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Empowering People, One Village at a Time, in the Arfat Mountains

By John Weller, Safina Center Fellow

Shita Prativi tried to describe her first experience seeing a bird of paradise – a Western Parotia – and started to cry. The memory was so vivid she had to turn away from the camera, and it was obvious in that moment how this soft-spoken woman had spearheaded an industry and started a grassroots movement for the protection of the Arfat Mountains in West Papua, Indonesia. Because her tears were not born of weakness, but from the strength of an internal fire that was sometimes too hot for her to touch. She loves these birds. She loves this place. And she loves the people scattered in small communities through the world’s second largest rainforest that call it home.

Shawn Heinrichs and I left our small concrete guesthouse nearly three hours before sunrise with Shita, a small procession of porters, and Eli, Shita’s current protégé. We followed the trail straight down from the small village into the thick forest for more than an hour to reach the blind, though only upon our return would I be able see and appreciate the trees. In that early hour the steep rutted trail itself demanded all of my attention. It was all I could do to keep my feet.

There are 39 species of Birds of Paradise, and most of them are dancers. Each male meticulously maintains his own dance floor, hidden deep in the forest. It is Shita’s job, and now Eli’s job, to find them. Their knowledge of the forest is exquisite. They track the birds at first by ear, eventually narrowing down an area where the dance floor might be. Once found, they build a viewing blind out of branches and leaves and clear a narrow trail by machete. And it was in one of these damp dark blinds that I understood what had made Shita cry. The forest came alive long before the light. Dozens of bird songs overlapped in an unbroken symphony. Shortly after dawn a raspy squawk announced the arrival of a Western Parotia. A jet-black bird the size of a chicken jumped into view, dipping his beak to snag a leaf that had fallen onto his dance floor during the night and flipping it disdainfully into the woods. He bounced around, likewise flipping all the other offending riffraff off of his stage. That finished, he stood in the center, paused, and then took the deepest of bows, nearly touching his cheek to the ground.

 

As he rose from his bow he transformed, and my breath caught in my chest. The long black feathers on his head, which had looked cumbersome as he bounced and cleaned, became a royal crown. His wings were held together in a perfectly symmetrical hoop skirt encircling his body. He flashed an iridescent shield of feathers on his throat. And then he danced, moving so fast from side to side that he looked like he was sliding on a rail, counteracting the momentum by leaning his whole body to the left as he danced to the right, to the right as he danced to the left. He looked like a top that has just been spun up between the thumb and finger and is trying to find its center. Eventually the bird did just that, finishing the performance with a subtle and explosive finale. For me it was witnessing the very front edge of evolution, the power and importance of diversity, or divinity if you want to call it that. Most locals do. In the hours that followed, before the porters returned to retrieve me from the blind and lead me out of the forest, I listened to the symphony of birds, replaying the secret dance in my head step by step, imagining all of the thousands of the secret dances that had been preformed that morning, and the stunning diversity of the forest.

My reverie was broken not by the return of the porters, but by an all-too-familiar sound – a truck grinding gears and changing pitch from a rumble to a high whine as it fought its way up a 10% grade. Soon the noise of trucks all but drowned out the sounds of the birds.

The wide dirt road that connects this small mountain village to Manokwari on the coast did not exist 5 years ago. By and large, locals love the road, and with good reason. It provides access to markets for their vegetables and wares. It brings opportunity for better services, schools, and government support. It opens access for tourists. But the trade-off for this rapid and poorly planned development is clear. It has been cut quickly and roughly, and it clings to the sides of steep mountains, sloughing off avalanches of dirt and rock that flatten the forest all the way to the rivers that run at the bottom of each valley. It is a harrowing ride as the 4×4 navigates washboard divots, deep ruts and hubcap deep mud, swinging to avoid new landslides that have taken deep bites out of the road. Still it is much better than it was last year when I first traveled the road, and I would guess that the traffic has increased 10-fold.

The erosion from just this one source is staggering. One landslide near the village had recently destroyed several dance floors and blinds, including the village’s only known dance floor for a Superb Bird of Paradise, perhaps the most amazing – and most coveted by tourists – of the five species found in that area. But the effects of erosion are not confined to the forest. We watched as a clear river turned into thick brown soup after a heavy rain, racing towards the ocean with its load of silt. Sedimentation from this type of coastal runoff is among the most serious threats to West Papua’s coral reefs. And these are just some of the threats facing West Papua.

Much of the diverse lowland rainforest surrounding Manokwari and other population centers has been cleared for palm oil plantations. Magnificent Rifflebirds and Lesser Birds of Paradise, both lowland species, have largely disappeared.

You have to look no further than the Vogelkop Bowerbird to find the ubiquitous presence of plastic, which floods into these areas with no infrastructure to deal with it. The bird builds a complex yurt-like bower out of sticks, and decorates it with the most brightly colored ornaments it can find. High in the Arfat mountains bowerbirds still use flowers that they collect in the nearby forest, but near the road and villages, the decorations are piles of blue bottle caps, red plastic bowls, and plastic garbage bags.

Bush meat is a major source of food for remote villages, with several species of cuscus as the main staple, but the most prized prey is the much larger Tree Kangaroo, which has been extirpated around each village to a radius of many miles. The only one we were able to find was being kept as a pet in one of the villages. It had been captured as a baby when its mother was killed by hunters, who had walked three days to find the animal. Birds of Paradise are killed for their feathers, or captured for illegal trade. Ornately carved cassowary eggs and handbags decorated with cassowary feathers were on sale in local shops, but our only chance to see a live cassowary, without spending a lifetime in the jungle, was to visit the offices of the Department of Wildlife Trade Enforcement, which had recently recovered a captive juvenile bird.

Officers had also recently arrested a man trying to smuggle half a dozen native snakes out of the country, crammed into plastic soda bottles and Tupperware containers. The officers showed us a makeshift container to smuggle Birds of Paradise that they had seized. It was a 1½” PVC pipe drilled with holes, about 8” long. The bird inside would be so confined it would not be able open its beak, and thus would be silent. Most animals die during shipment. The cumulative effects of small communities on their surrounding forests add up. And then finally there are industrial logging and mining operations and destructive fishing practices, which can dwarf other concerns in the scale of their impacts.

In response to these threats, in 2015, the provincial governor of West Papua, Abraham Atauri, declared the entire region as Indonesia’s first Conservation Province or Provinsi Konservasi. The declaration is uniquely farsighted in its intent to 1) establish comprehensive ecosystem based protections, 2) establish sustainable development practices across all industries, and 3) empower local communities to control and protect vital community resources.

Conservation International (CI) is now leading the charge for conservation in West Papua and has worked closely with the provincial government to draft new legislation formalizing the Governor’s declaration, employing CI’s integrated land and sea management approach. The Provinsi Konservasi Initiative has the potential to bring about ridge-to-reef conservation of West Papua, setting a new gold-standard for regional conservation and sustainable development and creating a blueprint for conservation initiatives that protect Earth’s most critical ecosystems – but only if the initiative is well implemented. And implementation will require new sustainable industries.

This is exactly what Shita has been creating for the last decade. She developed deep expertise and became the go-to bird guide in West Papua for the BBC, National Geographic, and anyone looking to film or study birds of paradise. She developed business and personal relationships with local villages, hiring them as porters, cooks, and other staff necessary to support the organizations and tourists she was bringing in. But she has also trained locals to be bird guides themselves, taught them the business of ecotourism, and has helped them become self-sufficient in this new industry. Village by village, she has been setting up locally run eco-tourism businesses in the heart of West Papua, bringing a new sustainable economy to these remote communities, and securing local protections for the environment as well. The head of Eli’s village told us that he had seen the economic benefits of bird tourism in another village, and thus banned hunting in the forest under his control in hopes of developing a tourism industry in his village.

His decision is now paying off. And as we watched Shita and Eli work together in the forest, we realized that as much as the fate of West Papua will be determined by the grand vision of Provinsi Konservasi, it will also be determined by the unbounded passion of people like Shita,

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