Protecting the nature we all rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods

Revitalising conservation traditions: The story of 'Gwala'​

'Gwala Rising in the Bwanabwana Islands' depicts the revitalization of traditional conservation practices in the islands of Papua New Guinea. The community of Anagusa Island is combating the effects of climate change and protecting the coral reefs they rely on using gwala: the traditional practice of setting aside a reef or forest area to allow the ecosystem to recover. Gwala is helping the community of Anagusa Island prosper - empowering men and women with improved access to food and livelihoods.

For communities in the Pacific Islands, nature is the key to survival. Traditionally, to ensure their island ecosystems could continue to provide for their families, island communities throughout this region would set aside a reef or forest area for several years to allow the ecosystem to recover before it could be harvested again. This practice has many different names across the many cultures of the Pacific, and in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea where this story takes place – it is called 'gwala'.​

Losing the art of survival

In Papua New Guinea, the pressure and desire to modernize is transforming, and sometimes eroding traditional cultural practices and knowledge. In Milne Bay Province, young adults generally spend their time listening to rock music, playing on cell phones and watching rugby matches – something familiar to us all!  While modern life brings many undeniable benefits, it also comes at a cost. For island communities, this rapid cultural shift has cost them the knowledge of how to survive.

Looking to the past for a solution

This story is about the revival of gwala – the traditional knowledge that sustained Milne Bay's island communities for centuries. Despite the benefits of modern life, climate change has severely impacted the local community here - cyclones, droughts, floods, landslides and rising sea level have washed away beaches and homes, damaging the mangroves, coral reefs and associated fisheries that they rely on. Facing poverty and food scarcity – some leaders looked to the past for a solution.

Conservation International and our partners are helping communities in Milne Bay find these solutions through community outreach and awareness on the practice and science of gwala. We're teaching local teams how to conduct biological monitoring of their coral reefs, and we're working with local leaders to guide communities to design, implement and enforce gwala areas.

Marida's bountiful clam gardens

Through the wisdom of a few determined leaders, gwala has been reinvigorated in Milne Bay. The first was Marida Ginisi – the matriarch of the island of Wiyaloki. She united her many sons and grandchildren to help her put in place gwala – a protected area where the coral reefs and giant clams could grow and thrive. Today, Marida's giant clam garden is known far and wide.  When a severe drought decimated Papua New Guinea, it was those giant clams fed that nearby communities when food was scarce.

Following Marida's example, the Ward Councilor of nearby Anagusa Island, Elama Madiu Peter, led his community to designate nearly one-half of their coral reef areas under gwala. Since then, the island has seen a prospering of coral reefs, shellfish, giant clams, and a resurgence of their staple fish, known as kase kase katule. With this abundance of food, the people of Anagusa have reaped the benefits of good nutrition and enriched livelihoods.

The story captured in the film "Gwala Rising in the Bwanabwana Islands" reflects the success of gwala and the health and happiness of the people of Anagusa.​​

 With the making of this film, a movement to revitalize identity, cultural and the traditional conservation knowledge of Papua New Guinea has begun. Conservation International and partners are now using this film to motivate new communities to apply gwala in their own islands. 

This film narrative — told in the local language and in the own words of the people of Anagusa – has become one of the most powerful tools to build awareness for the importance of conservation and its longer-term benefits for the whole community.

Gwala Rising touches people from all walks of life. For island communities in the Pacific, Gwala Rising shows them a vision of what they could do to protect themselves in this age of climate uncertainty. For audiences across Asia, Europe, and the Americas, Gwala Rising is a strong reminder of how closely our fate is tied to the state of our environment.

Winner of the 2018 Sylvia Earle Ocean Conservation Award, Gwala Rising is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale – a story that reaches each and every person, from the richest to the poorest, and everyone in-between.