- an assessment from the local perspective, with emphasis on West Papua
Conservation is an ancient concept in rural life styles. Its practical application in restrictions (tabus etc.), selective and other adaptive patterns to ensure sustainability began to evolve alongside with the patterns of hunting, fishing and food gathering, even before people became agriculturists, at the very beginning of human civilization.
The wisdom and knowledge about the delicate equilibrium between resource use and conservation accumulated over uncounted generations. And it is still deeply rooted in village communities today, even after the loss of traditional integrity, decision making powers and the invasion of modern technologies in the wake of modern socio-economic and political revolutions on the village level.
Just two examples from New Guinea (PNG and West Papua=Irian Jaya) from 1970:
Land tenure, traditional land rights are at the centre of these conservation practices: village people maintain a sophisticated system of ownership and land use patterns that covers their forest ( entire community or individual clans, families) and even reefs offshore ( the entire village community). Responsibility and experiences are essential factors in this inherited land tenure and local resource use system: any breach of the established rules in resource use( over-exploitation for instance) has a direct negative feedback to the owners and therefore is understood as negative, hence is being avoided further on. The time factor, continuity in this traditional ownership is most significant for the evolution and the maintenance of traditional conservation rules and balanced “ecologically sound” land use patterns.
Every utilized area, under these traditional rules, was also a conservation area in its own right – as long as the feed back mechanisms worked.
When western conservationists in the institutional framework of IUCN/WWF and FAO appeared on the Indonesian scene of modern “nature conservation” and established a close collaboration with PHPA (now PKA) at Bogor, in the 1970ies, their focus was directed entirely to the protection of (rare) species and wilderness areas, regardless of the current land use and integrated conservation practices. Rural populations and their life patterns were identified rather as obstacles in conservation proposals and “setting aside” state-protected areas was the ultimate goal. Personal preferences and limited knowledge were significant elements in the decisions as to which areas were the most valuable ones and should be included in the national system of officially protected areas.
I witnessed this stage of conservation activities in Indonesia at close range during my WWF/FAO-sponsored survey in 1978:” Identification of Conservation Areas in Irian Jaya” (published in 1979 under the title : Nature Conservation in Irian Jaya). Irian Jaya, the western, formerly Dutch administered half of New Guinea is now the Indonesian province of Papua.
At the time of my survey all forested land in the province, regardless of the traditional rights, was state-owned under Indonesian law and largely divided up into timber concessions for President Soeharto’s cronies and family members. Some large firms of the Soeharto era operate up to the present day: for instance PT. Hanurata, with business connections to the Indonesian military (Kopassus).
With the good help of local informants, forestry officers, university and museum scientists
I assembled as much information as possible for the overwhelming task of designing a network of conservation areas ( mostly strict nature reserves: cagar alam), partly in reference to the existing, already “protected” areas, partly as new proposals. One of these new proposals, for instance, was Teluk Cenderawasih marine conservation area. Instead of undertaking jungle excursions for a quick and rather incomplete and erratic assessment, I visited villages on the periphery of the projected Kumawa conservation area, from the town of Kaimana, in order to get a better understanding of the local rights and attitudes.
In this report, I compared the conservation situation in Irian Jaya with that on the eastern half of the island: In Papua New Guinea all traditional land rights were fully respected and instead of state-controlled conservation areas the village based system of “wildlife management areas” was developed, with full integration of traditional land tenure and harvesting of natural resources. I was much involved in the discussions that led to the establishment of the wildlife management in PNG, with the Australian conservationist Max Downes, at the PNG wildlife department, in the early 1970ies. My first trip to eastern, then Australian administered New Guinea was in 1959 already. This early journey and subsequent visits to eastern New Guinea gave me much insight into the still dominant traditional Papuan village society and their intimate relationship with the forest. However, our western views of conservation procedures, of splitting the earth into two parts, the “unprotected” and the “protected” areas was still occupying my thinking, regardless of my vivid discussions about village based conservation at the time: in 1970 my paper “Conservation in Papua New Guinea” was published, the first overall report about conservation in New Guinea: On top of dealing with the high significance of community wildlife management I proposed five conventional national parks for PNG: None of them was ever seriously followed up because of the prevailing alternative approach and indigenous conservation strategy in PNG. (Now there are only two minor national parks but very large and valuable wildlife management areas).
In Irian Jaya, however, where the Papuan land rights were ignored by the Soeharto regime, my 1978/9 proposals were largely adopted and even new areas added, by the first resident conservationist in the province, Ronald Petocz, during his extended period of work in Irian Jaya, with WWF sponsoring, in close collaboration with PHPA ( reference…).
My attempt in the report, to introduce also in western New Guinea alternative conservation models with larger participation of local people following the PNG example, led to critical comments only: Over-emphasis on PNG … (WWF).
After my return from Irian Jaya I established within the IUCN Commission on Ecology a working group: Conservation and Traditional Life Styles. In 1981 I founded ECOCULTURE as an IUCN inter-commission task force. ..add quotes… But because there was no support of any kind within the IUCN, I continued ECOCULTURE as the independent movement it still is today.
There were no indications of change in international strategies for setting aside further national parks and other conservation areas following the uniform model of state-ownership and neglect of village peoples rights, requirements and potentials in conservations, even with the working, good example of PNG already existing ! Only the issue of “buffer zone management” entered the discussions in international conservation circles and some adaptations were implemented in the field to set up transition zones between certain parks and the surrounding unprotected lands - giving local people limited rights (back)and some aid in order to counter the increasing conflicts and protests.
In 19.. the Hon. Emil Salim, then Minister of Environment of Indonesia wrote to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands his milestone letter with the basic question: “Why are tigers more important than people”!: for the first time the general view at conservation as an absolute and totally justified objective was challenged on this high level, within the conservation community. This letter was forwarded to IUCN’s Commission on Ecology and Jimoh Omo Fadaka (Nigeria) and myself were asked to draft a reply. Well, we admitted readily that the issue of landless people in relation to the justification of conservation areas, on Java and elsewhere simply had not been addressed yet by neither IUCN nor WWF until then. And a solution ? Still today no sign of it, because the old fashioned national park concept with state ownership and only restrictions – no adequate advantages for the traditional land owner communities, no compensation, still prevails.
More than ten years later, in 1995 I returned to Irian Jaya, this time without any sponsoring, as an independent individual. (I earn my living by producing TV documentaries.) At first I was impressed by how many conservation areas had been established. And how much staff were employed in the administrative centres of the province, by the conservation department KSDA. And how many offices WWF had in operation throughout the country…
Very soon, however, the real picture unfolded: the so called conservation areas (taman nasional, cagar alam,suaka margasatwa) remained largely intact only, because the wave of modern economic development had not reached Irian Jaya yet. There was practically no government activity in these areas after the boundaries had been drawn. Work was confined to bureaucracy.
Earlier, the WWF had lost in a tragic plane crash its excellent field officer Ian Craven. Ian successfully had initiated both negotiations and small scale economic schemes with village communities affected by conservation areas: with the Hattam people of the Arfak Mountains and with the tribes of the Wasur national park area, near the border to PNG.
Otherwise, the WWF presented a drab picture. One example: Along Jamursba Medi beach – the most important turtle ( Dermochelys!) nesting area of the Southern Hemisphere, the main conservation problem were feral pigs that destroyed the clutches of eggs. Instead of experimenting with simple devices to keep the pigs off the beach and protecting the turtle nesting sites ( by solar-powered fences, bamboo frames covering clutches of eggs), the “wardens” were told to dig up a few clutches and re-bury them in a compound near their houses. But these good people also kept domestic pigs that roamed free along the beach and dogs that dug up eggs in the artificial incubator! The “wardens” had no real idea what the purpose of their work was, no conservation education and no regular communication link to the outside world.
More examples: Ronald Petocz had adopted my proposal of 1978/9 for the Teluk Cenderawasih (=T. Sarera) conservation area, now Taman Nasional Laut T.C. Naturally, I was delighted when I received these news. The bad news came at close sight: fish bombing and cyanid poisoning had invaded the area from the outside: Buton of South Sulawesi were the people blamed by the villagers. There was a very impressive master plan prepared by the WWF ( …), with detailed proposals and maps that illustrated the zoning. The so called “sanctuary zone” that embraces the most valuable islands and reefs, were declared “no-go areas”. Even the local fishermen, the traditional owner communities were not allowed to enter their traditional fishing grounds in zone A anymore. With the consequence that with the establishment of official “conservation” the local guardians of these most sensitive areas of the marine park only could enter illegally: good news, easier access for the bombers! Government patrols at that time were simply non-existing. The villages in the park are during all the years since the declaration of the park had never been consulted and never any joint programming was considered or implemented!
Meanwhile there is a special administration department for the park in Manokwari, with dozends of employees. But in the field the situation has only changed to the worse. PELNI ships on their course to and from Nabire dump their garbage and plastic over board in the park, from the gold mining area near Nabire unknown quantities of mercury enter the bay and from the logging areas inland the rivers carry loads of sediments onto the reefs. The bombing/cyanid poisoning continues regardless of the erratic patrols that have been initiated by the park administration in the late 1990ies. How should both the local people and foreign visitors even recognize that there is a marine national park in Teluk Cenderawasih ! But looking at the WWF and PKA websites all seems to be in the best order.
The same situation applies for the other national parks in Papua until today: What does it actually mean in practical terms that the Lorentz National Park was even given the status of a world heritage site? Absolutely nothing! This vast wilderness area reaches from the sea level to the five thousand meter summit region: one of the Top Ten natural areas worldwide! Conservation activities on the ground, in the scattered villages? There is very little I could possibly refer to, only some surveys and vague proposals, another “master-plan”.
This de facto non-conservation (official) status – in opposition to the still continued traditional conservation rules and practices of the Papuan inhabitants – remained unchallenged by modern destructive developments only, because none of these has reached this remote area yet. Except for the mining giant Freeport: there isn’t even a discussion going as to whether territorial restrictions, out of mere conservation reasons, should be imposed upon Freeport or not. Of course, mining has priority out of “national interests”! And the national park with its world heritage diploma cannot compete. Because wilderness has no money value and human evolution is far from (re-)considering alternative non-monetary values adequately.
Regardless of this evident situation, some scientists aiming for the best have recently proposed the same world heritage conservation status also for the Raja Ampat Archipelago off Sorong – the reef and island region with still intact ecological bridges been the primeval forest on islands and the fringing reefs offshore and possibly with the highest marine biodiversity on Earth.
Yes, both these areas clearly deserve the highest conservation status. However, practical measures to achieve this still remote and abstract goal must be activated on the bottom level, from the local villages: only there is some potential for future safeguarding.
Back to the situation in 1995 and in subsequent years: I have been forward and backward to Papua 14 times since June 1995: in that year the wildlife photographer Konrad Wothe had joined me. On our arrival in Sorong the tour guide Kris Tindige and the KSDA/WWF representative Jopi Bakarbesi welcomed us. (They had been notified by WWF headquarters in Jakarta.) Straight away they brought us to the compound of Mr. Nasir, a trader in wildlife and artefacts: as if this place of horror should attract tourists as a sightseeing attraction! Unbelievable: some of the filthy cages even did not provide resting sticks of wood. Loads of poor little pigmy parrots sat in the accumulating dirt on the floor of the cages next to their dead mates – apparently nobody bothered to remove the corpses. When Mr. Nasir opened a drawer in his living room to take out an agama lizard he only found the mummified body. Goura pigeons, monitor lizards, Chondropythons and other protected species, all available for sale! Konrad took several pictures and we sent an illustrated report to WWF later that year: nothing changed, however, and Mr Nasir continued his illegal trade undisturbed. The local WWF office has done nothing to stop him nor did KSDA respond to our complains: regularly in later years I saw certain KSDA officers having a chat with Mr Nasir in front of his animal torture house. KSDA employees also collaborated with gravel businesses in Sorong giving easy access to coastal gravel deposits within the strict nature reserves on Salawati and Batanta islands. One of these gravel firms was owned by the same Mr. Nasir.
What can one possibly expect on the government and on the NGO level for the safeguarding of the officially declared conservation areas, under such appalling circumstances? The only preserving factor was the remoteness of Papua, not at all any law enforcement. But this dormant equilibrium did only last a few more years up to the end of the millennium.
Back to actual observations: On the island of Biak the illegal trade in Lesser Birds of Paradise and Palm Cockatoos was (and still is) regular and open business; the birds arrived on canoes from Japen island: it would have been very easy to control this trade. Again, neither KSDA nor WWF have achieved anything to stop it. I never ever saw an officer on duty in the market or harbour areas. WWF had an office on Biak for several years: what did the employees there actually do for conservation? To my knowledge: nothing in practical, effective terms; all the expenditures, all the money for facilities and staff went down the drain. But worse: to the outside world the impression was given that conservation was well in hand and taken care of on Biak, in Sorong and elsewhere in Papua.
One of my proposals of 1978/9 was a strict nature reserve on Biak, in the mountainous north-western part of the island and one on the sister island of Supiori; both possess the highest number of endemic bird species of all the satellite islands of New Guinea. These reserves were established in the early 1980ies. Through the reserve on Biak (Cagar Alam Biak Utara) cuts a narrow asphalt road. The local villages ( and land owners) established gardens along this road, but some primeval forest still remains right by the roadside. WWF Biak held numerous meetings with the villagers and eventually put forward the proposal that on both sides of the road a 100 m strip of land should be excluded from the reserve and made available for gardens. Is that the solution? Instead of introducing a three grade system with grade A, covering all remaining forest up to the road, B, covering old and C, covering new gardens that are in use and setting up a supportive scheme of related long-term (“lestari”) small scale village developments, WWF simply was ready to give up true natural assets in the conservation area without any sound reason and without any gain in return. Fortunately, no final deal was achieved, the situation continues unchanged.
Visiting tourists can hardly see the primeval forest away from the road if a wall of secondary growth on abandoned garden land obstructs the view. Some gardens in use are a supportive element, because they offer fruit trees for the birds. But only through the remaining windows in untouched sections of forest by the roadside, without secondary growth, the visitors can experience the “real jungle” even from their coach.
This is just one example of wrong handling even simple conservation affairs. Too much is on stake here and elsewhere in Papua to allow a continuation of such unprofessional practices: we are dealing here with the last remaining larger area of wilderness on Biak; this is not a playing ground for highly motivated, but rather unqualified or inexperienced conservationists!
It is serious business indeed! The WWF office in Biak meanwhile was closed down. And soon the last remaining primeval forest next to this road in the strict nature reserve of Biak might be cut and converted to gardens, then to secondary growth. Last year the traditional chiefs (kepala adat) of the area ( there are two villages involved: Mos and Sansundi) assured me that the villagers were willing to stop any extensions of gardens and to maintain certain converted areas as feeding places for birds, against a moderate village development programme. But who is going to be their partner? We have set up a new village based NGO on Biak: the Cooperative Foundation MANYOA. But who is prepared to provide the funding…? With a few thousand dollars the villagers could achieve real miracles!