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Two manyspotted sweetlips join a school of snapper species at an outer reef in Raja Ampat.

Protecting the Bird’s Head Seascape, Now and for the Future

January 29, 2019
Heather D'Agnes
In Indonesia, local communities are embracing their role as stewards of a unique ocean ecosystem

Over the past dozen years, the Walton Family Foundation has helped local communities in Indonesia protect one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet – the Bird’s Head Seascape.

This extraordinary region surrounding West Papua Province is an ocean paradise teeming with species that run the gamut from whale sharks to pygmy sea horses. It includes the world’s largest mangrove forest and one of the most diverse coral reefs.

A coalition of local partners and conservation groups ultimately established 12 marine protected areas (MPAs) that conserve the seascape and enhance the livelihoods and food security of indigenous communities.

Thanks to local enforcement teams patrolling the MPAs, overfishing by outside poachers has been reduced by 90%, which means more fish for local fishers and greater food security for communities.

On the island Friwenbonda, a coralline limestone block is covered with small mangrove trees. The washed-out overhanging limestone is a protected area for marine species.

To maintain and expand those gains, the foundation supported the 2017 launch of the Blue Abadi Fund, a dedicated conservation trust to help local communities sustainably manage the seascape by procuring local revenue sources and providing complimentary grants.

Barry D. Gold, the foundation’s environment program director and a member of the fund’s governance committee, recently traveled to Indonesia to see the conservation progress in Bird’s Head. It was his third visit to Indonesia since 2017.

We asked Barry about the foundation’s long-term commitment to protecting the seascape and the role it will play in the region going forward.

Why is the Bird’s Head Seascape such an important marine environment?

Bird’s Head is one of the most magnificent ocean ecosystems on the planet. It’s incredibly diverse – you can see hundreds of different species of fish swarming around a single coral reef.

I have only seen this once before, in the remote and uninhabited Palmyra Atoll 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. In fact, a survey in the seascape last year recorded more than 1,800 fish species within the Bird’s Head.

What is also fascinating is the close connection the local West Papuan people have to the ocean. Coastal West Papuans are highly dependent on fish for their food and livelihoods.

This is changing as more and more tourists are attracted to the beaches, coral reefs and charismatic wildlife that the world-renowned Raja Ampat network of protected areas offers.

The waters of Raja Ampat in the Bird's Head Seascape teem with hundreds of fish species.

How did Bird’s Head become a priority for the foundation?

The foundation’s history with the Bird's Head Seascape is very much a history of the Walton family’s relationship with this area. In the early 2000s, Rob Walton was on the board of Conservation International. He was passionate about supporting conservation in this part of the world, especially after traveling there and seeing it for himself. Our ocean conservation strategy grew from there.

What makes you proud of what the foundation has helped accomplish in the Bird’s Head Seascape?

The empirical achievements are easy to list off – putting 3.6 million hectares of rich coral reefs and fisheries under marine protected areas and establishing Indonesia’s first-ever management body, partially funded by tourist entrance fees.

What’s most exciting is that the marine protected areas are truly managed by and for the local West Papuans who live in and around them.

On my most recent trip, I met women from an island community who spend a whole night on the water patrolling for fishers who enter the marine protected area illegally. Their commitment is inspiring.

Environment Program director Barry Gold recently traveled to Indonesia to observe the conservation progress being made in the protected Bird's Head Seascape.

What is necessary for these gains to be sustained?

We helped put in place institutions such as a management authority that does regular patrols and collects fees to access the area. But these are all nascent institutions that need support to ensure they are strong.

Recognizing this, we structured the last phase of our funding in the Bird’s Head to work with partners like Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and Starling Resources to develop a sustainable financing fund to ensure the marine protected areas continue to protect the ecosystems and benefit local peoples. The Blue Abadi fund was born out of this effort.

A blue sea star clings to a rocky outcrop with colorful tunicates in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Now that the Fund has been established, what’s next?

It’s still a very young fund. In 2018, the governance committee, along with staff from Conservation International and the foundation focused on making sure that the fund and its protocols are strong.

I was struck by two things during my recent visit to Indonesia for the Blue Abadi governance committee meeting - the first to be held in West Papua.

First, I was proud of the strong participation from our five Indonesian committee members, two of whom specifically represent local West Papuan interests. These members brought important, diverse perspectives to ensure the fund meets it conservation goals and represents the best interests of the people who depend on these resources.

Second, Blue Abadi has a special “Innovation” fund allowing local organizations and unproven nonprofits to access smaller, less restrictive funding and gain experience to improve their management capacities.

This is critical in West Papua, where few conservation and civil society organizations exist. We want to ensure these groups can access and effectively use Blue Abadi funds to support their local conservation and livelihood goals.

A mangrove forest grows on the edge of a remote island in Raja Ampat. This tropical region is known as the heart of the Coral Triangle due to its marine biodiversity.

What role will the foundation play going forward to support the Bird’s Head Seascape?

I see the foundation playing two roles. First, we will remain an engaged member of the Blue Abadi governance committee to ensure that the functioning of the fund is strong – and in good hands for the future.

We also need to replicate the successes from Raja Ampat. We must ensure local communities see value in the conservation of their coasts, oceans and fish – and that they are engaged as participants and beneficiaries.

Right now, one of the area within the Bird’s Head, Kaimana Regency, is in danger of backsliding on the progress we thought was secured. We think that area may need additional grant funds over the next three years to help establish itself - so it can not only access future Blue Abadi resources, but manage them well.

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