Gili Trawangan Ecotourism and Coral Reef Restoration

Just horse power to get you around on this isle.

Not too far away in the East of Bali lies a sleepy island that practices sustainable tourism. Just horse power to get you around on this isle.

The thousand odd people living within this Indonesian territory of Gili Trawangan island (near Lombok) recognise their growing economic needs, want to grow tourism in a bigger way to meet those needs, and yet take personal responsibility in protecting their environment.

Over the past decade, they have seen a drop in the number of fishes in the sea. Fishermen had been throwing handmade bombs into the waters as a quick way of getting seafood to feed its own people. “Our coral reefs have been badly hit as a result of the use of bombs in fishing and we realized that when reefs disappeared, so did the fish,” said Pak Malek, head of Gili Eco Trust at the opening ceremony of the 6th Biorock Workshop on Gili Trawangan from 1-7 December 2008.

“But this destructive fishing is not practised anymore since we have established a marine park area (MPA) here working with the Lombok marine conservation office Kelesterian Laut (KSDA),” said Delphine Robbe, manager of Gili EcoTrust. “Our corals have also been destroyed by storms, anchor drops, overfishing and compressor spare gun fishing,” she said, “not to mention El Nino in 1997-1998 that caused bleaching.”

Building blocks of tourism development.

Knowing better now, the community has taken action. Delphine and her colleagues in Gili Eco Trust have introduced a slew of measures. They have compensated fishermen for staying away from the MPA, installed mooring buoys, and promoted marine awareness in schools and dive shops. The Gili Eco Trust set up in 2001 by the seven dive shops and a local organisation gather funds and resources to heighten marine awareness and conservation of the three Gili islands – Gili Trawangan, Gili Nemo and Gili Air.

A major initiative is to restore demolished underwater habitats by building new coral reefs using electric powered structures or Biorock with the help of the community itself.

Community Leads, NGO Follows

Gili Trawangan is a case study of how initiatives to make the environment a better place can come from within, and bottom up. The first Biorock trial installation took off on 20 November 2004 (source: at the invitation of long-time Bali resident Cody Schwaiko, and Bali Hai Diving Adventures with funding from the Vila Ombak Diving Academy backed by community support.

Coral reefs born again.

Dr Thomas J Goreau and the late Prof Wolf Hilbertz showed them how to build a steel structure in various shapes to create a new coral reef to bring back the fish – and hence boost fishing livelihood – and protect the shores from erosion. Coral reefs serve as natural hiding places for sea creatures from predators while helping themselves to lesser prey. A healthy ecosystem for butterfly fish, damsel fish, lion fish, sting rays, lobsters and even moray eels.

“Then as nobody could believe it was cheap and quite easy to make, my friends Laurent Lavoye, Foued Kaddachi and I built our structure in front of Trawangan with our own money and with guidance from Tom Goreau during the 3rd Biorock workshop in Pemuteran, Bali in November 2005,” said Delphine.

The following year, they organised 4th Biorock workshop in Gili Trawangan with the support of the Karang Lestari Foundation from Pemuteran, Bali, with 30 participants and TV crew from ARTE. “During this workshop we built 10 more structures,” said Delphine.

Two years later, the hands-on 6th Biorock workshop in December 2008 was held in Gili Trawangan again organised by Gili Eco Trust and Global Coral Reef Alliance with the support of PADI and local businesses such as dive shops, restaurants and hotels. “We built 15 mores structures, 5 in the north and 10 in front of the village,” said the workshop organiser Delphine, bringing the total number of structures surrounding Gili Trawangan to 28.

Tom on breakwater structures slowing wave intensity.

The latest Biorock workshop on designing, building and maintaining coral reef structures was conducted by Tom Goreau from the Global Coral Reef Alliance. The 52 participants remained glued through the lectures that ranged from the history of coral formation to factors for restoration success to the scientific basis of coral growth due to electrolytic reaction. Staying a week on the island to learn all about Biorock and acquire building skills were Makassar University students, foreign marine biologists, dive instructors from Argentina, Sabah and Australia, resort/dive shop operators and teachers.

As an observer, I got all dirty and wet too. I tied the structures on land, dived underwater, collected broken corals from the seabed and transplanted them to the structure underwater, fighting against sea currents and running low on air very quickly. It is hard work too, carrying heavy steel structures from the shore on to the boat, then lowering them into the water before proceeding to dive in for coral transplantation. While I discovered with glee new muscles emerging on my arms, I also basked in seeing healthy coral growth on the older structures – they were already natural habitats for the underwater creatures to live, mate and reproduce.

And all because of a bottom up approach, with the islanders taking the lead. At the workshop, Tom urged participants not to forget community-based resources as the most important success factor in establishing a long-term marine restoration project. “The local people know the issues and want to restore the situation - they just need the tools and money. Because their hope is to keep the environment for their future generations,” he said.

Grassroots democracy at Gili islands.

Tom highlighted the traditional top down approach with NGOs pushing their agenda on communities resulting in formation of marine protected area (MPA) and police state imposition do not tackle the root cause of coral reef degradation. “Without large-scale restoration of habitat quality the fishery decline will continue even in the well-managed and funded MPAs,” said Tom, adding, “It just does not work.”

“We need grassroots democracy,” said Tom.

With grassroots support and long-term commitment, the building of new reefs paves the way for restoration. Political will is first of all needed at the local level backed by historical knowledge and documentation of how the reefs used to be. “The strategy is to accept the fact that the corals that we have are damaged and decide what to do about them. Technology then can serve that role if we apply it on a large scale,” he said. Community-based fishery management using Biorock is presently ongoing in the Philippines and Thailand as well.

Agreeing, Badrul Munir, MM, Vice governor of Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB) talks of the urgent need to escalate the projects with greater community involvement. “We need to grow new coral reefs not just around Gili Trawangan, but the 100 and more islands around here,” he said.

Charging up marine creatures big and small.

“Only then can we get our fish back,” said the local leader.

The government of Lombok recognises that the problem of bad fishing practices that led to beach erosion as well. “We take this very seriously and have established a monitoring system daily,” said Malek. “When anyone spots someone throwing a bomb in, we alert the enforcement team.”

This enforcement is not the police however; they are villagers who have assigned themselves with such a role. In fact, at Gili Trawangan, there is no police station or police officers. Crime is dealt the way it used to be when time began – public flogging and shaming. “We used to slash their faces with knives and rub salt on them, then soak them in the seawater until they beg for mercy and repent,” said Ahyar Rosidi, manager of Pondok Lita where I stayed. “Now we just whack them with our hands and drag them around for all to see so that they will be more careful with this person when he comes around.”

Taking ownership of the island as their own home is perhaps why the crime rate in this island is low, the pathways are free of litter, public facilities are well maintained, and businesses chip in to contribute to the upkeep of the tourism standards – including starting a tourism school for youths.

Gili Trawangan Tourism School

Maybe tourism school with the right tools will keep them indoors.

The new tourism school set up in 2008 hopes to build essential skills and training of the local community to meet the fast growing tourism industry on this island alone. “We want to make sure they also have good jobs like receptionists, accountants, serving staff at restaurants and dive shop assistants and earn good pay,” said Delphine, who also manages Big Bubble Dive centre.

Having a job and earning money means that the poor can thrive. It could also mean that the noticeable drug pushing when night falls is stamped out. “Our village elders find it hard to prevent the youths from peddling weed because they seem not to have alternative jobs,” said Rosidi, adding that he wishes for more businesses to be set up on the island to create employment and boost the economy.

The tourism school, however, lacks funds and is crippled by the lack of dedicated facilities. The 30 students who enrolled into the two- and three-year programme this year share the same compound as high school kids. According to Rosidi, only 15% of the funds come from the government under the Lombok municipality; the rest is contributed by the 70 businesses operating in the island (each giving USD4-50 a month) and from well-wishers.

Future divemasters, hopefully, these kids of horsecar driver Wayas.

“We need more money so we can buy books, computers and sponsor more people studying tourism,” explains Delphine. Her dive shop sells postcards, pledging 25% of sales proceeds to the tourism school fund. According to Rosidi, donations such as textbooks, plain writing books and pens will also come in handy.

Visitors making a trip to the island can contact Gili Eco Trust to find out how they can contribute to the island’s ecotourism needs and skills training.

Underwater photography courtesy of Scotty Graham. Rest by Mallika Naguran.

About the Sixth Indonesian Biorock Workshop

The workshop inaugurated the new PADI Introduction to Biorock Process - Distinctive Specialty, which can only be offered at locations with Biorock projects, and taught by PADI Instructors who are also Biorock Training Course graduates. The workshop is supported by PADI Asia Pacific and Project Aware.

For more information, visit:

Global Coral Reef Alliance

Contact Dr Thomas J Goreau at

Gili EcoTrust

Send enquiries, donations to Gili Eco Trust through

 Accommodation and activities information

See related Gaia Discovery article on stressed corals and how Biorock comes to the rescue.

Read about Thomas J Goreau background and motivations.