With unique and vital coral reef ecosystem around the world facing threats from human activity, the need to protect them is ever more urgent. Traditional responses to do this have been through regulation and top-down enforcement. But lately conservation leaders have shown there’s another way, one which inspires and incentivizes local communities and user groups to willingly engage in grassroots conservation efforts A Swiss diver, Lorenz Mäder, was an early proponent of this approach, and the programme he created is now one of the world’s most successful community-based, privately funded marine conservation initiatives.
By Karen Stearn
In the beginnings
The genesis for what would come to be known as the Wakatobi Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme took shape in the 1990s. Mäder had spent years searching for the ideal place to create a small dive resort, eventually coming to the remote Indonesian island of Pulau Tolandona in the Tukang Besi archipelago of Indonesia’s Banda Sea. From the outset, Lorenz understood the importance of protecting and preserving the magnificent coral formations he found there. At that time, dynamite fishing, reef gleaning and netting were becoming wide spread, and there were few if any restrictions on fishing and harvesting practices. But rather than lobby for governmental intervention and largely unenforceable regulations, Lorenz reached out to local fishermen and communities.
Despite language barriers and initial skepticism, he eventually won them over. Drawing on his marine biology background he convinced them to set aside 40% of their traditional fishing areas as no-take replenishment zones. In the years that followed they saw significant increases in their catch, and became the replenishment zones’ staunchest defenders.
But preservation for the future isn’t an easy concept for people living hand-to-mouth, Lorenz says. “You have to build trust, and there also has to be demonstrative material benefits.” Benefits were created when a six km section of reef with seagrass meadows surrounding the new resort was designated a permanent no-take zone. In exchange for this Lorenz pledged to make direct lease payments to 17 local villages using revenue generated by resort guests. The programme has since expanded to cover 20 km of reef, and has become an international model for private-sector conservation.
Changing the map
Lorenz named his resort Wakatobi, a word created by taking the first two letters of the four largest islands in the archipelago: Wangi- Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko. Then in 2002, the Indonesian government expanded the area created by the resort’s conservation program to create the Wakatobi National Park which now encompassed nearly 1.4 million hectares, which has been designated an autonomous region with a new name: Wakatobi Regency. In 2005 UNESCO listed the Wakatobi National Park as a tentative World Heritage Site and added it in 2012 to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
More than money
Today, the Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme installs and maintains a network of moorings in the reserve and in-area harbors thereby eliminating anchor damage to the reefs. Other initiatives include reef monitoring and cleaning, sponsorship of marine biology and ecology education, daily reef cleaning, and sponsoring reef and fishing area patrols by local communities, police, military, and rangers.
Wakatobi’s commitment to the local community has expanded beyond the marine preserve too. The resort uses traditional labor and materials to build and maintain it’s infrastructure providing full-time employment for 150 locals. It provides electricity for the nearby 500-person village and sponsors waste management in the area. Educational materials are provided to schools while the resort’s micro-credit programme assists small-scale entrepreneurs seeking alternatives to unsustainable fishing practices.
Wakatobi’s conservation and social initiatives have yielded substantial benefits. Now reefs in the marine preserve are in near-pristine condition, and overall fish populations have rebounded allowing for sustainable harvests in selected areas.
Many people see Lorenz as a visionary who initiated one of the world’s largest privately-funded and managed marine protected areas. But he says his motives are more pragmatic: “You can’t pack up and move your resort when the diving is no longer good,” he says. “So it’s better to do what you can to protect it, to enjoy it now and in the future.”