Marine Biology and Culture by Lilly Tahmasebi

by tuftsigl
Aug 26

In a town where it is not unusual to see bright pink and lime green as the base and trim colors of a house, lies a community of smiley West Sumatrans blessed with an awe inspiring landscape that cannot be replicated (or, unfortunately, rebuilt). Walking down the street one sees lush greenery lining the barely paved roads where scooters, mini vans, fleets of black SUVs, and often chicken and infant goats zoom by. Bordering the houses are enormous palm trees that shoot up into the almost always vibrant blue skies. Far in the distance the outlines of volcanoes and mountains complete the scene with their majestic and unbelievable physical presence. All the while absorbing this incredible scenery, one also cannot help but step on noodle cups, flimsy water packets, and candy bar wrappers that are littered on the side of the roads and most heartbreakingly on the beaches of otherwise pristine islands. When I first arrived, one of the largest culture shocks happened not when I asked were the shower was and was shown a bucket and a faucet, but rather when I wanted to throw away a tissue or a banana peel. Asking for the trash can was just met with blank stares. Soon the realization set in that in this city of 83,000 people, only a handful of trash bins are found. Furthermore, no trash collection agency exists to collect any trash that has been carefully collected by those unwilling to throw it in the rice paddies that feed a people whose staple food is rice. Bewildered I came to understand that any and all trash in this city is burned. Plastic bottles and the styrofoam bowls that I have come to detest the sight of, are turned into ashes and toxic smoke when late afternoon greets the village of Pariaman. Standing in the backyard of my homestay, I watch the sunset. Only however, this sunset of purple and pink swirls are tinted grey with the smoke of dozens of my neighbor’s small individual fires. Through my initial interviews with locals and government officials focused on the visible problem of litter, I have received the same answer again and again: its simply not in the culture.

I have found that receiving that answer is difficult for me during these interviews. At first I simply didn’t understand what that meant. Growing up in the Bay Area, a place where fabric shopping bags are as essential to bring as money when going to the grocery store, it was hard to put myself in the same position. I eventually parsed out how I gleaned a consciousness about conservation and the environment at an early age and have begun to overlay the two experiences. I saw that as a young child, my school was the most important influence on my awareness of the environment and conservation efforts. Although Indonesian schools have recently begun to adopt curriculum that includes information about the importance of a healthy environment, the teachings are not reinforced and supported outside the classroom. Once a child exits the school gates, they see politicians, teachers, their elder siblings, parents, and grandparents littering. Policemen even litter as littering is not punishable by any law or even slightly illegal. In addition, schools are met with more obstacles as trash bins are not so readily available so that if a child wanted to avoid littering, they could.


I hope that with my upcoming research I can bring awareness to this issue and others in the community and work with the city of Pariaman to find solutions that will be effective in the cultural context.


My research :

            Thanks to the kindness of Tom Corcoran, the National Geographic, OMTOM, and CLI, I have traveled 8,700 miles to this small beach town to understand the role that conservation takes in the Minangkabau culture through a focused study on marine conservation efforts. My goal for the next few weeks is to fully understand how locals, marine biology students, turtle conservation officials, fishermen, sea policemen, and politicians alike view conservation both on a large scale (for example with coral reef restoration) and individual scale (littering).

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