Behind The Green Interview

Sibylle Riedmiller | Chumbe Island, Tanzania

Behind The Green Interview

Sibylle Riedmiller | Chumbe Island, Tanzania

With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ interviews take it back to basics. Back to storytelling. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s best sustainable retreats and the leading experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT travel.

Written by Rebecca Woolford

A Blueprint For Ecotourism

Ecotourism can protect wilderness and wildlife, uplift communities and celebrate culture and heritage. Sounds impressive, right? The reality is there are more examples of where this doesn’t ring true than in places where it does.

So, when I get the opportunity to sit down with a pioneer of ‘eco-tourism’ and share a case study so magnificent that it sends shivers down my spine – I know it’s going to be a good day.

Chumbe Island Coral Park in Tanzania has spent the past 3 decades showing how ecotourism can directly support nature conservation, by creating a marine park and forest reserve where the ecolodge funds management, research and environmental education programs for local people. Transforming the lives of fishermen who once overfished and destroyed coral reefs into nature guides for travellers.

The World’s First Private Marine Protected Area

Sibylle Riedmiller is the founder of Chumbe Island Coral Park, an award-winning private nature park in Zanzibar, Tanzania, the world’s first private marine protected area, and an innovative conservation business, where the goals are not-for-profit, while operations follow commercial principles.

Developed over 33 years since 1991, this unique reserve boasts an 81-acre protected coral reef, a 20-acre forest reserve, a Visitors’ centre, and 7 eco-bungalows that welcome people from around the world.

With a maximum of 20 visitors at any one time, there is no place quite like it on planet Earth.

Through its protection, the coral reef has remained one of the region’s most beautiful, diverse, abundant and resilient reefs. It hosts at least 59 hard coral genera (90% of East Africa’s hard coral species), over 500 reef fish species, and a range of micro and megafauna, including apex predators like black tip reef sharks that breed in and around the sanctuary. Chumbe also safeguards extensive seagrass beds, providing critical foraging grounds for green sea turtles. 

A private nature paradise it’s one of the most stunning destinations worldwide for nature lovers and a popular honeymoon island for eco-conscious couples. 

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

Sibylle Riedmiller Founder of Chumbe Island diving

Thank you for taking the time to be here Sibylle. It makes sense to start at the beginning. What brought you to Tanzania and how did you discover Chumbe Island?

“I was a project manager in the development aid industry for decades before ever stepping foot on Chumbe Island. My background is in social sciences and educational planning. My career led me to run education reform projects and research for UNESCO and a German aid agency across Latin America and in Tanzania.  

I initially came to Tanzania in 1982 for a primary education reform project, which I ran for eight years. During this time I learned the language and fell in love with not only the Swahili culture but also with the stunning natural beauty of the Tanzanian coast and the surrounding tropical waters. 

I became a passionate sailor and diver and couldn’t wait for the weekends when I’d spend my time sailing out and snorkelling over the coral reefs. This is where it all began. 

Because I became a witness to the rampant destruction of coral reefs by destructive fishing methods used for decades by local small-scale fishers. They were using dynamite to make their catch, still a common fishing method in Tanzania and some other countries around the world.. 

At the time, few people understood the damage done to the precious and vulnerable coral reef ecosystems. There was no marine or dive tourism in the country, which would have lobbied for healthy coral reefs, as their business so much depends on them, and fishers blasting coral reefs endanger the life of divers.”

And in the 1980s there was not a single marine park, though Tanzania was already a popular tourism destination for the Serengeti National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro.

Local fishers did not understand my outrage when I saw how each blast destroyed at least 10 square meters of reef. For them it was an easy way to collect some fish floating belly up to the surface, not knowing that this was only about 3% of what they had killed, as most fish sink to the ground.

There was no awareness of the huge importance of healthy coral reefs as fish breeding grounds, among many other ecological functions they have.

Part of the problem was that few had ever seen corals with their own eyes, as very few local people including fishers can swim. Corals are just seen as hard rocks that can damage your boat. The Kiswahili language has no word for corals, which are commonly called “mawe na miamba”, rocks and stones. Corals were not taught about in schools and the ocean was generally seen as a dangerous world. The key challenge therefore was: How could we get the government and local communities to care about something they knew so little about?

It was only when the Government of Zanzibar opened up for tourism investments in the early 1990s that I saw an opportunity to bring dynamite fishing and marine conservation to the government’s and public attention. 

Therefore, when the Zanzibar government contracted me as a consultant to develop an environmental education action plan, I proposed to establish a marine park that would be used to provide conservation education to local fishers and schoolchildren.

Fishers would experience that protecting coral reefs and allowing fish to breed in a no-take zone will within a few years have a spill-over effect and increase harvests in adjacent areas, while school children and their teachers would learn to snorkel and see with their own eyes that coral reefs are wonderful biodiversity hotspots that need to be protected. The vision was that funding for the park and education programs would come from ecotourism. 

‘I mean it when I say I had to start from ground zero.’ 

Coral reefs were not even covered in the school curriculum, and not mentioned in textbooks, it was seen as a ‘strange’ word. The key challenge was: How could we get the local communities to care about something they knew nothing about?”

This idea was a hard sell in the early nineties, as government officials did not see the benefits of marine parks, the concept was unknown and there was no policy, legislation or institutional framework to create one. 

So I thought, after decades of managing education projects, maybe I’ll just do it as a private person, and I started to negotiate this concept of a well-managed marine park as a private investment. With education programs for fishers, local schools, community members, and government people. A not-for-profit social enterprise.

At this point, I didn’t have a place in mind, no island, nothing. 

I began my search for a suitable reef by going out with local fishermen. With 4 essential criteria in mind, I knew we needed to find a place that ticked every single box.  

Firstly the reef must be shallow. If you’re a non-swimmer you need shallow waters to feel safe to try snorkeling. 

Second, the reef must be in good enough condition. A coral reef that had been damaged by destructive fishing methods takes decades to recover, if at all. And such a reef wouldn’t be attractive anymore for tourists and eco-tourism. 

Thirdly, it cannot be heavily fished. A marine park with a no-take zone would not allow fishing and anchorage. This is a very hard idea to sell where the livelihoods of local people depend on fishing. You will very quickly become unpopular amongst the locals. There are long-term benefits of no-take zones, but local communities will not understand and believe this until a few years later when they see it happening

And finally, number four, it must be accessible for tourists and local people alike. Only hardcore divers would be happy to go on a boat for hours on rough seas to find the perfect diving spot. With the focus on snorkelling, it needed to be a reasonably short boat ride to access it. 

‘For two months, in April 1991, I explored the seas with the help of local fishermen. That’s when I saw it…’

The ironic thing is that Chumbe island met all 4 criteria because it had been a military zone used for ‘target range’ exercises. Therefore, local fishers were not allowed there, also because there was a nearby shipping channel, where the local unpowered fishing boats would have obstructed the way of ocean-going vessels. 

To give you an idea of what an early bird I was in tourism, I was one of the 1st four investors in the whole of Zanzibar. 

I saw the potential of Chumbe Island. The island not only had an incredible coral reef,  it also had a unique semi-arid so-called coral rag forest and attractive historical ruins, a lighthouse built in 1904, a lighthouse keeper’s house, and a small mosque. I knew immediately that this was it.”

What stamina, determination, and resilience you must have had to take on such a project. So, you’ve found the location, reef, and island, what happened next?

“Well, there was no fresh water on the island, it was deserted, uninhabited, rocky, and rather harsh, not the idyllic dream island with sandy beaches all around it, and it had no deep water access for boats. But what counted for me most was that fringing coral reef.

After finding Chumbe Island, it took four more years of negotiations, to sell the idea and get the government on board. It took a lot of patience and of course, much more investment funds than envisaged. 

If I had suggested clearing the forest, blasting a harbour, building a jetty across the reef, and constructing a multistorey hotel with hundreds of beds, it would have moved much quicker. For a conventional hotel investment, the negotiations wouldn’t have been so difficult. However, marine conservation and the potential this has in the ecotourism markets were not yet understood, thus my investment proposal that included protecting the island, the forest, and the reef was met with suspicion.

My plans to build an eco-lodge weaved into the natural landscape that would not involve cutting any trees, use local designs and only renewable materials, energy, and water sources as well as zero pollution technologies was considered “not a real investment”. 

It took four years of negotiating with seven ministries up to the President until my investment plan was approved. The contractual package included a land lease on Chumbe Island and management contracts for the forest and the coral reef. And importantly, both were declared protected areas, which was a condition of my investment proposal to fully fund park management.

This created the first Marine Park in Tanzania, and the first privately established and managed one around the world.

However, there was a catch… 

To do this I had to take 100% of the risks, including of commercial viability. I had to pay for everything. Accommodation in Zanzibar away from home over the years of negotiations. The rangers. The research to make the case for conservation. Later I managed to get small grants for certain non-commercial components, e.g. the Visitors’ Centre and education programs.”

What does sustainable travel look like? What are the pitfalls travel companies must learn to avoid? Learn about incredible case studies like Chumbe Island all here.

Chumbe Island Aerial View | Bungalows and Education Centre

However, everything up until this point was just the beginning of a long journey…

‘It’s been over 30 years since those negotiations first started.’

Once everything was agreed upon and signed I was lucky to find fantastic architects to help bring the project to life, some through volunteering. For the zero-carbon design of the bungalows, I managed to commission Professor Per Krusche of the Technical University of Braunschweig in Germany, who was one of the leading eco-architects at the time.  

Over the years, while still negotiating with the government for the investment license and contracts, I also met with villagers of neighboring communities to explain what a marine park is, why it was so important as a fish nursery for increasing their catches, and why the reef west of Chumbe needed to remain a no-take zone, with zero fishing.

I also met with the villagers to explain what a marine park was, why it was important, and ensure they felt included from the very beginning. And so I explained what I proposed to do and why this area needed to remain a NO take zone, with zero fishing. 

They agreed to not fish as long as I provided them with jobs. So, I agreed to employ them as park rangers. The problem was 2 fold, these fishermen couldn’t speak a word of English and they had very limited knowledge of coral reef systems. They had extensive experience of fishing in the reef, they knew what was edible and what was not edible. But that’s not enough to be a knowledgeable guide for tourists. 

Volunteers from Australia, Germany, and the UK came to visit the island to work on the island, living, and camping, because we had no infrastructure there, to help teach four rangers about coral reef ecology. The volunteers didn’t speak Swahili and the fishermen didn’t speak English, so it was quite an interesting process, and quite intense. 

Most of the people we employ at Chumbe Island were trained by us. There was no ranger or ecology training available in the country at the time. 

The accommodations for our guests had to be independent from the grid, both in terms of energy and water. Every bungalow has to generate its own energy and its water.

So, all the structures had to be built in a way that every roof collects rainwater. And of course, we need storage capacity big enough to store enough water to see us through the dry season. 

The first victim of traditional hotel tourism developments is coral reefs. Sewage is the biggest source of pollution on coastlines and one of the major killers of reefs as it encourages algae growth. Chumbe island was going to prove the model of zero pollution, which means no flush toilets. 

We also didn’t want to waste precious drinking water down the toilet, as we naturally do all over the global north. We flush our drinking water down the toilet and our drinking water we drink from plastic bottles, which is just an incredibly crazy concept. 

Our only option for Chumbe Island was to have compost toilets, which have zero requirements of water and zero pollution. Nobody in the world has ever tried collecting rainwater from palm-thatched roofs. So, we collect the rainwater with a very sophisticated filtration system, layers of gravel and sand, before it goes into the underground system.

Each bungalow sits on about 25,000 litres of water stored away safely. How do you keep rainwater clean and safe? You keep it very dark and sealed off from any light. We had to get the world’s leading expert in to make this all happen. 

We can say our accommodations at Chumbe Island have ‘zero impact’ because all the energy comes from solar photovoltaic. All our water comes from the rains. Toilets don’t use any water. It’s compost. And the sun also heats all our warm water. 

Our clever eco architects developed the bungalows so that the coastal winds funnel fresh air, boosting an effective, natural cooling system.”

I hope that by sharing this story people will get some insight into what it took to create the world’s first-ever private marine reserve, and appreciate the difficulty you had to encounter. What was one of the most challenging aspects of the journey? 

“It was hard as I sometimes felt like a ‘cash cow’ and rarely had time to enjoy the wildlife, swim in the reef, and just be happy on the island.

I was very lucky to have such fantastic people around me and this was very motivating. But at the end of the day, I was the one who had to ensure everything worked behind the scenes. 

As a passionate snorkeller, diver and sailor with a deep love of the sea it was hard to just keep pushing, to not have the time or space to just enjoy Chumbe Island. The never-ending list of to-do’s, sometimes staff problems, maintenance issues… it was hard work. This initial development stage was tough. 

I also had to find extra sources of funding because the budget exploded and my entire business plan was only good enough for the dustbin. I had been naive and unrealistic. And that’s the lesson everybody learns when starting an idea. 

The concept of developing a protected private marine park as a social enterprise was unknown and not understood. I was often confronted with ‘it’s too good to be true’.

Even with a background in the aid industry, people didn’t often believe what I had to say. As a first-time business owner this was a hard lesson to learn. I had always been seen as an aid project manager, assumed instantly to be on the ‘good’ side, but as a private investor I found people assume you are ‘bad’ or only out for yourself.”

Chumbe Island is one of the leading case studies for Ecotourism, period. Conservation is only one element of a holistic approach. There’s a quote I lean on in my online courses: ‘There can be no sustainability in tourism without gender equality.’ What do you think of this statement?

“Of course, it’s a very true statement. I’m a woman so I know this is true. I’m familiar with dealing with obstacles in a masculine culture and society, and I can handle it because I’m educated, privileged and relatively wealthy. Many women around the world don’t have this advantage. 

Many of the volunteers who visited Chumbe Island were women and so we saw them become almost role models for local women. We did our best to encourage them. About half of all our staff are women, they are very vocal and very important. 

You know, there was and is this belief in Tanzania that women on boats are bad luck. The women were restricted and played very limited roles with the sea. The only way of fishing for women is at low tide, they walk out and they dig out little mussels in the sand. A fisherman goes out, brings home the catch for the woman and girls to cook, that’s how it goes. 

‘After 20 years we now have a female ranger. I believe she is the ONLY female ranger in Tanzania.’

So things have changed, things are changing which is positive.

We have achieved a lot with getting women engaged, we bring female teachers and their female students to the island to help them learn how to swim and snorkel. To ignite their passion for the ocean, and see how we’re connected and dependent on it. 

Interested to learn more about the role of gender in sustainable tourism? To better understand this interconnected relationship and women’s empowerment click here.

Isn’t it funny how head chefs around the world are mostly male? Since we based our kitchen on traditional Swahili cuisine, women were the natural choice. We wanted to provide our guests with traditional Swahili recipes, to provide an authentic experience, which is why you’ll find women in our kitchens.” 

For anyone reading this who is interested in visiting (or sending their clients to visit), what kind of experiences can guests get involved in, whether that be conservation or community-led?

“Chumbe Island is an educational project for guests as well as locals. We regularly host researchers and marine biologists, and guests often get to go out with them and see what they’re up to. In the evenings the researchers sometimes talk about their findings.

Interested to learn more about the role of gender in sustainable tourism? To better understand this interconnected relationship and women’s empowerment click here.

“The lodge has only seven bungalows, so we never have more than 20 or so people on the island at the same time. Our staff are always at hand 24/7 and we have a fantastic female manager, Vera who’s from Kenya. She’s fluent in Swahili, in English and German. 

People mustn’t come with the wrong expectations. Because it’s a ‘private beach island’ people can sometimes expect opulence and luxury at all costs. As an authentic, sustainable retreat it’s naturally more rustic but also beautifully innovative and harmonious.

For the first 10 years, we were featured as number one on TripAdvisor because people left the island so incredibly enthusiastic about the experience and the difference we are making here. Now, of course, tourism has exploded in Tanzania, and the algorithms of TripAdvisor have since changed. Today you have to pay more to be number one. 

There’s plenty to see and do. We have been called ‘the best shallow reef snorkelling experiences in East Africa’. We have more than 500 species of fish, 542 to be exact. Our snorkelling tours last about one hour. 

One of our favourite guests has been coming back to Chumbe Island for 20 years. A retired engineer now, he found his passion for snorkelling here and he has since become a fish taxonomist. His mission is to photograph every fish and marine creature you can find on Chumbe Island and publish them. 

He has found fish, which even expert fish taxonomists find very hard to classify.”

“There is also the coconut crab and forest walk which is a great adventure for our guests to enjoy. We have 77 species of birds on Chumbe island, and a visit to the bird hide is a must. Guests can also visit our impressive education centre which provides information all about the nature reserve. 

For adventure seekers, guests can climb the 132 steps to the top of the island’s historic lighthouse to enjoy spectacular views of the turquoise seas between Tanzania mainland and Zanzibar, built by the Sultan of Zanzibar.”

It sounds incredible. It’s certainly on my list to visit in the coming years. I always ask two questions to my guests. Authentic sustainable travel is interwoven with meaningful, transformative travel experiences. Can you share a travel experience that changed you?  

“Travelling 40+ years ago was very different. I’m old enough to know what places were like before the ‘tourism boom’, and what leaving zero footprints felt like. Travel was about experiencing the destination and people for what it was, it wasn’t about creating ‘home comforts’ and infrastructure to better accommodate Western lifestyles.

When I was in Latin America with UNESCO, I was commissioned on a study about rural education reforms in Latin America. I visited Peru, Chile, Panama, Mexico, Guatemala etc. And this was 50 or so years ago. It was a very different experience to travel back then in Latin America. I would sometimes travel on horseback, or on top of a sack of potatoes in a lorry, by whatever means possible. All these ‘remote’ and ‘adventurous’ experiences were transformative.”

“I don’t live on Chumbe Island, I’ve a small place in a fishing village on the northern coast of Tanzania, it’s been my base for over 30 years. But when I do go to places in Indonesia like Bali, I see how tourism can be destructive. The ecological footprint of the infrastructure mass tourism demands is huge and the introduction of Western consumerist lifestyles with its plastic pollution makes tourism a trailblazer for damaging environments and eroding local cultures. 

Tourism has huge economic potential, and it can bring an alternative to extractive or destructive industries like mining or dynamite fishing, but this potential comes with an even bigger responsibility. 

‘In the past 30+ years, tourism has become amongst the most destructive industries to local environments and cultures.’

Yet at the same time, Chumbe Island has not changed. Nature is thriving. It’s richer now than it was when we first started, this is largely because we removed invasive species.”

You’re right Sybille. The real measure of success is to not only do less harm but to leave a place, a community, a reef, better off than it was found. What’s next for Chumbe Island?

“We’re in the process of creating a foundation for Chumbe Island. It’s still in the early stages because like with everything it’s never straightforward forward and it has its complications.

Private parks have an Achilles’ heel in my opinion as they depend on the families and the individuals behind them. I’m looking for a solution for long-term survival and sustainability beyond the lifespan of a person.

Naturally in families the ‘next generation’ can have different ideas about what the best approach is and they may not want to step into the shoes of their parents. They may want to sell, change the essence of the place, make it more profitable, or modernise it. 

I’m looking to the next generation to keep the vision of Chumbe Island alive. To keep the ‘good’ that I’ve spent a lifetime creating.”

Thank you for taking the time to tune into ‘Behind the Green’. The good news is your journey need not end here. Discover more stories below OR grow your knowledge with our highly recommended online course for travel professionals here.

More from the blog...
Kiwano Travel © 2024. Website Design by Rebixit | All Rights Reserved | T&Cs - Cookies & Privacy Policy