Dr Mark Erdmann is a coral reef ecologist and senior advisor for Conservation International-Indonesia’s marine program, with a primary focus on managing CI’s marine conservation initiatives in the Bird’s Head Seascape in West Papua.
Having lived there for over 20 years, he has dedicated the majority of his time to the conservation of Raja Ampat and the broader Bird’s Head Seascape since 2004. Erdmann is also the regional coordinator of the Bird’s Head Seascape marine conservation initiative, which is a multi-institutional initiative involving Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, WWF-Indonesia, the State University of Papua (UNIPA), RARE, the Papua Sea Turtle Foundation, WWF-US, Sea Sanctuaries Trust and a variety of private sector marine tourism groups.
Steve Jones / X-Ray Mag: You’ve been at the forefront of conservation efforts in the Bird’s Head Seascape for many years, but what led to you realizing the richness and importance of the marine environment in this region? Why is it so important that this area is protected?
Mark Erdmann: My first trip to Raja Ampat was in 2002, when I was asked by the Nature Conservancy to join a small expedition to “ground truth” the report that had recently come out from Conservation International that claimed that Raja Ampat was the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. Within a few dives in Raja, I quickly had the data from the perspective of mantis shrimp (stomatopod) biodiversity to wholeheartedly agree with these claims. Within a few years I had recorded 56 species of reef-associated mantis shrimp from across the Bird’s Head, which is far and away the highest diversity of anywhere this size in the world.
At the same time, what we also found on that first trip was that Raja Ampat was far from pristine, with abundant threats from blast and cyanide fishing, shark finning and turtle poaching. It was clear this was an amazing global heritage badly in need of conservation efforts.
SJ: Please tell us about the structure, strategy and guiding principles of conservation efforts in this region, including the Marine Protected Area Network.
ME: From a western perspective, one of the things that most stands out about Raja Ampat and the Bird’s Head is its amazing marine biodiversity and spectacular beauty both above and below water. At the same time, it is also very important to note that the Papuan people of Raja Ampat are of Melanesian culture that includes a strong tradition of marine tenure (wherein locals own not only land, but also the reefs and marine resources).
We knew from the outset that the key to preserving and sustainably managing these reefs would be to have the full support and involvement and in fact leadership of the local tenure holders and traditional leaders in any conservation efforts. We knew that while these leaders would certainly be proud to be the custodians of the world’s highest marine biodiversity, this alone was not going to be a strong enough motivator.
So instead, we consciously made the strategy to get to know these villages inside and out, and really get to understand what issues most mattered to them, and then try to couch our marine conservation thoughts in terms that mattered to them.
What we found almost immediately was that the local communities were very concerned about their food security and the fact that outside fishers were pillaging their resources. So, when we introduced the idea of a network of marine protected areas, it was not as a tool to protect marine biodiversity, but rather as a way to legally strengthen their marine tenure claims and give them full management authority over their marine areas, restricting the access to outside fishers and thereby ensuring their long-term food security.
We then took the unprecedented step of recruiting the MPA managers and staff directly from these local communities—and while this meant that we were mostly getting staff with 2nd and 3rd grade educations, they were nonetheless intimately familiar with their resources, highly passionate about saving them, and we of course targeted local community members with strong leadership skills.
It meant we needed to invest a long time (five years or so) in training them in marine biology, marine resource management, and even basic computer skills, but the end result has been fantastic, and we are confident will mean that this initiative is truly sustainable, having built a strong local foundation.
We could have instead brought in outside talent comprised of well-trained Indonesians with university degrees, but not only would they likely not be very accepted by local communities, they also wouldn’t have the intense passion to save their own reefs, and they would over time of course want to return home to their families in Jakarta or wherever.
It took a bit longer to train local community members instead, but the result—we believe—will be ultimately more sustainable. Local communities therefore play the primary role in managing the reefs of Raja Ampat—this is a 100 percent local affair.
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