Coins, cigarettes, stewardship: In Indonesia, ocean conservation means giving back

© Trond Larsen

In the small fishing villages of West Papua, Indonesia — home to the single greatest reservoir of marine life on the planet — material offerings like coins and cigarettes fulfill a crucial ceremonial purpose: By sending these modern trappings of wealth down to the blue depths, community elders “feed” the sea to ensure its continued bounty.

It’s a ritual that reflects a larger commitment by the community to give back to the ecosystem that gives it so much.

This part of Indonesia, known as the Bird’s Head Seascape, is home to 1,800 species of reef fish, an abundance of sharks and rays and an amazing three-quarters of the world’s hard coral species. Its fisheries provide livelihoods for hundreds of Indonesian communities. It is a unique and irreplaceable place on Earth — and until recently, it was under threat.

Illegal fishing by outsiders, often using dynamite and other destructive techniques, had put the future of this ecosystem in peril.

With leadership from local communities, a coalition of more than 30 organizations — including core international partners Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and WWF — joined with the regional and national government to form a powerful partnership to protect the Bird’s Head Seascape. In the past 12 years, the effort has invested US$ 65 million and trained 2,000 Papuans in stewardship and anti-poaching activities, resulting in 3.6 million hectare network of marine protected areas and a 90 percent drop in illegal fishing and a significant increase in the productivity of local fisheries.

But, as recent research published in the journal Nature confirms, simply establishing a protected area is not enough to ensure its long-term success. That requires consistent management and stable financing.

To meet this need in West Papua, the partners of the Bird’s Head Seascape have come together to create the Blue Abadi Fund, the largest dedicated marine conservation fund in the world. The fund was formally launched by the West Papua government and Bird’s Head Seascape partners at the Economist World Ocean Summit in February 2017.

Abadi means “forever” in the Indonesian language, a tribute to the local leadership that has driven the protection of this place and must secure its future. More than 70 percent of the cost of managing the Bird’s Head Seascape has been secured through local sources, including direct government support and visitor fees collected with the cooperation of the government. Now, major international partners have committed to partner in this far-reaching effort.

The Blue Abadi Fund was made possible through a group of founding funders, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Global Environment Facility, the John D. & Catharine T. MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. With this support, the fund has mobilized US$ 23 million toward the lasting protection of the world’s most diverse marine area. Work continues to fully capitalize the fund.

As the owners and guardians of their waters, the communities of West Papua have made a profound commitment to conserve this global treasure for the benefit of future generations. Now with the Blue Abadi Fund, they can continue to give back to the ocean that gives us all so much.

Jamey Anderson was a senior writer for Conservation International.

Cover image: Manta ray in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. (© Trond Larsen)

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