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Guest blog by Art Blundell
According to mythology, long ago a woman found seven eggs. They hatched into a ghost, a woman, a stone, and four kings—one for each of the four large islands in the archipelago off the northwest tip of New Guinea. And so the vast archipelago (about the size of New Hampshire & Vermont combined) came to be known as Raja Ampat, or the Four Kings. The area is now the largest marine park in Indonesia, the crown jewel of the world’s coral reefs.
Located in the heart of what is called the Coral Triangle, Raja Ampat is considered the ‘Amazon’ of the underwater world because of its extreme biodiversity. In fact, the area has the most species of coral and reef fishes on earth. About 70% of the coral species found on the planet are found in Raja Ampat. On World Environment Day, June 5th - today or tomorrow depending on where you are located on this planet - the importance of Raja Ampat rings very clear.
The marine protected areas (MPAs) in Raja Ampat aim to protect both the reefs and the livelihoods of the 50,000 people that live there. In general, MPAs create different zones for different activities, like fishing, and set aside some areas that have no fishing at all. MPAs also restrict access, often giving special access to local people only.
A recent Scientific American article explains how in 2004 Mark Erdmann of Conservation International worked with locals in Raja Ampat to set up MPAs to help give them more control of the ocean around them and its fisheries resources. It has taken some time, but the local people have been strong defenders of their rights.
For example, the article tells how, in 2009, a fleet of commercial fishing boats swept through the area. When the local patrol team confronted them, the fishers showed their government permits. Furious, the locals demanded that the government revoke the permits. Remarkably, the government complied and put in place a moratorium on all outside fishing permits.
The article describes how locals have pursued many sensible conservation strategies. A local explained “if we cannot find big sea cucumbers, we must close the fishery so it can recover. We also know where the fish lay their eggs, and we do not go in that area.” “The local church has ordered villagers not to fish on Saturday so that some mackerel—locally called lema—can breed.”
Researchers from the University of Papua and from WWF are monitoring how the MPAs influence health, economic well-being, education and cultural preservation. They want to know if people follow the rules and if the effects on locals are negative. If negative, then better conservation strategies need to be developed immediately.
Regardless, Health In Harmony (HIH) could offer a unique conservation strategy into the mix—one that trades health care for environmental protection. Indeed, HIH has been invited to consider replicating their Gunung Palung conservation/clinic model in Raja Ampat. With the help of Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, a group from HIH and their Indonesian partner ASRI just returned from a scoping trip to explore if there is an opportunity for the model to work in a combined marine and rainforest context.
Fortunately, HIH’s model would complement the existing conservation efforts. Even if locals support conservation management, if a severe illness creates a huge financial burden, then family members may be forced to break the MPA regulations in order to obtain quick money from destructive fishing techniques like using home-made bombs or coral-killing cyanide. Given how scattered people are across Raja Ampat, just traveling to receive medical attention can be prohibitively expensive--$240-650, about the same as the average yearly salary, just to hire a boat to travel the 3-5 hours travel to the nearest medical care. It may be that a mobile clinic can serve fishing communities, thereby reducing the economic burden of healthcare and thus the need to fish in an unsustainable way.
Certainly given the vastness of Raja Ampat and the limits this places on monitoring and enforcement, unless locals are dedicated to conservation, MPAs are unlikely to work well. HIH won’t be the golden egg for the people of Raja Ampat—the coral reefs provide the golden egg—but HIH could provide another crucial incentive for local participation.
It is too early to tell whether or not the incentive will be sufficient, nor even how expensive it will be to provide suitable healthcare through the HIH model. But it is exciting to think about how to replicate and expand on the HIH experience from West Kalimantan. The oceans just might be the next frontier…
About Art Blundell
Art is member of the Health In Harmony Board of Directors and is a partner at Natural Capital Advisors working in the field of international environmental risk management. He is currently based in New Orleans, LA.