A week in Merauke, the eastern most city in Indonesia

On Friday morning, March 4th, Aprianto and I visited the Merauke Regency Government office that handles infrastructure planning.  We met with two planners, Samuel and James, and their manager.  I shared information about Charles County and our government structure.  We discussed enforcement challenges experienced in the Merauke region when multiple provinces share resources and have differing regulations.  The planners expressed development pressure can be a competing interest to conservation and preservation efforts in the region.  They asked about the Bay Program’s approach to data sharing, including GIS layers, which I explained are available for public use and sharing to promote transparency and encourage collaboration. Later in the evening, I attended the farewell and promotion ceremony for the outgoing and rising chief for Wasur National Park’s Forestry Office respectively.  It was well attended by staff and their families, as well as some members of the indigenous community members who reside within the park boundaries. 

On Saturday, Apri and I set off by motorbike for Sota, a village within Wasur National Park on the border with Papua New Guinea.  We visited what is known as a “free zone” within Papua New Guinea where we met a village chief and his wife.  We had a nice walk and talk with them and talked about their village and how Australians surveyed the area in the 1960s and placed location markers in the area.   We had lunch in Sota at a warung where I tried cassowary, a flightless bird native to the area, for the first time. On the way back, we had the misfortune of getting a flat tire on the motorbike about 25 kilometers before we reached the park border.  Using the universal sign of distress/need help, we were able to flag down a passing truck after a few passed us by.  The gentlemen kindly gave us a ride to a modest repair shop just outside the park with the motorbike in tow in the bed.  While the mechanic replaced the tire tube, a pouring rain ensued.  We didn’t mind at all, because better to be wet on the back of a bike with two good wheels than on the side of the road with only one good one! 

Sunday morning Apri and I attended church service in Merauke.  It was a lovely church and many singing groups performed during the service.  We did a city tour in the afternoon including the beach area where we saw dozens of fishing boats sitting in the sand waiting for the tide to come in.  Monday morning we headed back to Wasur National Park.  First, we participated in a trash clean up with Ministry of Environment and Forestry staff.  This litter clean up effort was apparently occurring throughout Indonesia.  Merauke struggles with a litter problem, so it was great to see so much trash getting removed from the park.  The event was covered by the local TV and radio stations.  I did a short interview with RRI Radio staff member Vio for the radio broadcast.  The trip to Rawa Biru village to see Rawa Biru lake, Merauke’s drinking water source, was long and hot.  We stopped for a fresh coconut snack on the way back to cool off. 

Tuesday we met with WWF staff briefly and with the Director of the WWF Merauke office Wednesday morning.  A central focus of WWF Merauke is community development and sustainable forest management within communities.   WWF works closely with land use planners, government agencies and local indigenous groups.  They are consulted in the planning process for the equivalent of Charles County’s Comprehensive Plan.  However, economic pressure from development, including palm oil plantations, compete with conservation efforts.  They also collaborate with journalists to educate student groups about pro-environment concepts through writing and photography training.  I enjoyed sharing about how Charles County engages our student groups as well. 

Back in Jakarta, a Cultural Affairs U.S. embassy staff member gave me some brochures about the YSEALI program, Regional English Language Office (RELO) language training, and studying abroad in the U.S.   Apri has a few friends he will be sharing these brochures with in Merauke.  I also asked if we could try to reach the young woman from RRI Radio, and luckily Apri knew where the radio station was!  We stopped by the radio station and found out Vio is interested in YSEALI!  We’re meeting her for dinner tonight to talk more.  I’m hopeful she will share the information with friends, colleagues and potentially radio listeners.  I have a special place in my heart for people who work in radio as I worked in radio myself in my early twenties at now defunct major market alternative rock station, 99.1 WHFS FM.    

This week in Merauke has passed quickly and I’ve enjoyed the meetings and the site visits alike.   The sentiment echoed from multiple people is that conservation and natural resource protection often competes with economic development and industry demands on the land, not unlike Charles County and the rest of the U.S.  Merauke appears to face challenges with wastewater management, potable water, and waste management, which is consistent with what I heard in Jakarta meetings as areas of concern.  Litter clean-up efforts like I attended Monday are hopefully a sign of things to come to build healthier, cleaner communities like Merauke.  I’ve enjoyed eating as a local each day at the warungs (serve yourself homestyle) and at the “food court” where a variety of stalls offer all types of Indonesian cuisine.  The people here have been incredibly kind and gracious to me, a visitor who is far from home. 

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