[This is an excerpt from “A Line of Their Own”, featured in SURFER Vol. 59, Issue 3, which profiles six women who are carving unique paths through shaping, competition, big-wave surfing and beyond]
White sand beaches, crystal clear water and a dense jungle halting just before the tideline—at a glance, Indonesia's Morotai Island is about as pristine and inviting as anything you've ever seen on a postcard. But as beautiful and isolated as it may seem, the community that calls the island home doesn't exist in a vacuum, and they face many of the same problems plaguing coastal communities in developing countries around the world.
"Some of the most pressing issues the local people face include overfishing, waste mismanagement, plastic pollution, sea-level-rise and unrestricted development," said Emi Koch, founder of Beyond the Surface International, over email during a layover in Singapore. "These issues become much harder to address when isolated or marginalized communities lack access to needed information. That's especially true with climate change, an issue that's affecting them, yet they have no significant capacity or authority to combat the increased disaster risks of climate change.
Koch is a surfer from San Diego, California, and what started as an idea for a small humanitarian project while she was studying psychology at Georgetown University has turned into a decade-long mission around the globe using surfing and educational workshops to foster environmental stewardship and give greater agency to overlooked communities. Koch was recently named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for her efforts.
It all began for Koch when she was taking a break from college, teaching with a friend at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. It was there that she heard about a program that used skateboarding to empower young women in Afghanistan, and she realized that surfing could be used toward similar ends.
"I think the most effective ways to teach youth about protecting the environment is through reminding them that we come from the Earth, and the best reminder is through playing," said Koch. "Once you understand the ocean as this magical playground that also happens to be our greatest life support system on the planet, you want to take care of it. Surfing is a beautiful relationship-building tool that enables an emotive response often missing in conservation education."
According to Koch, success looks different in every community, because each community has struggles that are unique to them. While people on Morotai may need help figuring out waste management, young women in Peru may need help finding the courage to express themselves and pursue their goals in a patriarchal environment. Listening to the concerns of each community, and adapting the program appropriately, is how Koch feels Beyond the Surface can have the deepest positive impact.
Since Koch founded Beyond the Surface, she's traveled through Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and more. At each location, in addition to getting the locals into the lineup, she teaches them about ocean conservation. The foundation's Coast 2 Coast program also focuses on hosting workshops on digital media, providing video equipment to empower young people to tell stories in their own voice about issues facing their communities. For Koch, educating people on global problems is important, but discovering what they see as their most immediate concerns is equally so. The process of enabling locals to tell their stories is empowering in itself, and the resulting films can also raise awareness once they're released out into the world.
"When we listen to the locals and then champion their ideas, we show them that there is value in their stories," says Koch. "That's powerful beyond description, especially today, when small coastal communities are collapsing under unprecedented global, social and ecological stressors."
For Koch, the work she does with Beyond the Surface all stems from her life as a surfer. The biggest difference between her and many of her fellow saltwater addicts is that when she travels in search of waves, she can't overlook what's happening back on the shore.
"I think if you go somewhere and never truly interact with the locals, you're not really connecting with the place," said Koch. "Spending your time with the local people in a meaningful way, doing something to share in the betterment of a place, that reverberates outward to humanity and the planet as a whole. It will add another layer to your experience."