Indonesia is home to one of the least fished, least populated, healthiest marine environments on the planet.
With my GreenWatch Column all too often highlighting the many serious conservation challenges facing this nation, the islands of Raja Ampat provide the location for a truly good news story.
Situated off the northwest tip of Bird’s Head Peninsula on the island of Papua, Raja Ampat is an archipelago comprising more than 1,500 small atolls surrounding the four main islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo.
Part of the newly named province of West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, the marine life diversity in the Raja Ampat area is the highest recorded anywhere on Earth, according to leading ocean biologists.
This remote place encompasses more than 40,000 square kilometers of land and sea, which contains Indonesia’s largest marine national park, Cenderawasih Bay. Biodiversity is considerably greater than any other area sampled in the legendary Coral Triangle, composed of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
It is a diver’s paradise, where pristine reefs consist of vast swathes of vivid red, pink, yellow and purple coral.
And it’s also a place where worlds almost literally collide. These remarkable waters are just east of
the famed Wallace Line – named
by the famous 19th-century natu-ralist Alfred Russel Wallace – which fascinatingly separates the fauna
of southern Asia from that of Australasia.
The Raja Ampat archipelago is part of the 340,000 square-kilometer transition zone known to modern oceanographers as Wallacea.
Scientists describe it as “the epicenter of marine biodiversity”, where the discovery of new species is extraordinarily commonplace.
According to The Nature Conservancy, which conducted a study together with partner organizations, these waters contain 1,070 fish species, 537 types of coral and 699 mollusk species as well as regular sightings of the wobbegong, a curious flat shark that spends most of its time on the seabed.
Wobbegongs are well camouflaged thanks to a symmetrical pattern of bold markings resembling an elaborate fabric pattern, which is why they are often referred to as carpet sharks.
These creatures make use of their relative invisibility to hide among rocks and catch smaller fish that swim too close, typical of ambush predators, but they present little danger to humans
Properly protected, this biodiversity goldmine could serve as an evolutionary laboratory and maritime seed bank to kick-start recovery for the entire area.
The so-called Four Kings at least for now remain an unspoiled example of the richness of the coral ecosystem. But the relative isolation that protects this maritime marvel is under threat.
Sorong is the westernmost coastal city on Papua and is the gateway to these incredibly species-rich coral reef islands, widely considered as the heart of the world’s coral reef biodiversity. But it is also the logistics hub for Indonesia’s thriving eastern oil and gas frontier.
Like so many isolated parts of Indonesia, Sorong has experienced exponential growth in the past five years, and further growth is anticipated as the city becomes better linked by road to other frontier towns in Papua’s Bird’s Head Peninsula.
And like in so many other places, as this nation develops economically, there are increasing and often daunting challenges in preserving the country’s incredible nature.
Over the years, the tiny population of ethnic Melanesian Papuans, mainly subsistence fishermen, has shown respect for conservation. But when they see big commercial boats from Sulawesi and other populous Indonesian islands, whose own local waters have been depleted, anchor offshore and wipe out fish stocks with dynamite bombs, it’s difficult for them to avoid the temptation to blow up the reefs themselves in a bid to keep at least some of the profit from leaving their islands.
That’s why leading international environmental groups, including Seacology, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy are striving to provide a better deal for the villages by offering rewards in the form of schools, community centers and solar power in exchange for long-term protection of their ecologically priceless waters.
World-renowned diver and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who counts Raja Ampat as one of the most spectacular places on Earth, says that the next 10 years will be the most important in the next 10,000.
Known as a global ambassador for the seas, this extraordinary marine explorer, who is now in her seventies and still diving, says, “We’ve got a limited time to make a difference.”
The Indonesian government has established Raja Ampat as a separate administrative unit, which gives communities a greater say in managing the natural resources upon which their livelihoods depend.
This structure also offers an important opportunity to include conservation in the spatial planning of the newly formed local government.
But the pressure to extract the islands’ and oceans’ wealth is relentless, and it is likely to need stronger measures from both national and local governments to ensure the long-term preservation of this jewel in Indonesia’s crown.
Jonathan Wootliff is an independent sustainable development consultant specializing in the building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at email@example.com