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Vast new Marine Protected Areas are PNG’s first to be co-managed by Indigenous communities

image: Subsistence fishing has become more difficult for communities near the two new MPAs as populations increase and commercial fishing squeezes stocks. Image © Elodie Van Lierde | WCS.
  • On Nov. 12, the government of Papua New Guinea declared two large new marine protected areas totaling more than 16,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles) that reportedly triple the country’s marine area under protection.
  • The announcement capped a six-year effort led by U.S.-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society to consult with local communities about how to set up the MPAs to curtail the harvest of threatened species and restore the health of fisheries that people have depended on for generations.
  • The NGO called the announcement “one of the first and most ambitious community-led MPA wins” since countries agreed last year to protect 30% of land and sea area by 2030 under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.
  • However, some observers note the potential problems that could arise from foreign-led conservation in an area experiencing poverty, conflict, and minimal government support, and there is widespread agreement that the MPAs’ success will depend on securing financing for enforcement.

The government of Papua New Guinea has declared two large new marine protected areas, capping a six-year effort in consultation with local communities on how to curtail the harvest of threatened species and restore the health of fisheries that people have depended on for generations.

The MPAs, announced Nov. 12, surround the waters of the local-level government areas of Lovongai and Murat in the country’s northeastern island province of New Ireland. U.S.-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which led their establishment, said in a press release that together they cover more than 16,000 square kilometers (6,200 square miles), tripling the country’s marine area under protection. They comprise less than 1% of Papua New Guinea’s marine territory.

The process of establishing the MPAs involved consultation with more than 9,000 people in more than 100 Indigenous communities, the press release said.

An Indigenous man throwing a fishing spear.
Traditional management techniques in Lovongai and Murat, Papua New Guinea, where the two new MPAs are located, included closing off fishing areas when community leaders passed away or limiting fishing during spawning season. Image © Elodie Van Lierde | WCS.

“The communities have created the rules themselves,” said Annisah Sapul, WCS’s former program manager in New Ireland’s capital of Kavieng, who led the consultation process with communities, experts and government officials. “So with the science that we have given, and also with their traditional knowledge, they were able to say, ‘Okay, these are the rules that will help us to minimize the threats, and also to allow us to reach the objectives of what we want to see in our marine space.’”

WCS’s press release called this “one of the first and most ambitious community-led MPA wins” since countries agreed last year to protect 30% of land and sea area by 2030 under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

The MPAs are the country’s first to be co-managed by Indigenous communities, according to an emailed statement from Bernard Suruman, who oversees MPAs at PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA). “These MPAs allow for sustainable fishing practices and resource utilization by local communities, ensuring their livelihoods are not jeopardized by conservation efforts,” he said.

However, other observers note the potential problems that could arise from foreign-led conservation in an area experiencing poverty, conflict, and minimal government support.

John Aini, a community leader from Lovongai whose organization Ailan Awareness facilitated consultations between WCS and local communities, expressed doubt that the MPAs were the best form of management for community fisheries and concern about repeating past experiences when outside groups instituted top-down initiatives that prevented communities from accessing the ecosystems they depend on. In addition, he said the success of the MPAs will depend on securing enough financing for enforcement.

“I’m with the idea, but it needs to be accepted fully and people need to be clear on what they’ve gone into,” Aini said. “The announcement of the MPAs is one thing, but the bigger challenge we will face now [is] enforcing and ensuring that the management plan is complied to.”

John Aini. Image by Basten Gokkon/ Mongabay.
John Aini. Image by Basten Gokkon/ Mongabay.

Protecting fish stocks and wildlife

Communities and conservation workers cite multiple threats to sustainable fishing in Murat and Lovongai. Subsistence fishing has become more difficult as populations increase and commercial fishing squeezes stocks. Local fishers use small-mesh nets to catch more and buy gas to fuel boats traveling farther out to sea in search of larger fish. Some raise their chances by bombing or stunning fish with derris root, a poisonous plant banned for fishing in many places.

The beaches of Murat and Lovongai are important breeding grounds for endangered green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). Megapode birds (family Megapodiidae) nest on Lovongai’s beaches, and coconut crabs (Birgus latro) nest on Murat’s Mussau Island. Murat faces the open sea, where skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis) breed and whales feed. WCS says the region is likely home to the recently named Papuan guitarfish (Rhinobatos manai). The two MPAs prohibit harvesting the critically endangered largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis), bottlenose wedgefish (Rhynchobatus australiae), and shark ray (Rhina ancylostoma), and most of the Murat MPA includes protections for all sharks and rays.

Both MPAs forbid the harvest of dugongs, whales and dolphins, as well as the disposal of plastic waste on the beaches or at sea. The Murat MPA bans the harvest of marine turtles, the dominant religion there having already made it taboo.

Fishing rules aim to ensure marine species can reach maturity and reproduce before being caught. They designate minimum mesh sizes for nets and, with some exceptions, forbid night fishing. On first offense, individual violators must to do “community work,” according to the management plan, and on second offense, fines reach 300 kina ($80). On the third, they are referred to village court. Corporations are referred to district court on first offense.

The MPAs don’t address communities’ concerns about commercial overfishing and overharvesting of sea cucumbers, because national laws override the local MPA laws, according to the MPAs’ management plan.

It’s unclear whether the designation of the new MPAs will affect the simmering plans for deep-sea mining in an area roughly 160 km (100 mi) southeast of Lovongai, as sediment plumes can drift. However, the government appears to have noted the potential conflict. “The establishment of these 2 MPAs is encouraging the government to reconsider why biodiversity conservation is as important as other resource sector such as deep-sea mining,” CEPA’s Suruman said. “The dependence and sustainable use of the marine resources by the Island communities clearly indicates to the government that more communities will benefit out of these MPAs than [from] deep-sea mining activities/projects.”

    Nickson Namalo grew up in Lomakunauru village on Mussau Island, where fishers fashion nets out of tree leaves and paddle canoes near shore to collect fish from the reefs. He told Mongabay he joined the effort to design the MPAs because he saw how communities struggled to find fish. He enrolled in the National Fisheries College in Kavieng and was recently elected chair of the Murat MPA’s management committee.

    “The MPA will remind us and teach us how to protect our marine environment, and I’m very happy because people will also benefit economically,” he said.

    Community consultations

    In 2017, when the effort to establish the two MPAs began, several communities had already created their own strategies to fish more sustainably. Traditional management techniques included closing off fishing areas when community leaders passed away or limiting fishing during spawning season. Some communities discussed with WCS how to cooperate across villages to improve management.

    “So that started the process of saying, ‘Okay, we know how to do it well in one community, but now we need to take what we’ve learned in these communities and reach out to all the other communities who have this interest as well,’” Sapul said.

    The result was a six-year collaboration led by WCS, working with Ailan Awareness and another local nonprofit, Lolieng Sustainable Programme. A core team of roughly 15 people, all but one from Papua New Guinea, visited all 26 villages in Murat and 74 of the more than 100 in Lovongai. Sapul said WCS designed the process to be attentive to how communities, which represent various languages, religions and diets, interact with their environment and make decisions.

    WCS used questionnaires to identify the communities’ main concerns related to fisheries, and then designed rules to address them with input from legal and technical experts and representatives from government agencies and communities. WCS then returned to the villages to review the proposed rules. Every community approved the rules because they needed legislation to manage their marine environment, Tracey Boslogo, marine conservation officer for WCS Papua New Guinea, told Mongabay.

    A critically endangered largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis)
    The two MPAs prohibit harvesting the critically endangered largetooth sawfish (in picture), bottlenose wedgefish, and shark ray, and most of the Murat MPA includes protections for all sharks and rays. Image by Peter Kyne, Charles Darwin University via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

    However, Aini said he now thinks Lovongai communities didn’t fully understand the MPA they approved of because he’s received a flurry of questions from people about how it will be managed and what they’ll be allowed to do. Aini said he hadn’t seen the management plan, which assigned tasks to his organization, until Mongabay shared it with him. Instead of managing large areas of the ocean under a single plan, he said a more effective and equitable model would be to allow each community to manage their own area while boosting education and resources to do so.

    Aini, an activist and scholar long critical of foreign-led conservation, said WCS seems to have misunderstood how people interact with one another and their environment in Lovongai and Murat. As he articulated in a paper published this year in Oryx, outside organizations tend to overlook the ritual practices, slow trust-building, and the work of elders that connects people to the sea. Based on the principle of vala, which roughly translates as “management” in Tungak, a language on Lovongai, people draw from this knowledge to make decisions about ecological management.

    “Our Western system of FPIC [free, prior, and informed consent] doesn’t account and factor for all the abilities and complexities of traditional communities and changes and seasons and disasters and all the different things and needs,” said Rachel Sapery James, Blue Pacific manager for WWF-Australia and a co-author of the paper, who grew up in Lovongai and was not involved in creating the MPAs. “It should be more than FPIC. It’s an ongoing process. It’s really working with that community and long-term engagement.”

    The MPAs’ management plans are up for review every five years, Sapul said, and communities can request revisions or adjustments for their area at any time by writing to the MPA management committee, which is composed of landowners, management specialists from the area, village courts, and the local-level government. By 2025, the management plan states, all fishing and waste practices should meet requirements.

    Some villages have already begun managing their seas differently, according to Sapul. Some have started to see bigger fish return closer to shore.

    The illegal trade is still one of the greatest threats to hawksbills, according to the April 2020 Global Tortoiseshell Report.
    The beaches of Murat and Lovongai are important breeding grounds for endangered green turtles and critically endangered hawksbill turtles (in picture). Image by Leonardo Lamas via Unsplash (Public domain).

    Implementation needs funding

    To enforce the MPAs’ rules, the plan requires each community to have a wasman, or local ranger, to oversee its area. Sapul said the intent is not to build a new law-enforcement system, but rather to build villages’ capacity to enforce the rules they wanted. However, the plan includes no funding to pay wasman — or for any other aspect of managing the two MPAs.

    Based on his experiences with loggers in Lovongai, Aini said he doubts wasman can enforce sustainable practices, as the system relies on one person to supervise the law. He agreed, though, that implementation will need robust financing.

    Sapul expressed optimism that the two management committees could raise the money from various government agencies or international development organizations, and Suruman underscored the national government’s support for the wasman program.

    “My big concern is I want to see people benefit from their marine resources, so that people can improve their livelihood,” said Namalo, the MPA management committee chair in Murat. “We need to find ways to source funds so we can execute our plan. That’s our setback; it’s about money.”

    Clarification and correction 1/31/24: Following input from WCS, we have updated this story to clarify the community consultation process for developing the rules governing the two MPAs. We have also corrected the following errors: WCS, Ailan Awareness and Lolieng Sustainable Programme consulted a total of 87 communities in Lovongai at least once, not 74, and they used a consultation process, not questionnaires, to identify the communities’ concerns and gather ideas for rules to address them.

    Citation:

    Aini, J., West, P., Amepou, Y., Piskaut, M. L., Gasot, C., James, R. S., … Brachey, A. E. (2023). Reimagining conservation practice: Indigenous self-determination and collaboration in Papua New Guinea. Oryx, 57(3), 350-359. doi:10.1017/s003060532200103x

    Ian Morse
    Ian Morse
      Ian Morse is a journalist of natural resources, once based in eastern Indonesia, and now in Seattle, USA. He writes the Green Rocks newsletter on mining and clean energy, and you can follow him on Twitter @ianjmorse.
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