Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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Forget Boston and Thatcher. This week’s human flashpoint is Tubbataha

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
I watched hundreds of sharks pooling around coral ledges at thirty-five meters, so many they kept bumping into me. I watched giant tuna glitter in the dark thirty meters below me, leading tens of thousands of giant barracuda through the depths. I saw guitar sharks the size of small hovercrafts flitter through the sand a few meters from where I was sitting. I was flying bomber formation with thirty eagle rays on their way to breakfast.

All those moments have been lost in time, like tears in rain.

A friend of mine recently visited Tubbataha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the reef I first visited in 1994. The sharks are all gone, killed by Chinese for their fins.The giant shoals of barracuda, the millions of tuna, all gone, over-fished and eaten by Japanese. There’s a pattern at work here.

All the protected biospheres I have visited in the past 20 years, from Himalayan peaks to Thai islands, from Cambodian national parks to Laotian forests, from Indian rivers to Indonesian jungles have been wrecked by greedy fucks. There is not a single place I know of where nature is doing better than when I first arrived in Asia in the early 90s.
Every single government in Asia is crammed with crooks who facilitate the merciless exploitation of the environment, be it for tourism, energy, wood or other natural resources. In this relentless destruction Asia’s autocratic power holders are supported by the EU and the US and Australia, by the IMF, the World Bank, the ADB or some other multinational bank or business, be it for wood, energy, cash, power, political horse-trading, whatever.
Every single mass media outlet applauds development, growth and progress, the concepts used in the West to justify the wholesale rape of the planet.

And then there’s the Chinese.
For me, the Chinese fishing boat crashing into Tubbataha last week, loaded with frozen pangolins, has a special poignancy. I relate because I was there  and because Tubbataha was truly beautiful, in a remote, poetic and quiet way that is almost impossible to find nowadays unless you have infinite amounts of cash at your disposal.

My last dive in Tubbataha was dramatic. A typhoon was rolling into the area. As we jumped from the tiny wooden ship we were on, it was pouring rain and huge waves bounced us up and down like footballs. We quickly sunk down and the water calmed and I spent most of the dive watching a titan trigger fish defending its nest on the sea bottom. Visibility, even without sunshine, was around forty meters. My dive guide pointed out into the silent nothingness and we watched a huge shadow, far far away, move past us. Apparently an oceanic blue shark had come to check us out. When we surfaced, the storm was bouncing our boat around like a nut shell. I took one last look down into clear perfect beauty and thought I would never see anything like this again. And I never did.

The recent incident at Tubbataha is like a message in a bottle. It’s a concise and beautiful example of how dysfunctional we are, how little respect we have for the world and ourselves. No one will get caught or arrested except perhaps the poor slaves who happened to run the boat aground. The pangolin are on their way out. The sharks are already gone. The smugglers will smuggle something else when the fins and scales run out. Ivory, gall bladders, guns, drugs, women, children. The politicians will continue to cover it up and take their modest cut. Western tax payers will continue to throw money both at prevention and execution, creating contradictions they don’t understand.
At least, in some way, the Chinese are honest. They don’t give a shit about anything other than cash and they don’t pretend to otherwise. They are so terribly brainwashed and ignorant that they won’t notice the branch they are sitting on is falling, even after they have sawed through it. In the West it’s a different story, a more sophisticated web of lies and smokescreens, of pretense and lofty principles. The outcome is exactly the same. Belligerence, corruption and exploitation dressed up as national interest, theft, murder, large scale destruction.

Tomorrow’s children will not have the opportunity, the way I did, to swim with sharks, to walk with elephants, to watch tigers in the wild, to travel with sea gypsies and nomads, to live with men and women who practice transhumance and take care of their backyard jungles, unless those children are born with a silver spoon up their backside or happen to win the lottery. If they do have the financial wherewithal, they could join the king of Spain and other ultra rich Europeans, Americans and Asians on luxury trips to shoot elephants, giraffes and rhinos for fun.
That has be more exciting than sitting on a Chinese trawler covered in blood and guts, skinning sharks or scaly ant-eaters for weeks on end.

Time to die.

Read Chinese vessel on Philippine coral reef caught with illegal pangolin meat here.

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