Development or Destruction?
IT’S UP TO US
ALTERNATIVE TITLE TO THE ABOVE, IS ‘RAPID AND UNSUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT’. With its remote location and poor accessibility, to date relative isolation and low human population (50,000 inhabitants) has been Raja Ampat’s greatest defence against overuse and exploitation. However, rich coastal and marine resources combined with increasing accessibility have made it a target for economic development activities ranging from marine tourism, through to fisheries, mining and logging. Now, in addition to the burden of human induced climate change that is affecting reefs globally, the reefs of Raja Ampat face a series of new and emerging threats from locally developing industries.
The ‘tourism paradox’ is the name given to the phenomenon where the tourism industry destroys natural and cultural environment in a destination that is necessary for tourism activities.
In the early 2000s, tourism was considered a solution to a number of conservation and socio-economic issues within Raja Ampat, and indeed, this new industry was successful in replacing many extractive, illegal or unsustainable marine based activities by providing livelihoods within the industry. Yet as tourism continues to grow and expand in the region, it has begun to outpace the the existing management, infrastructure and systems that are necessary to service this rapidly exploding industry, whilst protecting the reefs that it depends upon for success.
Just 15 years ago there were 2-3 liveaboards operating in the little known and difficult to access region for just a few months each year. 10 years ago, there were approximately 5-8 land based operations and just 3000 tourists per year. In 2019, there were approximately 30,000 known tourists (with many unknown/undocumented), 26+ resorts (with more under construction) 150 guesthouses, 100+ liveaboards and a growing number of private vessels frequenting the area. Whilst these numbers are notably lower than mass tourism in other tropical reef areas, it represents a 10-fold increase in 10 years, one which continues to grow exponentially, year upon year.
This being said, tourism was critical in the establishment of the region’s MPAs, in particular within the Dampier Strait. During those establishment years, the general agreement by conservation groups and concerned parties was that tourism would provide a solution to a number of conservation and socio-economic issues;
1) It would provide a sustainable and directly beneficial livelihood to local people by taking the place of extractive activities like bomb fishing, shark finning, mining or deforestation
2) The presence of tourists would serve as an informal regulatory system that would discourage illegal and extractive behaviours
3) Revenue generated from tourism would demonstrate the economic value of an intact marine ecosystem, and in doing so, protect it.
And these solutions did take effect and have impact, and for some years, area specific tourism, largely concentrated within parts of the Dampier Strait served to protect reefs whilst providing alternative livelihoods.
However, as is the case in many remote, undeveloped locations on the planet, where nature thrives due to limited human impact… word quickly spread and Raja Ampat, currently touted “The Last Paradise”, rapidly became the must-see location. Word of mouth, combined with national and international marketing efforts by the tourism industry placed this ecologically sensitive area at the top of the list for many divers and intrepid travellers around the world, and resulted in rapid and unprecedented growth from 2015 onwards.
The Dampier Strait, known for its strong currents and upwellings which support an abundance of marine life, lies at the heart of this development. Yet it is these same strong currents and upwellings that impact and influence the wider region of Raja Ampat; meaning that any development that influences or disturbs the ecology in Dampier Strait, could also influence and disturb Raja Ampat as a whole.
Such rapid development has brought to the region a wide range of activities and environmental disturbances that the area is not yet equipped to handle from an infrastructure or logistical perspective. The reefs of Raja Ampat now face threats including more boat traffic, increased reef degradation through anchor damage, trampling and boat strike to reefs, increased waste water/sewerage and waste production.
What is urgently needed is more effective management and monitoring of the impact of tourism development and ecological states within the MPAs, and enhanced efforts from the industry itself to support genuine sustainable tourism. Supporting logistics, infrastructure enhanced management and monitoring systems are critical to limit the increasing impact of tourism development upon the region.
The SEA People are currently working with local communities, local government, tourism operators and other stakeholders to address these issues and implement sustainable solutions that are beneficial to the environment, and to all stakeholders.
A study by Renoldy L Papilaya et al (2019) has estimated more popular reefs are well over ecological carrying capacity (ie: the threshold limit for visitor use and consequent incidental damage that the coral reef ecosystem can sustain without being degraded), yet the numbers still grow. From an ecological perspective, at some locations there are visible signs of damage, disease and pollution throughout the region, drawing concern from scientists and conservationists, and complaints from tourists who seek the uncrowded and pristine reefs they’ve read about. More alarmingly, as baselines for the term ‘untouched’ change, this current state of degradation is considered as ‘pristine’ by many, in comparison to the heavily degraded, or even dead, reefs found elsewhere in the world.
Whilst so much of Raja Ampat remains relatively pristine, amongst the abundance lies the effect of human interference and influence; including large areas of degraded reef and coral rubble caused by destructive fishing practices (dynamite and cyanide fishing) from the 80s through to early 2000s. To this day, many of these destroyed reefs have not recovered. These degraded reefs cannot regenerate without assistance, and additionally pose threats to healthy reefs located nearby (see diagram).
In collaboration with local communities, The SEA People restore degraded areas of reef using substrate stabilization techniques that enable coral polyps to successfully settle and grow, to eventually re-establish large and healthy reef networks that support the abundance of life Raja Ampat is known for. See our Yaf Keru project for more details
The complex currents and topographic systems of Raja Ampat make it very challenging for liveaboards and private sailing vessels to safely and harmlessly anchor without damaging coral reefs. At present, few moorings existing within the Marine Park, leaving vessels no alternative but to anchor within an environment where abundant corals still thrive between 35-50m. This, combined with a lack of detailed regional maps, and potential lack of awareness and negligence by vessel operators, is resulting in unnecessary damage to reefs within the marine parks, particularly on reefs more frequently visited by tourism.
Additionally, the rapidly increasing tourism density combined with a lack of environmental awareness has provoked a marked increase in physical degradation of shallow reefs nearby tourism hotspots.
An anchor carelessly thrown into a coral reef, causing damage during placement, stay and hauling.
A diver stands on a coral bommie. One of an increasing number of incidents that occur throughout Raja Ampat.
Saving Coral Reefs Starts with You.
If left unchecked, 90% of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030, with almost all reefs facing, high, very high, or critical threat levels by 2050.
If we don’t act now, future generations will not have the privilege of seeing coral reefs, let alone receive the benefits that coral reefs provide, including food, coastal protection, livelihoods and medicine.
In Raja Ampat, Indonesia, the most biodiverse coral reefs on Earth are under threat; rapid and unsustainable development combined with climate change threaten the future of these reefs, along with the food security, heritage and livelihoods of many.
Your contribution today has a direct impact in enabling our team to work with local people to Restore, Protect and Conserve reefs in the world’s last remaining coral stronghold.
We cannot do it alone, but with your contribution we can do it together.
It’s Now or Never
AND IT’S UP TO US
At a time when coral reef degradation is occurring worldwide due to human activity, and in response to human induced climate change, it is essential and common sense to design and develop community-based conservation tools to respond to these current and future degradation issues. Rather than waiting for the pristine local reefs of Raja Ampat to be destroyed, become damaged or lose their natural resilience, we collaborate with local communities in projects that support the sustainable use and protection of marine resources. The SEA People are currently working on mutually beneficial stakeholder based solutions, in order to address these new and emerging threats to the reefs of Raja Ampat and the local communities who depend upon them.