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Today on Asia Calling to mark World Environment Day (June 5th), we begin a series of stories on environmental initiatives being undertaken across our region.
In recent weeks we’ve been exploring the Coral Triangle, a vast underwater wilderness that spans the island of Bali, in Indonesia, the northern tip of the Philippines and all the way to the Solomon Islands.
Scientists describe the region as “the Amazon of the seas” because of the sheer diversity of life that can be found beneath its depths.
Six out of seven existing species of sea turtles dwell here. Among them, the leatherback turtle, or “giant turtle”, a huge animal that can grow up to 2.5 meters long and weigh as much as a small car.
The leatherback is critically endangered, especially in the Pacific Ocean, where only 3,000 females nest each year.
Three quarters of them choose one of four beaches along the remote northern coast of the Indonesian province of Papua.
Our reporter Solenn Honorine recently visited the district of Abun nearby several of the beaches were Leatherbacks nest.
There, local villagers are helping the World Wildlife Fung to protect the turtles.
It is a moonless night on Jamursba Medi beach. But the stars shine brightly enough to cast a dim light on the round shape that thrashes sand around: a sea turtle. She has just finished laying her eggs and is heaving herself back to the ocean. Three men huddle above her nest, digging it up. Carefully they remove it’s freshly laid eggs, counting them as they go.
Made Jaya Artha hurries up the beach with a bucket containing 88 eggs. He is no thief, but a scientist working with environmental group the World Wildlife Fund or WWF.
“The nest is too shallow; if it’s too shallow, then for the predators it’s easy to smell it, the temperature is too hot so the hatching success is not good. So we have to relocate and make it safe from the tide.”
Despite Made’s precautions, only one out of a thousand eggs will, one day, become a full-grown turtle that will eventually come back here, to her birthplace, to lay her own eggs. It is a tough life; but recently they have found an ally: Man, their former enemy.
David Titip is one of the 40 local villagers that have been hired by the WWF to patrol the beach, every night, to make sure the nesting ritual goes smoothly.
He lives in a small village a few hours trek from the beach. He is paid well for his work, roughly 150 dollars per month. A small fortune in this remote area of Papua, where formal jobs are scarce.
“In the village, sure there is work to do, but there is no real jobs for the people, like businesses for example. For me, I think the ideal for the people here is to be able to work for the WWF. We are glad to work here, because the WWF has a conservation mission, and here we protect the habitat of the turtles.”
Wau is a village of 55 families, a two-day ferry ride from the nearest town. Here there are no phones, no running water and no electricity. The bell is a call to church, but there is no place of worship here. Four months ago, an earthquake destroyed the church, the school and several houses. Two people died. Nothing has been rebuilt yet because the villagers lack the money, and no one else has sent help.
In the local language, Wau means “turtle”. The neighboring beach, where hundreds of leatherbacks nest every year, is called “Warmon”, or “Sacred Water”.
“My name is Mama Tabita. Here, Mama is the guardian of the turtles.”
Mama Tabita, a short, tough woman, is a traditional leader in the village. She’s sitting on the wooden floor of her kitchen, directing the work of her daughter-in-law who’s preparing food for her guests: representatives from the local government and the World Wildlife Fund, who are checking on the village’s turtle preservation project.
“Back in the days, people here ate the turtles, even Mama! Oh yeah! But when Mama was older, when she got her first grand children, we started to sell it also to people who came from the city with the ferry.”
Twenty years ago a new ferry line gave Wau village access to the outside world. It brought bustling trade with nearby areas. And the leatherbacks became easy prey for turtle traders.
“The old people, back in the days, they did not know what money was. But now we do. We use it to buy clothes so that we can dress, buy rice, buy sugar, buy cigarette, by bridal gifts… So we sold turtle eggs and meat, because if we wanted to get money, where else could we find it? But now that’s over. Mama is standing guard on the beach, and no one is allowed to eat it.”
It wasn’t easy for WWF to convince people to give up their main source of income. Demanus Yesawen, a village leader, explains that his community wanted something in exchange.
“The WWF has brought things to us. They’ve given jobs to the community: just in our village, there are 20 people who work for them. And also, they’ve given scholarships for children in the village; they’ve given better seeds for us to grow food; with the help of local government they’ve given motor for our boats, fishing tools… So people here have the feeling that, yes, it’s to our benefit.”
Next to Mama’s place, four men are busy fixing up a house, attaching new palm leaves to its decrepit roof. One of them, a squat, bare-chested man, is the village priest.
But he has no interest in discussing the turtles. “Go over there at Mama’s house”, he grumbles, “That’s were the turtle people are”.
He’s not the only who appears unhappy. In fact, tensions are palpable in the village.
In Wau, the WWF has brought new money, and also conflict.
At a meeting between villagers and officials from the government and the WWF. a man stands up, arms defiantly crossed on his chest, lip quivering with rage. He throws his fist toward Mama Tabita, and shouts at the visitors.
“When we were hit by the earthquake, where was your speed boat to come help us?”, he says. “I’m a man, why shouldn’t I get more help than those animals receive?”
It appears that the village is cut in half. On one side Mama Tabita and her allies, mostly from her family. On the other, people like Andreanus Joxen and Lambertus Pati, who feel left out.
“Before the WWF came here, we were living in peace. There was no conflict between us.”
“Mama Tabita is the one who agreed to let the WWF work on the beach. But everyone knows that when foreigners, like businesses, want to work on our land, they have to pay the community. But Mama Tabita did not get pay for us. And now, it’s her family that gets all the jobs. Mama is an idiot.”
Jealousies about who in the community gets the new jobs have led to this deep rift.
As a traditional leader, Mama holds customary rights on the beach, and therefore is the obvious negotiator with the WWF. But her authority is eroding because of confrontation with modern ways of life.
These sorts of tensions are common in Papua, where land disputes are rife, making conservation work all the more delicate. Creusa Hitipeuw, from the WWF, says that to protect nature, humans should come first.
“These people, because they’re close, and they care about the turtles, if they can make money out of it it’s a win-win solution. Actually, working for conservation is working for humans. Conservation practitioner(s) should look for ways where both species come together. I’m sure there is a way to do that.”
Although the province is rich in natural resources, its inhabitants remain among the poorest of Indonesian’s; the government in Jakarta has long ignored Papua. But as more people take interest in the province’s natural resources, both for exploitation and preservation, residents are starting to make sure their voices are heard. And here cultural preservation and social harmony is just as important as wildlife preservation.