To Bali or not to Bali....

Erdmann/Mehta flotsam at
Sun Sep 19 20:58:08 EDT 1999

Dear Colleagues,
	I am writing in response to the current discussion amongst members of the
ISRS and coral reef research community in general regarding the
possibilities of moving the 9th ICRS from its current slated venue of Bali,
Indonesia, on the basis of political/human rights concerns over the East
Timor issue. I offer my perspective as a foreign scientist who has worked
in Indonesia for the past 8 years and who feels very strongly that it would
be a grave mistake to make a hasty and rash decision about the future of
the 9th ICRS based solely upon a highly politicized and emotionally-charged
issue. I will divide my comments into two primary arguments: 1) the
ineffectuality of a boycott of Bali 2000 and the danger of politicizing the
selection of ICRS hosts; and 2) the overwhelming importance, from both a
scientific and conservation perspective, of continually rotating the ICRS
to developing countries blessed with reef resources.

1)Dont politicize the ICRS. 
	While no one can deny that the continuing tragedy in East Timor is worthy
of sharp international criticism and  even intervention, it is important to
realize that the circumstances in East Timor are not as black and white as
portrayed in the sensationalistic and manipulative international media. The
real "facts" of the Timor tragedy are far from clear, and the growing
attempt by the media at demonization of the Indonesian people as a whole is
terribly irresponsible and equally as worthy of international censure.  If
we add into this the complicity of many western nations (if not the
outright collaboration of the U.S. military) in the continuing military
operations in East Timor since its annexation in 1975, as well as the
current disarray in the Indonesian government and military in this troubled
transition period to true democracy for the entire archipelagic nation, it
is quite clear that the situation is at best muddled. I will spare the
coral-list readers a further dissertation on the history and current
situation in East Timor, as it is largely irrelevant to my arguments.
	More importantly, a boycott of Bali 2000 will have exactly zero impact on
the forces behind the tragedy in East Timor. Put frankly, the Indonesian
military and current transitional government couldn't give a wrasse's tail
about the ICRS. Moreover, we must not forget that in November of this year,
if all goes according to plan, Indonesia will make the true jump to
democracy in election of its first popularly-determined president. As such,
a decision against Bali 2000 will likely have no effect on the current
military and government leaders, who will hopefully be banished to a
shameful history in November. Rather, such a decision will only hurt the
very people upon whose shoulders the future of democracy and Indonesia's
coral reefs rests - students,scientists, NGO's and aspiring young
policy-makers. Continued international attacks on Indonesia's government
and people will only have the perverse effect of strengthening anti-western
sentiments and encouraging further isolationism, allowing the current
repressive regime to consolidate its power and set democracy back even
further in this country.
	Stepping back from Indonesia to view the larger repercussions of
politicization of the ICRS, the maxim "He who lives in glass houses should
not throw stones" immediately comes to mind. Politicizing the decision of
host selection for the ICRS opens a Pandora's box of ugly accusations. To
demonstrate this, allow me to turn this argument back into the court of
those who have voiced their opinions against Bali 2000. Using an extension
of their reasoning, I can not in good conscience attend a coral reef
meeting in Australia, Canada or the U.S. because of those nations'
governments' support for national mining and petroleum companies that are
systematically raping Indonesia's natural resources, degrading the lives
and destroying the livelihoods of her indigenous tribes, polluting her
rivers and seas and killing her reefs. Likewise, I would not be able to
attend a meeting in Brazil due to the wanton destruction of its
rainforests, clearly supported by its government's development policies. I
do not mean to pick a fight here, but merely point out the futility and
absurdity of politicizing the ICRS. We are scientists, not politicians; let
us keep our ICRS scientific and above the political fray.

2) The importance of holding the ICRS in developing tropical countries.
	While the arguments I present below are not specific justification for
holding the ICRS in Indonesia, I believe very strongly that it is important
to continuously rotate the ICRS to new host countries with coral reefs for
a number of scientific and conservation reasons. Considering the number of
tropical countries with coral reefs within their respective EEZ's, there is
no reason why the ICRS should ever be held in the same country twice, at
least not in the next century. This perspective may have some bearing on
the upcoming decision of the ISRS on the future of Bali 2000.
	Perhaps most importantly, the ICRS represents an unparalleled opportunity
for students, scientists and NGO's in developing countries to present their
research, network with other international researchers, and just plain
learn from the tremendous gathering of expertise that the ICRS represents.
Many of these people are only able to attend the ICRS when it is held
within their own country (or, in a best case scenario, in a neighboring
country); one need look no further than Panama 1996 to see the enthusiastic
participation of local and regional students and scientists. I think it is
a safe assumption to state that the 8th ICRS profoundly influenced the
lives and careers of many of those new and developing reef scientists from
Central and South America,  and reef science as a whole will certainly
benefit from this. It would be a real shame to deny this potential benefit
to Indonesia, where international development programs have spent enormous
amounts of time and money on developing marine sciences education, graduate
degree programs and  scientific infrastructure since the early 90's. 
	Another reason which has frequently been cited as justification of
rotating the ICRS is the tremendous publicity that the meeting focuses on
the importance and plight of coral reefs in the host country and its
surrounding region. With an estimated 15% of the world's coral reefs (many
of which are considered among the most threatened in the world) within
Indonesia's boundaries, public awareness and concern for coral reefs in
this country could certainly benefit enormously from this publicity. 
	But the benefits of holding the ICRS in different host countries every 4
years are not reserved only for the host country/region. Rather, this
policy benefits all reef scientists and managers. Surely we are all
thoroughly aware that reef ecosystems (and the threats to them) are
tremendously heterogenous and vary dramatically from region to region and
reef to reef. Ecological, geological and management paradigms developed
from intensive research on the Great Barrier Reef, Carribbean reefs or
French Polynesian reefs  often do not apply to reefs in less
thoroughly-researched areas of the world. In other cases, such paradigms
gain added support from research in far-flung areas. Either way, it is
extremely important for the continued development of our understanding of
coral reefs through space and time for us to expand our knowledge base of
reef systems. Holding the ICRS in different host countries allows
international researchers and managers first-hand experience of differences
and similarities in that country's reef systems, both through presentations
of or discussions with local scientists and through a well-planned
symposium field-trip schedule (currently under possible revision for Bali
2000!). Indonesia is firmly located in the center of modern reef organism
diversity and has very different oceanographic conditions than many
well-studied reef systems, yet Indonesia's reefs remain largely a black box
in terms of knowledge of species distributions and reef processes. From
this perspective alone (especially if the field trip schedule can be
improved), Indonesia should be a highly attractive place for international
coral reef researchers and managers to convene.
	One counter argument that has been raised against holding the ICRS in
developing countries in general and Indonesia in particular is the lack of
infrastructure and organizational capability to put together such a large
and important meeting. While this is most certainly a valid concern, I
believe that this problem is largely alleviated by a change in the way in
which the ICRS is organized. From my admittedly limited understanding of
the history of the ICRS, it seems that for the past 8 meetings, one or two
host institutions in the host country (e.g., STRI in Panama or U. Guam in
Guam) have largely taken the responsibility for organizing the meeting. For
the current ICRS, this responsibility appears to be "shared" (loosely
applied term) by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and the  ISRS
Scientific Program Committee for 9ICRS. While some may feel that this
places an unneccessary burden on the ISRS, this seems to be a sound
solution to the problem of quality control and is well-worth the effort in
terms of the aforementioned benefits to reef science of holding the
conference in developing countries throughout the world.
	I apologize for the length of this discussion, but I feel it was necessary
to present a developed argument in favor of Bali 2000 on behalf of my
adopted country, where it is generally against cultural norms to enter into
verbal debate or publicly defend a point of view (hence the general lack of
response from Indonesian scientists on this debate). We must all accept the
eventual decision of the ISRS council on this important issue, but I urge
all those involved to at least consider the perspectives presented above
and not rush to a hasty decision based largely upon emotion. Though I
realize that this may not be possible due to time limitations, it would
clearly be best if we could await the results of deployment of the
international peace-keeping force to East Timor and the Indonesian
presidential election before making a final decision about the fate of 9th


Mark V. Erdmann, PhD.
University of California, Berkeley 
Indonesian Institute of Sciences' Center for Research and Development in
Pulau Bunaken, Sulawesi Utara, Indonesia

More information about the Coral-list-old mailing list