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Indonesian province leaps ahead in conservation

© Keith A. Ellenbogen

One of Indonesia’s easternmost regions is taking an unprecedented step toward sustainability.

Last week, the government of the province of West Papua, on the island of New Guinea, announced legislation establishing it as Indonesia’s first “conservation province.” What this means is that the government will ensure that all future economic activity and development will be sustainable.

The legislation also protects some of the most intact and healthy marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the Southeast Asian archipelago; promotes the development of sustainable jobs; and recognizes the rights of the region’s indigenous peoples.

The announcement came nearly four years after the provincial government announced its intentions to become a conservation province, in the midst of rapid economic development in the region that threatened the area’s magnificent habitats and wildlife.

West Papua, a 120,000-square-kilometer (46,000-square-mile) province boasts 90 percent forest cover, much of which remains unexplored. The province is also home to an area called the Bird’s Head Seascape, widely regarded as the epicenter of marine life on planet Earth and home to more than 1,800 species of fish and fully three-fourths of the world’s hard coral species.

Across Indonesia, rapid, unsustainable development has led to the destruction of many of these vital ecosystems. A quarter of the country’s forests have disappeared since 1990, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions and polluted air — only 27 days per year are considered “good” quality. A staggering 95 percent of Indonesia’s coral reefs are threatened due to coastal development, overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices. The new legislation aims to change all of this.

This legislation provides clear objectives and sustainability targets, and will support local livelihoods, facilitate economic growth and protect globally significant biodiversity and ecosystem services (including carbon storage). A key part of the new policy includes the empowerment of Papuans through the protection of natural resource rights. Eighty percent of the roughly 870,000 Papuans live rurally and rely on nature for their livelihoods, and the policy will help protect their rights and support their nature-based livelihoods.

Another essential part of the policy is managing fisheries to support food security and the livelihoods of fishers, while also conserving more than 150 species of freshwater fish and the 70 percent of Indonesia’s mangroves that are found in West Papua.

“In vital biodiverse places like West Papua, the stakes are high and the margin for error slim, so reconciling development and conservation is something we must get right,” said Jennifer Morris, president of Conservation International.

“This legislation helps demonstrate that protecting Earth’s ecosystems unlocks value for sustainable development and livelihoods. It’s a blueprint for development and conservation that benefits everyone on Earth.”

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.