The Guardians of Raja Ampat: Community-Driven Conservation in Indonesia

Editor's note: This is a guest post co-authored by Shawn Heinrichs and John Weller, two critically-acclaimed photographers, filmmakers and marine conservationists who are producing the film “Guardians of Raja Ampat” in conjunction with CI. The teaser for the film is below.

Lush vegetation clung to all but the steepest slopes of the towering islands. Their near-vertical walls hung over the sea, which had undercut the razor-sharp honeycombs of eroding rock. It was as if the spectacular bullet-shaped islands had erupted out of the bay and frozen in time, hovering just above the surface. The landscape eluded words.

Shafts of light cut through the calm chalky-blue water beneath the islands. We strained to see a shape just beyond our visibility. Out of the featureless blue materialized one of the smallest baby mantas we had ever seen — less than 2 meters (almost 6.6 feet) across. It arched its back into an effortless loop through the daggers of light, just brushing the surface. We followed the young manta for an hour as it looped and rolled until it eventually disappeared to feed alone in the secretive waters of the nursery bay.

Later that day, we followed our local guide straight up one of the walls of honeycomb rock on a hidden trail, and watched the sunset from what seemed to be the very top of the world. We looked at each other with the exact same thought: This place was sacred.

Dropping onto one of Raja Ampat’s reefs is a one-of-a-kind experience. Bodies of all shapes and sizes shimmer in the filtered light: trevallies, batfish, silversides, yellow fusiliers, and massive schools of barracudas hang in place above the reef, swimming into the current. The reef itself bursts with life from every square centimeter.

These waters harbor more types of fish and coral than anywhere else on the planet — more than 1,720 fishes and more than 600 hard corals, 75% of the world’s described coral species.

But the unearthly beauty of Wayag Bay and the riches beneath the surface were only a backdrop to the stories we had come to hear. Many communities in Raja Ampat are reclaiming their marine treasures and protecting them. The mission of our project — “The Guardians of Raja Ampat” — was to record these stories and use them to drive even more conservation.

All the waters in view from our high perch were part of the Kawe Marine Protected Area, one of six large marine protected areas in Raja Ampat. These MPAs shelter the very heart of the Coral Triangle, the center of global marine biodiversity. And it is not just the existence of these critical protected areas, but the process by which they came into being that makes this story so poignant and important.

To understand it in full, we must recognize that Raja Ampat’s remarkable biodiversity has remained intact for a reason: The people of Raja Ampat have practiced conservation for centuries, if not millennia.

Informed by their intimate knowledge of the environment, their ancient practices of sasi laut (the taboos of the sea) were precursors for nearly all modern-day forms of conservation, from gear restrictions to closed seasons and off-limits areas. Under national law that recognizes their traditional marine tenure system, referred to as Hak Adat, the 132 villages of Raja Ampat still maintain exclusive rights to — and responsibility for — the seas surrounding their island communities.

But neither the Hak Adat tenure system nor the practices of sasi laut were enough to ward off the methodical assault of modern fisheries. Since the early 1990s, this area has been beset by tides of dynamite fishing, shark finning, cyanide fishing, turtle hunting and other destructive industries. Locals were largely unaware of the extent of damage, and unable to respond even when the situation became evident.

Even more insidious, large fishing companies would often hire local labor to do their dirty work, offering what seemed to locals to be a king’s ransom, but was actually a pittance compared to the value of the natural resources lost to their communities.

The health of many important areas of the Raja Ampat marine system was in fast decline. The people of Raja Ampat needed support.

Responding to these threats, Conservation International (CI) led the way to modern conservation in Raja Ampat, working closely with villages and catalyzing several major exclusive rights declarations by communities in northern Raja Ampat in 2006. Similar declarations in southern Raja Ampat and adjacent areas to the east followed.

In mid-2007, regional law ratified the Hak Adat claims, officially creating the MPAs and enabling the work that followed. CI went on to help establish community patrols, guide communities toward best practices, and do extensive community outreach, leaving a legacy of rich environmental education. Those efforts continue to this day.

CI, The Nature Conservancy and other NGOs have helped communities reassert their traditional rights and reinforce their traditions of conservation, but the community members themselves must drive the effort forward every day. We had come to hear these stories of collaboration and conservation from the local people who are making it happen; they are the guardians of Raja Ampat.

One of these people was our guide in Wayag, Hanky, who heads the community rangers for the Wayag MPA. He explained that every man in the villages of Salio and Selpepe serves as a ranger in the MPA patrol for two weeks each year. Sitting at the base of a tree at the Wayag ranger station, Hanky articulated the reason behind this incredible community commitment: to conserve these riches for future generations.


This sentiment was echoed again and again as we traveled from Wayag on to villages in the Dampier Strait and Mayalibit MPAs.

We watched as delighted children played conservation games on the steps of a local church, and followed one of their teachers, dressed in a manta costume, through the village. We talked to women weaving manta-shaped hats on the beach, local leaders, mothers, fathers, and priests. We heard how fishermen have benefited from the closed areas, reaping the rewards of spillover and sasi openings. We learned how conservation had opened new economic opportunities through tourism.

The voices of these people carried the wisdom of the past and the weight of the future. Some cried, sharing their fear that the pressures of modern industry would overwhelm and undermine the bold steps that have already been taken — unless people take the cause further. They shared their vision that all the people of Raja Ampat join together in a singular effort to conserve.

Looking into the eyes and hearing the voices of these passionate community ambassadors, we realized that the people of Raja Ampat are at yet another critical moment in their history. Conservation will either charge forward, or slip backwards.

The gravity of these voices rested heavily on both of us. Our trip cemented in us the conviction that the “Guardians of Raja Ampat” film and community outreach tour is a necessity. We must bring these important voices to each and every person in Raja Ampat, Indonesia and the rest of the world.


Later this year, working in partnership with CI and Vulcan Philanthropy — and with valuable support from Wolcott Henry and the Henry Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Safina Center, the Blue Sphere Foundation, Misool Baseftin Foundation and others — we will start to do just that.

We will first broadcast these voices to the other communities of Raja Ampat on a grand-scale outdoor theater, touring from village to village. Eventually we plan to share it with a wider global audience as well; we are developing that plan now.

The people of Raja Ampat have always been its guardians, and it will be their wisdom that inspires Raja Ampat to take the next steps as a leader in global marine conservation.

Please stay tuned!

Shawn Heinrichs is an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, photographer and marine conservationist. An independent filmmaker, he is the founder of Blue Sphere Media, a production company specializing in underwater, adventure and conservation media.

John Weller is a critically-acclaimed photographer, author and filmmaker. He has devoted his career to promoting conservation of endangered habitats. He is a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, and is currently working as a Fellow of The Safina Center.