Surf Tourism in the Mentawais: What is it really all about?

Small-scale capitalism and development in the Mentawais: some thoughts and footnotes to Jess Ponting’s “Managing the Mentawais.
Glenn Reeves

This article consists of two sections. In the first I wish to expand upon and augment, from an anthropological perspective, several issues that are raised by Jess Ponting in his paper “Managing the Mentawais” which provides a sketch of the general dimensions and main players involved in the surf tourism industry that is currently developing across the Mentawai Islands. The report also outlines recent advances in the “sustainable tourism” approach and argues for its application in the context of this ongoing expansion, and thus represents a welcome contribution to our understanding of the key issues in the context of the Mentawai Islands. The additional information comes from meetings and conversations that I conducted with a number of local and expatriate figures involved, in varying degrees, in the surfing industry, along with observations made during an informal tour in late 2000 early 2001 of several of the most frequented surfing locations. I attempt to reinterpret the developments in this industry in terms of the operation of capital as this aligns with “development”. I argue that there exists a contradiction between the real interests of surfing tour operations, as capitalist operations, and the interests of local communities. Such operations tend to be presented as forces for “development”, although the achieved outcomes contrast with the sort of developmental outcomes that can be achieved by non-profit NGOs, for example, outcomes that can be much more efficiently delivered in comparison to those of the capital intensive operators, which, by the very nature of their operations, do not put development as a priority, although it nevertheless forms an important legitimizing dimension for their activities, and the basis for this self-representation. In the second section I attempt to tease out the distinctive nature of the intersection of foreign capital intersects with local interests, developing the notion of local acquiescence as constituting a key dimension to foreign extraction of surplus value.


I was somewhat vacantly perusing the magazine rack prior to departure at the domestic terminal in Brisbane on the first leg of my return journey to the area where I conducted field research in the Rereiket region of South Siberut during 1992-93. The latest edition of Surf Adventures (No.5 Nov 2000) caught my eye as it had an interview with Martin Daly who is credited with “discovering” the rich wave field that has become synonymous with the name “Mentawai”. The interviewer describes how a “combination of luck and enterprise made Martin Daly one of the world’s foremost surf pioneers” a position consolidated by his exploration of the Mentawai archipelago which has elevated his status amongst the world surfing community to that of the “surfing candyman”. The usage is instructive since it points to the great value that is vested in good quality waves wherever they are found in the world, a valuation which has subjected them and the regions in which they are found to processes of commoditization. And it is my overall argument that commoditization as this relates to the key process of extraction of “surplus value” takes us a long way towards understanding the activities and motivations of the main players in the industry as it exists in early 2001.

Ponting (2001:30) makes use of Urry’s notion of the “tourist gaze” as a way to understand the factors that influence or even impel the “cash-rich, time-poor” surfing tourists to part with large amounts of cash in order to be able to consume the high-quality surfing experiences available in the Mentawai islands. He develops the concept of the “modern surfing tourist’s gaze” which enables an understanding of the cultural forces underwriting the general forces of ‘desire’ that inform this consumption, forces which can be detected within the comments of Martin Daly as, with some regret, he sketches the history of his involvement with the islands. These forces are contained within a number of metaphors he draws upon within the interview.

In response to the interviewer’s aim to understand the general motivation for his continual search for undiscovered surfing locations, Daly suggests that it is mainly about “running away from crowds”. Once an area had been discovered it was not long before the crowds moved in meaning the time had come to move on to yet undiscovered locations. Well undiscovered by the travelling surfer anyway, since these areas had naturally long been within the ambit of local sociocultural systems. In the case of the Mentawai Islands it would appear that the penultimate moment was in late 1990 or early 1991 with what Daly terms “The Surf Trip” patronised by several big-name surfers who got to experience extremely high quality and fairly large surf for a week or so. Secrecy was the goal and this meant the use of “a lot of code names. We did not want to use geographic names. Loose talk could bring the crowds” (p.41).

Thus began the overcoding of indigenous domains in the Mentawais through the operation of the tourist “gaze”; and one cannot help but note the similarities in this practice with the various European colonial gazes during the 18th century that initiated what is now an ongoing process of overcoding by a whole variety of groups and government instrumentalities. The overall aim of the former was not, however, to stake a claim in the name of some distant kingdom, as in the case of the latter, but to conserve the resource, as it were, a practice which had the (possibly) unintended consequence of delaying the induction of these already overcoded locations into a process of commoditization. As Daly observes “everything has its price, and the price was everyone else wanted to do it”. With this induction into circuits of commoditzation we have, according to Daly “the full nightmare” with “everyone up there”. The power contained within the advertised product/commodity is evidenced within the frustration expressed by Ponting’s exemplary interviewee, who describes the lure of such destinations as having the potential to drive a “man” “insane” should he not get to “experience it” and have to settle for merely “watching it on video or looking at it in magazines” (Ponting 2001:31).

Nevertheless it is a telling point, as Ralph Buckley points out (Ponting 2001:33), that the major surf locations on the islands are now ‘severely overcrowded’, the end result of this process. Indeed one of the boat skippers on location mentioned to me that if he was one of the “punters” (ie.clients) he would undertake a surf tour in the period November-December. Whilst the swell could be fickle with unfavourable wind directions, there was more than adequate recompense in the lack of crowds and the sorts of problems that accompany them. It seems somewhat ironic that surfers fleeing the overcrowded conditions at their local breaks often end up with much the same problem in such a remote location. The term “punter” is indeed appropriate, in which a visitor plays the odds as to whether a break will be deserted or not. A local at Katiet, the home of the now well-known HT’s, described an encounter between a recently arrived group and an already settled group. The latter’s response was for several to expose their anuses and defecate in the general direction of the new arrivals—an unambiguous statement of claim in anybody’s terms. The surf experience could be described then as having well and truly been commodified to the point where it now constitutes a powerful force the consequences of which for the various stakeholders, particularly the indigenous stakeholders is far from clear.

The state of play at the moment in the industry can be described in terms of varying degrees of disarticulation amongst the various stakeholders (cf. Ponting 2001:25-31) involved in the industry in 2001, the main stakeholders being the local people who consist of various ethnic affiliations; government agencies and officials; the major tour providers Mentawai Wisata Bahari/Great Breaks International (MWB/GBI) and the Surf Travel Company (STC) which between them account for a little less than half of the industry, since there exist a number of independent operators, although in terms of the application of capital and influence that these companies wield, by themselves they almost fully constitute the industry in its entirety; finally there are the travellers who consume the product made available by these service providers. In what follows I will concentrate on the recent activities of the major tour company stakeholders, MWB and STC.

MWB is the Padang-based partner of Great Breaks International (GBI) an Australian-registered company. In the main the employees are ethnic Minangkabau, some of whom hail from Siberut. The controlling interest appears to rest in the hands of a Siberut-born Batak, a member of a family whose father moved to Siberut in the post-war period. STC is another Australian-registered company whose Indonesian partner is an influential Javanese bureaucrat. Since foreign citizens or companies are forbidden from owning an Indonesian registered company outright or real-estate more generally, such individuals are essential for foreign interests wishing to conduct business in Indonesia. The recent history of surf tourism development in the Mentawai islands is very much the story of the struggle of MWB to limit STC’s opportunities to expand and develop its operations. But this history can also generally be read in terms of the application of differential strategies on the part of both to forge ahead with the expansion of their businesses in pursuit of the maximization of market share.

MWB has chosen to lease land at three strategic locations across the islands where rudimentary accommodation is in the process of being erected, accelerating a newly instituted phase in the development of the Surf Tourism Industry, the establishment of land-based operations. The first is on the north coast of Nyangnyang island facing Taileleu on Siberut’s south coast. The second is at Katiet on the southeastern tip of Sipora, with the third at Silabu on the west coast of North Pagai. Katiet is probably the most advanced of the three locations, with one hut housing the local MWB employee, L. —another Batak from the extended family at Muara Siberut whose older “brother” takes a leading role in the day-to-day affairs of the business—along with a satellite phone-fax facility. Other huts are being constructed in time to be available for land-based surfers in the 2001 season.

A 500m or so strip of land just in from the beach in front of the surf-break known as Hollow Trees (HTs) just to the south of the village proper at Katiet has been leased from local landowners, that is several of the “suku”(2) which collectively constitute the community at Katiet. The key suku involved here is Samaloisa, which is the suku of the village head. He owns the hut in which “L” (MWB employee) lives, and which can house up to two other guests for which he collects payment. MWB have paid Rp.15 million for a 15 year lease from the seven or so suku who control plots of land leased to MWB, although L. says that it is a 30 year lease which is renewable at the time of expiry (having, however, earlier mentioned that full control would return to the locals at the end of this period). The village head informed me that each parcel of land has been leased for Rp.850 000 per annum which gives a similar total of Rp.12 750 000 over 15 years. According to L. MWB will also invest in small-scale development infrastructure such as the establishment of a copra-processing operation in order that the “local people can earn some money”. They will thus benefit from employment opportunities and from the increased cash flow that will result from land-based surfers spending in the village, which contrasts with the current situation of self-contained ocean-going vessels, obviating the need to acquire essential items from local economies.

In contrast to MWB, STC has chosen the somewhat more risky path of the full purchase of the tiny islet labeled, ironically, “Big” Penanggalan (Penanggalan Sabeu) located a little to the south of Nyangnyang island, measuring approximately 100 x 200-300m. The operation envisaged here is capital intensive, with the attraction of capital proving a major obstacle until recently. A figure of around $A 1 million for the total development was put forward by one person in the know. The dejure purchaser is a Jakarta-based Javanese businessman-bureaucrat, “P” in partnership with the owner/manager of STC, Paul King. The operation is mainly directed from Australia through STC’s representative in the field, “D”, a Minangkabau born in Muara Siberut who has also resided in New Zealand and Australia. P purchased the islet from one Elias of the suku Sabolak at a cost of anywhere between Rp.100 million and Rp.150 million, depending upon who you talk to.

This outright alienation of what amounted to a portion of the suku’s “pulaggajat”(3) caused much dissention within closely related suku (rakrak) some of whom were located as far away as the Rereiket. Some members “descended” from the Rereiket in order to clarify what had happened and sort out the problem, which up until now has seemingly still not been concluded to the satisfaction of the people involved. Elias claims that he was offered a role in the development of the proposed resort, “Atlantis”, on the islet, but has not yet been unambiguously, in his view, employed or at least involved. At the close of 2000 at least one investor, “Rush TV” (with whom Guy Leach ex-ironman and recent traveler to the area is associated), was poised to take an active interest perhaps in terms of an opportunity to make sporting documentaries, although recent news of financial difficulties (i7 having ceased funding) may curtail their involvement.

According to D, the plan for Atlantis is for an upmarket resort catering to a variety of tourist categories based upon the theme of watersports. Surfers will be catered for, but also “thrill” seekers who will be able to use jet-skis to scoot to and from neighboring islands and islets. The Japanese wedding/honeymoon market is also envisaged to be a source of clients as well as for “families” just looking for somewhere off the beaten track. In the first instance the plan is to build around eight bungalows housing 4 people each, just above the high-water mark. Platforms are to be constructed leading to the center of the islet where a restaurant/entertainment area will be established once the pools of stagnant water are drained. A wharf at the northeast tip of the island costing Rp.300 million was close to completion in November 2000, when high winds ruined half of it as well as sinking the vessel used to sink and stabilize the pylons. The island is inhabited at different times during the year by fishermen/boys from Sipora who cross the narrow straight in canoes driven by small outboard motors.

There are thus differences in business-development strategies between MWB/GBI and STC. The first is smaller-scale and dispersed. The second is concentrated, highly capital intensive, and also entails a much higher risk. But what requires consideration is the ways in which these various strategies intersect with the life trajectories of the local populace, where the task is an evaluation of the extent to which the activities of these major operators can be considered to be in the (developmental) interests of the locals to the degree, and in the ways described by them. The second half of the first section of this paper, then, attempts to tease out the outlines of a discourse made use of by these operators that sometimes explicitly but most often implicitly uses the notion of development to legitimate their activities and thus build support for them. Surf “developments”, or the “sustainable development” that is offered as the context within which it is intimated that the world at large view them, must be seen as variable manifestations of that version of development offered by the modernization perspective—that business is the best vehicle for providing welfare and higher standards of living for those falling within its ambit.

STC spokesperson Paul King(4) articulates a major concern for present and future activities of surf tour operators in terms of the need to control the ability of other potential operators to “take paying passengers” to surfing locations throughout the islands. This reflects a number of other concerns including prioritizing the interests of the local people. There is a need to establish a licensing system or simply a means to ensure that funds contributed by operators to authorities—ideally in terms of some overarching and incorruptible “association”—get to where they are needed to ensure that client safety is enhanced and that locals “be included and … have a say in what goes on.” This latter point is of such importance in King’s view that it is “vital to the success of any operation.” Hence, “[a]ll operators should be contributing to one organization that really does have the people at heart” in which funds would not get diverted to private companies and individuals. In pursuit of this King recognizes the importance of the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders particularly state instrumentalities, “harbour masters, the navy, sea communications, the tourism department and the government…”. He also observes, however, that very little benefit from surf tourist operations has gone to the “Mentawai people” as distinct from the diverse group of non-indigenous folk who collectively control the industry in concert with the tour operators.

MWB/GBI spokesperson Rick Cameron touches on similar themes in his assessment of the industry and what is required for the future also recognizing that up until now “the surf industry has contributed very little to the area” postulating five areas of concern that if addressed would contribute to changing this situation (5). However, in contrast to Paul King’s approach his platform is that private industry, or in other words, capital is the means through which control over surf travel operations is secured ensuring preservation of the resource and benefits accruing to the local people.

Cameron points out that the environment of the Mentawai Islands has been under threat for some time, and that tourism has been an important force in holding off the greater tide of developmental processes that have proceeded since Indonesian independence mainly under government auspices. Following this he begins to articulate the role that private capital is able to play in ensuring the continued protection of the environment arguing that “tourist companies have a vested interest in preservation” and thus offer the only “viable option given the budget restraints faced by the Regional Administrations around the country”—in the absence of “infrastructure” development, private capital is the means to that end. He argues that surfers are the “first” to come to an area to be eventually followed by “tourists with other interests” whom, in the Mentawai context will “eventually outnumber surfers” leading to the future challenge of managing the resultant impacts “on the few remaining pockets of surviving tribal cultures and the areas’ unique but shrinking wilderness.” Given this, tourism is the “only economic alternative” to the logging, overfishing and reef bombing that are among the most serious environmental challenges facing the area.

We then learn that MWB/GBI have been granted “zone management rights” at the three locations mentioned above to ensure that there is “minimum environmental impact” and “maximum sustainable economic return”. An important consequence of their absence would be, for one instance, the proliferation of “[s]hoddy local boats”, which would undermine the operations of those operators (such as STC and MWB/GBI) who have “invested heavily in strong safe boats” and would be “forced to move on .” Cameron then argues that it is necessary for a ” ‘development’ ” tax to be levied on each surfer in order to fund this infrastructure, and that “hopefully” these funds will find application in the service of local people. Such a tax, of course, has recently been instituted, the ZAP, levied at US$5 per day per surfer. A final point is that land based resorts, whilst not favoured by the majority of operators, since these constitute direct competition, will benefit the local people in their immediate vicinity who will gain employment supplying their kitchens and so forth. An additional initiative was the plan to establish “Integrated Sustainable Development Zones” alongside of the establishment of the, now effectively defunct, Krisau Mentawai Foundation, having the object of realizing a number of developmental objectives for the local people in the vicinity of Nyangnyang (6).

There are a number of currents running through the sentiments put forward by these businessmen that need unpacking since they reveal the workings of capital that is serving, ultimately, its own interests, with the interests of others particularly the local people subordinate to its own. And it is my overall argument that while this is the case, the local people are always going to be missing out on the resources that would deliver to them a significantly higher standard of living than they currently enjoy—assuming that as a minimal objective of any development strategy.

King and Cameron both profess a commitment to the welfare of local, mainly indigenous, people. However both suggest that they are unable to, directly, do anything about improving local people’s welfare, despite occupying key positions in their respective companies in relation to the generation, mobilization and application of significant quantities of capital. From one point of view this could be adjudged to be a matter of ‘bad faith’, or in other words the denial of responsibility or the ability to affect outcomes, where in fact they do possess that ability. On the other hand this could be adjudged to stem from a, perfectly reasonable, personal commitment to the ethos of capitalism in which any expenditure can only be justified by reference to its contribution to the overall return to the business. And such a commitment demands that the priorities of expenditure are in pursuit of the goals of the business in which everything else comes second. That just makes good business sense.

Allied to this are another set of important considerations centering on the issue that a capital concern possesses its own internal logic (touched on above), which, in connection to the logic of the socio-political or cultural environment in which it is embedded, makes its own demands upon those shaping its particular historical trajectory. Hence we firstly have to recognize that a capital concern’s first task is its own reproduction: it needs to stay in business—and it must be acknowledged that it is not easy for foreign capital to operate successfully in this part of the world. And this leads us to, secondly, appreciate the need to take into consideration the power of the logic of the structures within which capital concerns operate.

In the socio-political context of the Mentawai Islands an important consideration is that a capitalist operation generating a surplus (which it assumed to do from a local viewpoint whether or not that is actually the case) attracts the interest of a great many other parties, keen to gain some advantage from it. However local people are only one, relatively powerless party amongst many others having more power and influence, and are hence usually always the last ones to enjoy such advantage. These issues are of concern to King, whose answer is the institution of an accountable public instrumentality that can ensure that the local people do get to benefit through the repatriation to them of a part of the surplus made possible by their cooperation in facilitating access to the resource (high-quality waves). But one cannot but think that if the interests of the locals were really paramount for all those involved in making the capital concern that is STC the success that it is, then there would be no need to lament the industry’s lack of tangible contribution to local needs (which needs to go a good deal beyond ensuring that locals get a “say”), an industry of which STC forms a significant part.

In arguing that capital is the only way to really ensure that any prosperity is enjoyed by the local people, Cameron argues for the vital place that tourist operations have played and therefore must continue to play in the islands’ future. Whilst this is a modicum of truth in this, the prioritization of capital providing the foundation for this position results in falsely homogenizing the tourist industry and a contortion of history. Mass tourism in the form of adventure/culture backpacking tours has long predated the surf industry on the Mentawai Islands and has gone into relative decline particularly since 1998 when Indonesia entered the post-Suharto era of uncertainty. Trekking operators now report a marked decline in comparison with the halcyon days of the early 1990s, with no likelihood of increase of numbers to pre-‘crisis’ levels in the immediate future, particularly given the ongoing instability of various regions within the nation. Hence the islands are not in urgent danger of environmental and social impacts from this angle. And it must be remembered that if tourism did indeed play a role in the publicization of the conservation issues facing Siberut leading to the establishment of the Siberut National Park in 1993 (and I for one believe it was a factor) then that day has now passed. The SNP authority together with UNESCO’s ongoing presence is about the best means to ensure control of activities likely to lead to environmental degradation on Siberut that the region is likely to experience. And the increased vigilance with which the variety of local NGOs that are observing carefully and in some cases taking action, particularly Citra Mandiri and MAPUS in respect to Sipora and the Pagais, further suggests that the tourist industry is but one element amongst many.

But quite aside from this is the economic argument that tourism—understood in terms of highly capitalized concerns evidenced by the large investment in “strong safe boats”—is the “only” solution to logging, overfishing, and reef bombing, each of which involves very different dynamics, causes and effects—hence the argument that tourist companies have a vested interest in preservation and thus a vested interest in development. This may turn out to be the case only if mass tourism were to follow on the heels of surf tourism which would either 1. publicize the problem, thus raising consciousness, and/or 2. generate a critical mass of revenue more of which could be diverted into projects having a direct impact on living standards.

With regard to the first the area is getting publicity enough as it is—evidence the recent National Geographic documentary project filmed at various locations across the islands which will shortly be seen by some 50 million viewers worldwide. With regard to the second the market is already at saturation level, so if significant funds are not already being produced and thus channeled into the task of raising living standards, then there is little solace to be gained here. The ZAP initiative represents a step in the right direction. But every local I have talked to, without exception, is quick to point out the obvious, that this money which is to be paid into the “Regional Treasury of Mentawai Archipelago Regency” account in Padang by MWB and then redistributed to the locals is going to significantly depleted—such is the nature of Indonesian political economy where poor remuneration by the state to its officials results in the very understandable practice of income supplementation (sometimes termed “corruption” by many unsympathetic observers).

In short, the position advanced by MWB/GBI in relation to these five principles indicates a clear adherence to a modernization paradigm in which development is a beneficial side-effect of the operation of capital. I do personally believe that a genuine commitment to the welfare of the local people on the part of surf tour providers, particularly those in the more capitalized operations, would have generated significant increases in living standards, particularly in terms of health (hence making Surf-Aid unnecessary), if the welfare of the local people truly constituted the priority that they have suggested it does so far. It is arguable that if the interests of the local people were actually placed at the highest priority and not the marketing and provision of a commodity, the experience of surfing high-quality waves, then this situation would not have arisen.

The problem is the assumption embedded in the discourse and practices of these companies that “development” initiatives can be grafted onto and integrated into the activities of a business ultimately driven by the need to, minimally, reproduce itself but ideally produce a (cash) surplus for its owners. That reflects a developmental philosophy that has been continually shown to be wanting in the developing world. In the Mentawai context real development would have been achieved and a lot more effective outcomes produced had the driving principle behind these business practices been purely local interests and not the interests of capital.

Good examples of reasonably successful development initiatives include the Catholic missionary operation (Muara Siberut/Sikabaluan), activities stemming from recent UNESCO activities (Community Learning Centers) and the establishment of the cooperative coalition amongst Citra Mandiri Foundation (YCM), the Siberut National Park authority (TNS), and the “local community” (Masyarakat), as well as the field activities of Dr. Manoo’s Bhinekka Tunggal Ika Foundation. The ability of these organizations to work with local people in achieving a consensus as to what sort of development initiatives are appropriate for their situations, and then to work with them in achieving outcomes is only hampered by the lack of funds—there is no shortage of enthusiastic personnel. And their success is arguably related to the priorities of their respective “missions” which are very much in contrast to the agendas of the various surf tour providers.

But a further interesting dimension to all this is that the above scenario is not an altogether recent occurrence. Authorities in the colonial Dutch administration, in the Netherlands East Indies (present day Indonesia) generally, and specifically in the region of West Sumatra were divided upon how to increase the standard of living of the colonized populace(7). The Cultivation System, a system of forced surplus extraction based on state monopoly and mercantilism that was the dominant form the economy took from 1820 to 1870, came to be replaced by a system promoting the development of private capital. The liberals pushing for this argued that the unfettered operation of private capital in conjunction with free trade and unrestricted labour was the way of the future.

They were divided, however, on exactly the best way to go about this with some arguing that “traditional” social forms would only hinder the development of capital and thus the sort of society that they would like to see develop. This implied a view holding that there was only the one universal (capitalist) economic rationality that could deliver the sort of (taxable, of course) prosperity to the population that they were aiming for. Others, however, argued that the various societies constituting the East Indies could only be approached and understood on their own terms, which suggested that only the introduction of economic forms suitable to local conditions would achieve this end.

This led to a good deal of research, made possible by this perspective, concerning why it was that although local agricultural output was much higher in comparison to Europe, living standards were significantly lower. The answer came in the form of an argument for the existence of two distinct systems of economic rationality involving a “clash between two heterogeneous stages of development”(8), one local, one transplanted. Now colonial authorities did not take what we might think to be the next logical step of instituting bottom-up grass roots initiatives grounded in the reality of local rationalities since this was still the high noon of the colonial era and the goal was, ultimately, the extraction of surplus, although by more “liberal” and enlightened means. But I would suggest that any such genuine measures to raise living standards would have been compromised, and thus doomed, by the contradiction between capital as primarily a surplus-extracting endeavour, and the goal of raising living standards. In light of the entirely correct observation of the multiplicity of economic rationalities through which the various peoples of the East Indies constructed their economic systems, which remains the case to this day, it needs to be recognized that development strategies need to have their genesis within the terms set down by the particular rationalities whose interests they are, supposedly, to serve.

Finally, we can simply ask a question of every surf tour operator: What was the source of that initial momentum to set up a business in the Mentawais? Was it simply “There are people living on these islands that need a helping hand to improve areas of their lives that they see need improving, and establishing a surf tour operation is a good way of achieving this”? Or was it “There is a good opportunity to market a scarce resource; and if I don’t get out there soon then someone else is going to come along and do it anyway (apart from those who are already out there)”? The answer to each of these represents a very different point of departure and implies a very different set of priorities and practices each of which is irreducible to the other. Businesses going into the Mentawais on a platform of “development”, implicit or explicit, minimally need to recast their operations in precisely these terms, as capital concerns that connect with various development initiatives in various ways, in the interests of a full disclosure of their real interests in this region.


In this next section I wish to briefly examine the source of value that, to a greater or lesser degree, motivates the activities of the various surf tour businesses that are currently operating in the Mentawai Islands, in an attempt to bring more clearly into view the nature of the interaction between foreign capital and local interests—what is it that is being extracted from the region, and in what ways?

These businesses have their origins in the business cultures prevailing in the United States and Australia characterized by capital concerns that extract surplus value that can be understood, in the first instance, in the classical Marxian sense, although the local (cultural) context into which the particular businesses with which we will be concerned here find expression demand certain modifications to the model(9). In short the value of a commodity produced in the context of a productive process where the means of production are privately owned (directly or by individuals or institutions owning sizable parcels of shares) is actually the difference between the price obtained for the commodity on the open market by the proprietor and what it cost him/her to produce, which includes that proportion of the wage paid to employees by the employer/proprietor, compensating them for the time they have “sold” to that proprietor. That appropriation of a worker’s labour is at the basis of what Marxists generally argue to be the “exploitation” of the worker by the proprietor.

This is the age in the social sciences where “monoliths” of all kinds are being demolished, not least because they involve the quite rightful view of social reality as complex, particularly in these, what are often referred to as “postindustrial” (even postmodern)(10), times. Multiplicity reigns. And so it is in relation to “capital”(11). It is, thus untenable to argue for the one, homogenous institution or set of practices often referred to as “capitalism” to be at work when considering the influence or impact of, lets call them, capitalistic practices in a particular locale. We have, then, capitalisms understood as more or less, depending on the context, heterogeneous sets of practices, focused however more or less, depending once again on the context, on the extraction of surplus value, and embedded in the various social, cultural, and political circumstances that pertain across the islands.

This extraction takes place through the application of capital goods, working capital, and human capital or “labour”, which takes a specific form in the case of surf travel operations in the Mentawai islands. The product or commodity consumed by the clients of these companies takes the form of waves breaking over localized areas of the coastline. However the commodity’s composition is complex in this context since this consumption is made possible through the mediation of various groups of people, the two key groups being the surf travel company itself and the local people. It is in the relations of these groups to each other that the value of the commodity is to be found.

The company employs capital goods mainly in the form of boats which it owns outright, or for which it acts as an agent, bringing together consumer and producer for a fee, i.e. a share of the surplus value extracted, or boats in which shares are held by a consortium. And it may be that shareholders are also employees of the company, drawing an annual salary as well as an annual share in the surplus value appropriated by the company during the season’s charters. Thus such individuals occupy a position of being both generators of surplus value, insofar as it is their labour time that is being appropriated by the company supplying the commodity, therefore making them employees, and partial consumers of their own production. This is one dimension of the issue of human capital, a closer examination of which I now turn.

One boat skipper made the observation to me recently that the wealth “brought in” by the surf charter clients largely remains on the mainland, citing the example that many of them came straight from Singapore, spent a short time in transit in Padang before departure to the surfing grounds out on the islands. The only currency many of them have is US dollars, which they do not convert to Indonesian rupiah, largely because all that they require is supplied by the charter company. Even in the case of the phone/fax facility at Katiet payment is accepted in US dollars, all of which ensures that there is little flow-on into the local economy. That the local economy does very poorly from these businesses is quite clear. But what I want to draw attention to is the unacknowledged source of surplus value that exists within the, largely “passive”, human capital resources contained in the local community.

Certain locals work directly or indirectly for these companies who, obviously, appropriate their labour-power which contributes to the overall return of the business (on a per-trip or annual basis). But the vast majority of them do not. They form a silent group of witnesses whose acquiescence to the activities of the surf charter operators makes the success of their operations possible. The degree to which that is so can be seen in the incident in the 2000 season at Katiet where it has become customary for locals to paddle a canoe out to each visiting boat and request 20 litres of kerosene which is used for cooking, lights and the village generator. A heated exchange took place between some locals and one vessel which refused to hand over any fuel. Only the intervention by a third party prevented a misunderstanding from, perhaps, escalating into an ugly incident.

The point I want to make is that it demonstrates the degree to which local cooperation is crucial to these operations and can be quantified in terms of a percentage of the surplus value extracted from the local community. Pursuing this line of logic it can be said that community good will, as an unacknowledged source of value which is realized in cash terms by the various businesses, is being severely exploited. An incident such as that involving the kerosene could be interpreted as a practical recognition of this, even if in a limited sense by the local people, although it fast becoming the basis for an explicitly self-conscious rejection of the terms under which these businesses interact with local communities—for example the recent ultimatum by a group on the Pagais, MAPUS, (Masyarakat Adat Pagai Utara Selatan) threatening to forbid boats from anchoring in that area if they were going to contribute nothing to the local community. (Similar grumblings can be heard in Taileleu, the closest populated settlement to the surfing grounds on Nyang-nyang [GBI/MWB], Mainuk [WPL], Penanggalan Sabeu [STC], Koraniki).

In sum, the current activities of the various surf travel businesses with interests in the Mentawai Islands do not yet represent development initiatives in the second sense of the term as I have defined it above. The overriding concern of these businesses is in the extraction of surplus value whether to simply ensure their survival into the next season or in pursuit of capital accumulation for further expansion in the local region or elsewhere, although small amounts may find their way into local economies. This priority results in an attenuation of any “development” initiatives or activities they might be involved in, and represents a contradiction between declared intent and the reality of the economic processes in which they are involved. Given the changed political climate in the form of regional autonomy which came officially into existence on January 1, 2001, coupled with the accelerating trend towards mid-level political organization evidenced by the appearance in the last five years or so of local-based NGOs, the future may well be characterized by a more organized effort on the part of the indigenous population to claim a greater share of the value that is generated by resources which are beginning to be defined as resources, control over which is seen as the right of those communities within whose bounds those resources fall.


1. Ponting (2001) Managing the Mentawais: An Examination of Sustainable Tourism Management and the Surfing Tourism Industry in the Mentawai Archipelago, Indonesia.
2. cf .
3. Consult
4. Refer to Ponting (2001) Appendix 1.
5. See also
6. See
7. The information on which this section is based is derived from Kahn, J.(1993) “The Constitution of Indonesia in Colonial Discourse” In J.Kahn Constituting the Minangakabau:Peasants, Culture and the Minangkabau in Colonial Indonesia. Oxford:Berg.
8. Boeke, (1966) Indonesian Economics:The Concept of Dualism in Theory and Policy. The Hague:W. van Hoeve.
9. I would refer the reader here to Marx, K.(1986) [1887] Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Bk. I. Moscow: Progress Publishers, which contains an extended reflection of the nature of surplus value extraction.
10. Not a term I subscribe to which, due to the very act of denial, often automatically gets me labelled as a “postmodernist”!
11. See for e.g. S.Lash & J.Urry (1987) The End of Organized Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

2 thoughts on “Surf Tourism in the Mentawais: What is it really all about?”

  1. Hi Glenn,
    Thank you for sharing your work in such an accessible way. Are you aware of writings that might serve as follow-up reading to your articles on the Surf Industry and/or your ethnographic articles?
    Regards, Sam

    1. Hey Sam, Nope. Sorry. I’m about as out-of-the-loop as can be. Once a year I pause over the kill switch for this site then think, yahhh, may as well keep it around for a while. Maybe include it as metadata on a blockchain…now that’s a thought … cos I’ll be a gonner sooner than later. I digress. Clifford Geertz once quipped about Bali along the lines that ‘Bali is a well-studied place, mainly because it’s Bali’. I guess you could say the opposite is the case for Mentawai, lol.

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