Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Stemming the tide of injustice in the surfing industry

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Ben Fortun and his surfboard in Redondo Beach, CA in 2012. Source: Ben Fortun

A former professional surfer reflects on the dark side of the surfing industry, and how the surfing community can fight those injustices.

Ben Fortun is a Policy Intern for Oxfam America.

Three years, fifty pounds, and many waves ago I was a professional surfer.

Living comfortably in a beachside bungalow, driving a beautiful 1961 Chevy Impala, and supported by various corporate sponsors – I was living a dream come true. I had come from a humble, working-class background, which was certainly tough at times, but through intense focus on competitive surfing I made my way to the big leagues.

Professional surfing may sound like a bizarre concept to most people, and in my time spent here as an intern with Oxfam America in Washington D.C., it has definitely raised a few eyebrows. When we think of surfing, usually images of pot-smoking, hippie surfers like Jeff Spicoli, or superstars like Mick Fanning (of recent shark attack fame), come to mind. It seems like a rather niche endeavor; but there are over 24 million surfers in the world – many of them travelling far and wide in search of the next great wave. And many of them, and the corporations that support them, don’t know what they leave in their wake.

I no longer surf professionally. Following a serious surfing accident in El Salvador, I was left generally immobile for a year. During that time, I had a lot of time to think about the things I had seen and done in a life of surfing. What stood out in all that thinking was not the perfect waves, easy living, and surfing, but rather the vast inequality and suffering I had seen – brought on in many respects by the industry that I had supported, and that had supported me, for much of my life.

I remembered the farmers in Sinaloa, Mexico forced off their land to build resorts – leaving them with the choice to either become resort workers or turn to illicit activities. I remembered the gangs in Costa Rica that have grown out of the massive inequality there. I remembered the sweatshops in China and elsewhere that produce surfing products, from board shorts to surfboards, by the thousands with little to no safety regulations to protect their workers. I have seen the dark side of the surfing community, that existed then and persists to this day, but is rarely seen or talked about.

Ben Fortun surfing in Redondo Beach, CA in 2011. Source: Ben Fortun

Surfing is a $7.8 billion industry and growing. And as much as I wish that surfing could return to its fringe roots, the reality is that the commercial opportunities are only increasing, so those days are long gone. With the market growing faster and faster, the pressure to increase profits with cheap materials and labor continues to mount. In addition, the growth of surfing and surf tourism has brought rapid development to many communities around the world. While economic development is a good thing in general, for many communities it has brought with it increased poverty, inequality, and associated increases in drug use and crime, among other things.

According to a study by La Nacion, an Argentine publication, Costa Rica experienced a 700 percent increase in robberies and a 280 percent increase in drug related crimes between 1990 and 2006. Similarly, Indonesia’s Tourism Department recorded more than 13,703 child victims of sexual exploitation between 1972 and 2008. Coincidentally or not, these trends parallel the emergence of surf tourism in each locale.

Things aren’t all bad, I realize. The surfing industry has made some small strides toward embodying its nature-loving and free-spirited values with more eco-friendly products and the success of social justice organizations like Surfrider Foundation, SurfAid and Heal the Bay. Unfortunately, organizations like these and socially conscious companies in the industry are relatively limited. Surfers themselves are often supporters of such initiatives, but the opportunities to do so are too few, and the companies in the surfing industry remain too unwilling to change.

The story doesn’t have to end there, though. Surfers have some history of coming together around issues of importance to themselves and the sport. For example, in 2012 a group of surfers launched the Save Trestles Campaign in order to stop plans to build a toll road through the protected wetlands – and prized surf locale – of Trestles in San Onofre, California. Discussions of the toll road had been underway for decades, and throughout that time surfers came together and initiated small actions to make barriers for the Transportation Corridor Agency, which was leading the road planning. Through popularization of the campaign under Surfrider, surfers were able to put an end to the toll road talks once and for all – preserving important ecosystems, and uniting around a cause that was important for, but much bigger than surfing.

Historically, the surfing community has been slow to recognize and act to address the conditions that the industry perpetuates. I know there is a lot of potential though – and the surfing community is ripe to learn, organize, and make a difference in the places they surf every day.

I am working hard to get back to the water, and to be a champion again. I don’t want to be the type of champion who wins contests and seeks out spots in magazines and movies, though. I’m hoping to find a way to be a champion for the rights of the poor – namely those being exploited and hurt by the surfing world. And I don’t want to do this alone. I’m looking to my fellow-surfers, those in surfing communities, and those in positions of power to join me. Surfers can and should recognize the impact of the sport on the world, and stand together to make that impact a positive one.

In our search for perfect waves, we must also be searching for a more perfect society.