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A new Marine Protected Area in the heart of marine biodiversity

By Safina Center Fellows John Weller and Shawn Heinrichs

February 16th, 2017, Fam Islands, Raja Ampat, Indonesia:

The rain broke just before sunrise, and the island glowed orange as our ship pulled within sight of the newly built ranger station and jetty. Even at this early hour, the island was buzzing with people preparing for the celebration. Everything was hung with yellow ribbons made of dried palm leaves, decorations associated with the ancient traditions of sasi laut, “the vow to the sea.” And that was why we had returned to the Fam Islands of Raja Ampat, Indonesia – to witness these remote communities make a sacred vow…

Raja Ampat harbors the single most biodiverse marine ecosystem on Earth, and it is one of the world’s greatest ocean conservation success stories. Building on centuries of traditional conservation practiced by the communities of Raja Ampat, a variety of organizations, led by Conservation International, worked with local leaders and regional government for more than a decade to catalyze the creation and wise management of seven large marine protected areas (MPAs) in the region. However, despite years of work in the Fam communities, there was not yet an MPA in the rich waters of the Fam Islands.

We had last seen the Fam Islands in December 2014 when we hauled 3000 lbs of gear into one of the Fam communities and set up our outdoor theater as part of the Guardians of Raja Ampat film and concert tour. That night the town center was filled with people to celebrate the region’s history of conservation on a two-story-tall screen. When the film ended, and Edo Kondologit – Papua’s most famous singer, who donated his time to headline the tour – sang his last notes of the night, something magic happened, as it had in many other communities on our tour: men and women, elders and children all spoke as one, calling for even greater protection of Raja Ampat’s waters. The head of the village spoke to the crowd, pointing behind him and saying, “We want our faces on that screen.”

…Now longboats landed one after the next, filled past capacity with villagers from the surrounding islands. Soon there were hundreds of people on the uninhabited beach, all looking out to sea and waiting for the guests of honor. Traditional dancers greeted the governor of Raja Ampat and the head of Conservation International Indonesia, ushering them into the ceremony as the crowd flooded in around them.

A New Marine Protected Area in the Fam Islands, Raja Ampat, Indonesia from John Weller on Vimeo.

It quickly became clear that this was a play – a mix of ancient traditions and more modern religion, seamlessly bound together into a single performance. The high priest entered stage left on a small boat, stepping off onto the beach in bare feet, reenacting of the arrival of the first Christian missionaries. Sixteen women dressed in white furiously paddled a ceremonial forty-foot-long palm-frond “canoe” suspended from their waists, carrying the priest through the crowd to a grass pulpit at the other end of the beach. As the crowd sat in the hot sun, he spoke long about the ancient history of stewardship, the future of the communities in a changing world, and the honor due to God in the form of protection for the sacred waters.

As the sermon concluded, the women in white paddled their ceremonial canoe back along the beach, leading the crowd to the final act of the play. We felt shivers of joy as the community raised a large sign into place – a map declaring the new Fam Islands MPA, the 8th marine protected area in Raja Ampat.

But the work here is really just beginning. The sheer success of conservation in Raja Ampat is creating more challenges. Conservation has resulted in great increases in the fish populations in the protected areas. This wealth is an irresistible draw for criminal fishermen who sneak past the patrol boats, bringing destructive practices back to region: fish bombs, shark finning, and long-lining. Protection of these riches requires constant vigilance.

Late in the day, the beach was nearly deserted. The only people left on the island were the newly-appointed community rangers, charged with defending the new MPA. Theirs is a formidable task. When we speak of “The Guardians of Raja Ampat,” we mean all the organizations, government leaders, communities, and incredible individuals that devote their lives and resources to the protection of this global treasure. Raja Ampat remains one of the world’s healthiest marine ecosystems because of them. And it was our deep honor to witness these people make yet another “vow to the sea.”

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