A vast 900,000 hectares of water are newly protected in the Indonesian
archipelago of Raja Ampat.
This month, Indonesia’s Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Mr. Freddy Numberi formalized traditional community efforts to safeguard marine life when he announced the creation of a network of seven marine protected areas (MPAs) encompassing the region’s diverse coral reefs, mangrove forests, and other coastal ecosystems.
The ground-breaking declaration is built on years of collaboration among local communities and non-governmental organizations, including Conservation International (CI), to better protect Raja Ampat and the broader Bird's Head Seascape.
The announcement brings the Indonesian government significantly closer to its goal of protecting 10 million hectares of coastal marine ecosystems by 2010, and allows CI to fully meet its own objective to help establish 20 MPAs by that same year.
Community-Led and Co-Managed Effort
Communities of Raja Ampat have long made their livings in harmony with the sea. Recently, though, fishermen using destructive fishing methods entered the region. Now fish stocks are decreasing and coral reefs increasingly show signs of damage from human impact.
In 2003, representatives of Raja Ampat’s 88 traditional communities decided to work with CI, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and others to reverse negative trends. Together, they fostered a better understanding of how restrictions on commercial and destructive fishing can improve human welfare and conserve biodiversity. In November and December 2006, these communities held a series of traditional ceremonies signifying their intent to establish large-scale MPAs. The Indonesian government officially declared those MPAs this month.
“The communities have really taken the lead in creating these new MPAs,” said Mark Erdmann, CI regional coordinator for the Bird’s Head Seascape .
“We’ve repeatedly witnessed tear-jerking speeches from older fishermen about how easy it used to be to fill a canoe with fish, and how outside fishers using commercial fishing gears and destructive practices have now greatly reduced their fishing opportunities," he added. "They look forward to trying to return things to the way they were."
Under the new designation, communities and local government will co-manage the MPAs. Communities also will help to patrol the area and curb practices like bomb and cyanide fishing, which kill reefs and indiscriminately strip them of fish stocks. The waters will be protected in keeping with longstanding tribal customs that call for traditional resource extraction closures known as sasi.
“We are strongly committed to working with the traditional communities to ensure that these MPAs reach their true potential,” said CI-Indonesia Marine Director Ketut Putra.
Richest Seascape on Earth
Raja Ampat and the broader Bird’s Head Seascape are among the most stunning and biologically diverse places on Earth.
Recent marine research has helped local communities prove why Raja Ampat’s waters are worth protecting. A series of biological surveys led by CI and TNC in the past four years have revealed that Bird’s Head is home to nearly 1,300 species of coral reef fishes and 600 species of hard coral – the highest marine biodiversity level recorded for an area this size anywhere on the planet. In 2006, more than 50 previously unknown species of shrimp, coral, and reef fish were discovered – including two kinds of “walking” epaulette sharks (Hemiscyllium spp.).
Much of this biodiversity is believed to exist nowhere else on the planet.
“Finding new species like the 'walking' shark demonstrates why the Bird’s Head is so important,” says Sebastian Troëng, CI’s director of regional marine strategies. “Our surveys highlight the need to conserve priority marine areas before they are degraded by overexploitation.”
Providing Science to Inform Government Decisions
CI and partners have made a well-informed case for protecting Raja Ampat to governments and local communities. At a December 2006 meeting with the Minister of Marine Affairs, CI-Indonesia Vice President Jatna Supriatna, Marine Director Ketut Sarjana Putra, and CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann urged the national and regional governments to focus on sustainable development rather than pursuing the short-term economic benefits of open-pit mining. They also emphasized the need for law enforcement in Raja Ampat’s new MPAs.
The Minister echoed these concerns during his announcement, urging the government to forego further mining activities and focus instead on sustainable fisheries and marine tourism development. Mining and logging threaten to increase erosion and sedimentation and degrade water quality, which in turn, kill coral reefs and fish populations to the detriment of traditional fishing villages.
In a series of panel discussions facilitated by CI earlier this month, the leader, or Bupati, of Raja Ampat signed two Memoranda of Understanding with neighboring regencies to jointly develop marine tourism and work cooperatively to eliminate destructive fishing practices in the region.