Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Going online in the Indian Ocean

Extract from UNESCO Sources (131) published February, 2001, page 12  -13

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— Award-winning Chumbe Island is setting a novel example as a private sector "wise practice" based on tourism
(© H.Heile)

In 1999, when UNESCO set up its Coasts and Small Islands (CSI) Forum (username= csi; password= wise) on the internet, it used a nucleus of examples of ‘wise practices’ to bootstrap a global debate. Sibylle Riedmiller is project director of Chumbe Island Coral Park Ltd, an innovatory private-sector model of conservation based on ecotourism. She has been a regular contributor to the Forum since it posted her description of the Chumbe Island project (username= csi; password= wise) a year ago. Using the Forum’s medium of e-mail, we asked her to write about her experiences of going online to colleagues all over the world from an island in the Indian Ocean.

Does the fact of “going public” to other professionals world-wide help?

The CSI forum has helped the project to break the isolation that is so typical for grassroot projects that are not backed by big donor organisations. It gives access to a vibrant and probably unique international audience of practitioners, professionals, academics and grassroots people, specifically targeting those involved in coastal zone management of some sort. In developing countries with few alternative forums of debate, the Forum is invaluable! Locally we have to be very careful with what we say. Few people in power understand and support us, and the press is very suspicious of foreigners, like myself, so there is no real dialogue, unless you have international fame and powerful backing.

Does the existence of this dialogue have an influence locally?

Yes, potentially. Though key authorities in this country are not normally aware of internet discussions, as they are not yet connected. We may want to draw out arguments or use and mobilize support from partners in the Forum. It is always good to be able to refer to experiences elsewhere.

Your contribution provoked some fairly strong alternative views. Did these change or affect your own practice?

Not really, rather the contrary. There is actually no alternative to the non-destructive use of coral reefs through ecotourism. The greatest challenge for a conservation-minded investor is to stick to environmentally friendly technologies and practices, though local investment policies and building regulations favour mass-tourism.

Does seeing the “bigger picture” change anything for you?

Well, it gave us a lot of encouragement that we are on the right track, and that somewhere there are people who understand and support what we are doing! It also helped us see similarities with our situation in Asian countries such as the Philippines etc.

Has the Forum brought any surprises?

Well, it may have helped directly, by publicising the project. Many renowned professionals follow the Forum contributions, probably including the jurors of the UNEP Global 500 award, who selected the Chumbe Project as one of the 2000 laureates. This award in turn helped the project gain more political support in Tanzania, thus softening some of the obstacles to management that we are still facing.

How easy is it to go online on Chumbe Island?

In fact we have no telephone on Chumbe Island, so all our communications are made from the project offices in Zanzibar and Tanga. The internet is simply not yet a daily reality in Tanzania, except for a tiny elite and foreign funded projects. Telephone links are generally few, expensive and weak. The computer hardware needed costs about twice as much as in industrialised countries. Even technically outdated secondhand equipment is sometimes sold at prices that would buy the latest models overseas

The few Internet Service Providers (ISP) are concentrated in the capital and charge around $60 per month for the connection, not including phone time. For upcountry customers, the telephone company adds to this bill a minimum charge of around 70 US cents for 3 minutes connection, that is $14 per hour. Due to poor telephone lines, transmission rates are rarely more than 14,400 bps. This is far too slow for loading websites. At certain times of the day when lines are busy or disturbed, even sending e-mails may be interrupted, and in some areas people have to get up in the middle of the night for e-mailing. Satellite phones are still much more expensive to buy and to use.

Has the Forum adapted to these obstacles?

Because of the poor internet connection, we very rarely visit the Forum’s website, but rather respond to and work with the regular e-mailed contributions sent out by the moderator. Anything beyond simple e-mailing (without attachments!) is quite cumbersome and expensive, and surfing the web is out of the question. With telephone bills typically in the region of US$1000/month, even the professionally managed Chumbe project cannot afford more than e-mail, to the dismay of the web-literate expatriate volunteers.

There were notable exceptions though. When travelling recently to EXPO2000 in Germany (where the project exhibited), we were invited at very short notice to present the Chumbe Project to the World National Parks Convention held in Goslar, Germany. With no paper prepared beforehand, I could simply download our contribution (username= csi; password= wise) to the CSI-forum website and produce a short presentation within a couple of hours!

E-mail interview by Peter Coles

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