The Togean -- or Togian -- Islands are an archipelago in the southeast region of the Tomini Sea in northern Sulawesi. Famous for both their difficulty to reach and diving, the archipelago is formed by seven primary islands situated near the centre of a global hotspot of biodiversity known as the coral triangle. Home to a great number of rare marine and terrestrial species, most tourists who come here are divers or snorkellers hoping to see some of the world's best marine life in unspoiled surroundings.
Are the surroundings unspoiled? Not really. While above the water, the islands are beautifully little developed and unspoiled, below the waves it's a different story. Since the early 90s, highly destructive fishing methods like dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning have been widely used in the Togeans, causing a steep decline in fish numbers and immense shallow reef damage.
Sharks, other large fish, and turtles are rarely seen -- especially when compared to locations like Komodo National Park, which has seen better (though not perfect) protection. In two weeks on the islands we saw not a single example of snorkelling trips using buoys, with anchors freely thrown onto reefs and, while boats made some effort to adhere to already smashed channels, attention in this regard was pretty cursory. While one hotel owner suggested the reason for this was to not show fishermen where the fish are, these are very simple practices that could have a significant impact; it's a shame to see little attention paid to it.
While evidence of logging is rarely seen from a boat running by the coasts, under the water clear examples of coral smashed by sunken logs can be seen on some house reefs. Other effects, such as silt run off from cleared areas of jungle for cash crop farming, is less obvious to the untrained eye. Rising sea temperatures and crown of thorns starfish have also caused significant damage to the reefs.
The local population are predominantly Muslim and six main ethnic groups live here (Togeanese, Bajau, Bobongko, Buginese, along with Gorontalonese and Javanese transmigrants). Small villages are scattered about the islands and poverty is endemic, with poor living standards and high unemployment. While some live by fishing, many others grow cash crops such as coconut, cacao and cloves on land cleared of jungle. Some resorts are foreign-run and others are managed by Indonesian entrepreneurs from elsewhere in the archipelago -- few of the locals seem to reap any financial benefit from tourism, aside perhaps as boat pilots and staff at some of the larger resorts.
The island group was only declared a national park in 2004. Since then, the area has been earmarked as a key tourist destination by the Indonesian government. Potential problems arising from a significant increase in tourist numbers, such as extra demands on an already limited water supply, and sewage and trash disposal, do not however appear to have been addressed -- by the authorities or many of the resorts. There is no central waste disposal system and, at least as far as the resorts are concerned, non-biodegradable trash such as plastic tends to be either buried or burnt (though some plastic bottles are kept to sell to recyclers and empty beer bottles are sold back -- drink beer not coke!). Outside the resorts, waste often appears to be just thrown into the ocean; we watched one woman on a boat clear out a cupboard at port, casually chucking pieces of paper overboard. We also heard of one resort owner who purposefully throws aluminium cans into the ocean under the mistaken belief that they promote reef growth.
While this isn't good news for the long-term sustainability of tourism to the Togeans, there are simple things you can do to help reduce your personal impact. Bringing your own water bottle and making use of water refills (where available) is one of the easiest steps. It you need to buy bottled water, buy the larger 1.5 litre ones rather than the "virtual cup" ones that litter beaches across the archipelago. Another option is to keep your plastic trash and take it back to the mainland with you.
When snorkelling, collect rubbish (particularly floating plastic and bottles) and at least bring it back to your resort. Organise a beach cleanup at low tide -- you'll be surprised just how much plastic litter there is when you take a close look -- and try to get the local kids involved as the more they do it, the more the desirability of a clean beach will become apparent -- and perhaps they'll start telling their parents to stop throwing their rubbish in the ocean, as the kids on the next beach will need to clean it up. Small steps, perhaps, but better than no steps at all.