genetic resources. The Mentawai culture and traditions have attracted serious anthropological study, because of their relative isolation from the outside world. Yet that isolation is being eroded at an increasing rate, as logging and fishing interests, and now the surfers, move in.
As word has spread of the perfect waves of the Mentawai Islands, a lucrative surf charter industry has quickly grown. Some 30 charter boats now cruise the islands each carrying between 8 to 12 surfers, who pay anywhere from A$100 to A$800 a day for their taste of this surfing paradise. Several land based surf camps are currently at various stages of development. Most visiting surfers are totally unaware of the conditions endured by the locals on the islands, in their cocooned luxury onboard the charter boats.
When Surf Aid founder and chair Dr Dave Jenkins first visited the islands on a surfing holiday in 1999, he was shocked by the health problems suffered by locals. In some areas of the Mentawai Islands, up to 50 per cent of children die before the age of five, mainly from preventable diseases such as malaria, respiratory illnesses, dysentery, tuberculosis, measles and malnutrition. He offered to conduct an impromptu clinic in one village and was overwhelmed by the response and pressing need for medical help. He later left his job in Singapore to dedicate himself full-time to improving the health of the Mentawai people.
Surf Aid’s major initiative has been its malaria control program, which began in Taileleu village. Fifteen hundred new, long-acting insecticide treated mosquito nets from Vietnam were recently delivered and will be distributed to villagers — one of the chief weapons in the battle against malaria. Traditional shaman were consulted about the malaria control strategy, and acceptance and use of the mosquito nets is now widespread. In addition, 120 malaria cases have been diagnosed and treated using a new microscope and health staff trained by Surf Aid. The malaria control program has been expanded to neighbouring Mallilmok village where Surf Aid discovered an alarming 34 per cent of 166 children tested had malaria. Monthly immunisations, childhood monitoring and nutritional supplements continue in Taileleu village. Surf Aid has plans to expand immunisation and nutritional programs to up to 36 villages in the Southern Siberut area. Most of these villages havenever before had a regular doctor or immunisation.
Support from Surfers
The world-wide surfing community is beginning to embrace the idea of giving something back to this wave-rich, but deeply impoverished island chain. Fund raising efforts by surfers around the world — from cycling marathons, to extreme sports weekends to beach parties have raised significant amounts for Surf Aid. Surf Aid has also enjoyed the support of many pro surfers including Mark Occhilupo, Luke Egan, Tom Carroll, Kelly Slater, Rob Bain, Kate Skarrett, Rochelle Ballard, Layne Beachley, Paul Paterson, Luke Steadman, Munga Barry, his wife Krista, and their charity Godfathers of the Ocean. In the UK, surfwear label Mambo has produced a special edition Surf Aid t-shirt with proceeds of sales going to Surf Aid.Surf Aid International was recently registered in the USA, with a pledge of support from surfing company, Reef Brazil. Other surfing industry heavyweights, who have gained so much promotional mileage from the islands in recent years, look set to follow suit.