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Feeding the Sea

Environment

Feeding the Sea

Monica Medina of the Walton Family Foundation and Laure Katz of Conservation International recently traveled to Raja Ampat in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape along with other partners who have supported 12 years of conservation work in the region. 

We sailed into the large bay on an overcast afternoon, surrounded by lush green hills with almost no sign of human life. The stillness was interrupted only by occasional bird calls or the hum of an outboard motor. The water was like silk -- shiny and smooth, vibrant with color. Mayalibit Bay cuts across the largest island in an area of northeast Indonesia known as Raja Ampat. Twelve traditional villages ring the Bay, with no roads connecting them. Villagers share the bay and its bountiful natural resources, particularly mackerel. They fish for a living and also as a way of life.

Warsembin Village across from us on the shore feels as if from another time. And yet signs of modern life are apparent – cell phones, street lights, a few cars. Notably, Muslims and Christians live here side by side, in harmony with each other and nature. We can see children playing along the dock near a small stage and chairs set out in rows. Flags festoon the village’s traditional dugout canoe.

Early the next morning, dressed in our finest attire, we sped across the Bay to the tiny hamlet. Six village women and the local ceremonial band greeted and escorted us as we danced down the dock and took our seats. Elders from all the villages on the Bay then arrived to the pounding beat of the band’s drum and joyous songs. Men dressed in traditional grass skirts – with white designs painted on their chests and faces and bright red headbands atop their heads like crowns – strode to the front of the stage to witness the binding of a commitment to protect the sea and the fish within it.

One of the most prominent women in the region, Rosa Gaman, called us to order and a Muslim cleric welcomed everyone with a prayer. Assalamu 'alaikum (Peace be upon you). Kris Thebu, the head of Raja Ampat’s traditional council of leaders (Dewan adat), spoke passionately to his communities about not only the blessings they receive from the oceans, but also of their responsibility to manage their resources for generations to come. He then introduced government and NGO officials and community leaders, who spoke about the importance of this day and the years of work it took to get to this moment. After the inspirational speeches, the elders signed an agreement to create exclusive fishing areas for each village and a shared no-fishing zone.

The elders then rose and danced to the end of the dock in unison.  To formally declare the new ocean protections effective, the elders each made an offering. The items they chose seemed incongruous with oceans and conservation – a hard-boiled egg, cigarettes, small vials of liquor and coins. But to the Elders, these were symbols of wealth and strength. One by one they each “fed the sea” by dropping their offerings into the bay and watching them slowly submerge.

Feeding the sea. It is a perfect metaphor for their new commitment. It reinforces the importance of taking care of the ocean – by improving it. The ocean is usually victim to the tragedy of the commons: It belongs to everyone, so it is cared for by no one. And yet here, in Raja Ampat, the communities whose survival depends on ocean health are active stewards.

Situated in the tropical waters between the Pacific and Indian oceans, Indonesia’s coastal waters have the highest marine biodiversity of any country on earth. Indonesia is the third largest producer of wild-caught seafood. For millions of Indonesians, the fish they catch are not only critical for their local economies, but directly sustain tens of millions of people who depend on fish for food, particularly those living on isolated islands. There is so much need to “feed” the ocean here.

Throughout Raja Ampat, with the help of Conservation International and the Walton Family Foundation, many local communities like Warsembin Village have taken conservation and fisheries management into their own hands. In 2008, they began declaring marine protected areas (MPAs) – zones where non-residents are prohibited from fishing and locals must adhere to strict rules regarding when, where and how to fish. And they created zones where no fishing is allowed at all. Monitoring shows that their efforts are working, with steady or increasing numbers of fish and thus a growing food supply for the villagers. As we continued our travels in Raja Ampat, we witnessed that first hand. We swam through coral reef “gardens” teeming with schools of fish; we ducked as endangered manta rays danced over our heads; and we shivered as black tipped reef sharks circled. This time, it was the ocean that “fed” and delighted us.

Fast forward a week. Now we are in beautiful and thoroughly modern Bali and this time it’s our turn to celebrate. In conjunction with the Economist World Ocean Summit, we launched the Blue Abadi Fund, a conservation trust that will secure the financial sustainability of the work in Raja Ampat for future generations. Through commitments by the Walton Family Foundation, USAID, MacArthur Foundation, Global Environment Facility and others, we will make our own offering. Like the village elders in Raja Ampat, we, too, will “feed” the sea, ensuring that this spectacular reservoir of life is protected forever.

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