Raja Ampat: why reefs are worth more money than mines

Why deplete a country’s mineral resources when its natural capital is worth so much more? Muhammad Erdi Lazuardi

“Natural capital” is the resources in nature’s bank. Nature’s capital is not evenly spread across the world: some areas are “richer” than others. Raja Ampat in Papua is one of the richest. Currently under threat from mining and logging, the economic bounty of its natural riches may be just the thing to save it.

Reefs, forests and tradeable products

For local communities, the coral reefs, which contain more fish species than any other place in the world, are an important resource. They are these communities’ primary source of food and income.

These reefs, which harbor 75% of all known coral species, are also likely to provide a regional service. They supply larvae that replenish other reefs, perhaps even as far away as Australia.

Much of the incredibly diverse forests remain too, albeit mostly logged to some degree at some stage. These forests contain numerous bird species found nowhere else, like the Kofiau Paradise Kingfisher.

As for ecotourism, Raja Ampat is a diver’s or twitcher’s wet-dream. The region also boasts minerals including nickel and cobalt.

Raja Ampat has been somewhat able to live off the interest of its natural capital for centuries. Despite the perception of it being a remote wilderness, it has attracted traders for millennia, harvesting diverse natural products like fish, spices and bird feathers.

As a result, an immense cultural heritage has developed. Raja Ampat’s population ranges from local Melanesians to settlers from as far as the Middle East who arrived during the spice trade era.

Raja Ampat’s coral reefs contain more fish species than any other place in the world. Muhammad Erdi Lazuardi

Communities have always relied on the area’s fisheries. In response, they have developed interesting customary management systems, like marine tenure systems, and traditional regulations like sasis, or temporary closures to help restock local fisheries.

Natural capital and commerce needn’t be enemies

Maintaining natural capital is increasingly seen as fundamental for development. Declining natural capital can pose a direct threat to rural poor since they can often depend closely on the environment for their livelihood. In Raja Ampat particularly, many local communities rely on fish and other natural products as their main source of food and income.

As in many developing countries, there is immense pressure from industries that can have a negative impact on natural capital. In Raja Ampat, mining is proposed around the steep catchments that flow into an enclosed bay called Teluk Mayalibit. If this proceeds it could devastate fisheries and the people who rely on this area for food.

The challenge for the government and communities within Raja Ampat is how to manage and value natural capital, and share the benefits of doing so, for people to be better off in the long term. If its natural capital is not managed sustainably then there might be serious consequences for its people (not to mention biodiversity).

Run-off, shark finning and blasting hurt people who rely on reefs. Muhammad Erdi Lazuardi

For example, run-off from mining and logging, shark finning, and coral reef blasting can all have serious negative consequences for coral reefs and the people that rely on them. This is particularly challenging as many of these threats are often posed by people from outside the region, coming in for quick profiteering of natural capital.

Sustainable development makes nature pay

There are a number of initiatives that are being implemented to create economic incentives for using Raja Ampat’s natural capital sustainably. These aim to ensure that the benefits of sustainable management benefit people.

Off the coast of the island of Misool are numerous islands with fairly healthy reefs and people who depend on these reefs for their livelihoods. A formal agreement has been formed between the local community and [Misool Ecoresort(http://www.misoolecoresort.com/)].

This 25 year agreement protects an area of over 1000 km2 from fishing. The ecoresort receives benefits because fish diversity and abundance are higher in the concession, attracting divers from around the world. The communities benefit from direct payments, employment from the resort, and potentially through improved fisheries, as areas closed to fishing can help support their adjacent fisheries.

Throughout the larger protected bays of Raja Ampat, pearl farms are common, mostly producing pearls for the Japanese market. Pearl farms rely on healthy waterways and are established through an agreement with local communities who not only get payments for renting these areas to the farmers, but also are also employed by the farms.

One ecosystem service of global interest is carbon stored in trees. If trees are cleared, more carbon goes into the atmosphere and we are all worse off from increased climate change.

Under the REDD+ system - one of the global initiatives spearheaded through international climate change negotiations - rich countries would pay poor countries to avoid creating the kind of emissions they have generated.

Eco-resorts attract divers from around the world. Muhammad Erdi Lazuardi

It is now suggested to extend this program from forest to coastal ecosystems like mangroves; this is known as “blue carbon payments”. Could relatively intact seagrass areas that support dugongs, and the mangroves areas containing crocodiles in Raja Ampat, receive payments for their carbon services from rich countries?

The live fish market in Asia, particularly for grouper, is lucrative. The value of the trade at the retail level for Hong Kong and Mainland China is estimated to be more than US$400 million.

Raja Ampat maintains relatively healthy populations of groupers. These will only continue to increase in price and demand due to declines in their populations elsewhere across South East Asia. Several research projects are providing advice on how best to manage grouper, including protecting their spawning aggregations from fishing.

While economic prosperity is likely to be a key part of maximising human well-being it is not the only component. Even if we just consider economic prosperity, a State University of Papua survey found the long-term benefits from more ecologically friendly economic activities like pearl farming and sustainable fishing, outweigh the short-term gains from activities like mining and illegal forestry.

Raja Ampat is incredibly biologically valuable but vulnerable to unsustainable development. I would hope that through green economic development that local communities, and consequently biodiversity, will benefit in the long-term.

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